Which is why pastoral care, the part of my job where my job is to just be present, is the hardest part of my job. Yesterday morning I found myself sitting across from a woman at a free breakfast in a church basement on Capitol Hill. I was introduced to her as a pastor, and within seconds words started tumbling out of her. I sat and listened to her pain, confusion, her story of abuse and neglect, her anguish as to why a God who was supposed to love her would let what happened to her happen, and witnessed the tears streaming down her face. And her story was truly horrible, a story of evil come to wreak havoc in the world by people who should have loved and protected her. I spent a year at a torture abolition non-profit; I've heard horrific stories. This was up there, and this was a story of SE DC.
As a priest, there is nothing you can do in the face of that sort of pain. There is no plan that can fix the past. You can't repair a broken human soul. There are no action items, there is nothing that you can say, and nothing that can be done. And so, you sit. And pray. And listen. And hope, that in the listening, that you are some sort of representative for the part of humanity that promises not to neglect, abuse, betray or berate, and that you are some sort of representative of a flicker of divine love somewhere, although in this moment, it seems very, very far away.
The only thing that gives me comfort in this situation is something that I heard a few weeks ago at a conference, something that I've been thinking about over and over again, is this claim by pastor Frank Thomas: it's almost impossible to tell the difference between loving and listening. What you do when you listen is so close to that act of loving that the person being listened to can't tell the difference.
I hope that's true, because it's all I've got.