Context Matters. Always.

All of human life is contextualised. It is embodied, enculturated and held in a complex web of beliefs and experiences, which format the way we, and others, see the world and faith.

Two second-grade boys each broke their arms. Alex had broken his arm in a spectacular fall at soccer training, and he wore his plaster cast conspicuously, collecting as many signatures as possible. On the other hand, Jamie tried to hide his plaster cast and broken wrist inside his jumper sleeve. Everyone was sure Jamie’s cast had something to do with his Dad, but no one wanted to know, let alone sign his cast. Alex wore his plaster cast as a badge of honour, but Jamie’s clung to him as a mark of shame.[1]

Both boys had suffered a similar physical injury. A broken bone which required a plaster cast to immobilise their arm for six weeks; while their broken bones knitted back together the similarities end here. How will each boy make sense of what has happened to them? What meaning will they make as a result of these events? Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” there is parallel truth – every suffering person is suffering in their own way.

Suffering is nuanced, and context matters. Always.

The circumstances of each of the boy’s injury took a different form. Soul care to each of these boys will look different, how a connection is established, the information required to attempt to understand the situation and the necessary degree of caution in responding appropriately.

The basis for any soul care ministry is the connection established by carefully attending and attuning to the other with the offer to accompany them for a time on their journey. Yet while soul care is never less than this, it is rarely limited to this as our care is accompanied by a desire to understand and appropriately respond. As we listen to the other, begin to locate and link some of the connections and relationships in the other’s web of meaning, this information forms the basis of a spiritual assessment. [2]

All of human life is contextualised. It is embodied, enculturated and held in a complex web of beliefs and experiences, which format the way we, and others, see the world and faith. This is an inescapable reality, which is also mirrored in our Scriptures. The Bible comes to us also clothed in language, narratives, poetry, letters, covenants, aphorisms, through different personalities, cultures, and specific circumstances.

As the carer reflects on the contextual web, a broader system around the pastoral encounter will appear. On the one hand, some webs of relationships and events will be orderly enough to accommodate or integrate new information or circumstances. However, on the other hand, if the encounter is not happening in a stable or settled mode, many indicators will point to a significant degree of disorder and disintegration. The soul care that is offered will need to hold space for a high degree of confusion and ambiguity.

As with all of life, suffering does not exist in a decontextualised zone, nor is there any decontextualised, prefabricated soul care. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian, observed in God’s prayer book, the book of Psalms, some Psalms represent a state of order, others – disorder, and still others, a state of reordering after a time of turmoil and conflict.

To illustrate, we might observe that Alex’s situation seems pretty ordered, he has suffered a sporting injury. With the proper medical intervention, his arm should heal well. The fracture itself may have been complicated but, with good x-rays and proper medical procedure being followed it also should resolve satisfactorily.

Jamie’s situation is much more ambiguous. His broken arm seems to be a symptom of a more significant issue and the break may have served to bring to light a chaotic and unsafe domestic situation, requiring mandatory reporting to authorities. As more information comes to light about Jamie’s home situation, it reveals a complex web of relationships and circumstances with no easy solutions or resolutions. But if the pastoral carer has been able to identify that Jamie exists in a chaotic situation they may aims to help scaffold him and his family towards a more stable condition while recognising that this situation will remain challenging and far from ideal.

Soul care responses to Alex and Jamie, will be different indeed what might be accurate for one may not be valid for the other. Soul care for Alex may include thankfulness that the injury was not more severe, prayer for sound healing and complete restoration of health. However, for Jamie, we grieve that he was injured, we fear that the injuries to his arm are only the tip of the iceberg of his injuries, we lament for breach of trust that has been Jamie’s experience and in our soul and prayers we weep for him.

[1] I was introduced to this example and the phrase of ‘suffering is nuanced’ by spiritual director, Susan S Phillips, PhD, “Issues of Suffering and Theodicy in Patient Care.” lecture given for NSW College of CPE at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn, Sydney, Australia. March 2010.

[2] Living Wholeness Approach (LWA): Connect – Attach, Attend, Accompany and Attune and Understand – Listen, Locate and Link provide excellent training for developing these skills.

Author: Pastoral Thinking

This web-page is a place where chaplains, pastoral and spiritual carers are encouraged to think both deeply and laterally about the world we live in, and the pastoral care we provide.

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