Thursday, January 30, 2020

Nurturing Mantras

Montras or sayings that help us focus and maintain our identity fascinate me. The Jesus prayer was an early one, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” I have used that from time to time. The Jesus prayer has a long history in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. 

I became interested in the "spiritual method" "of prayer" called “hesychasm" when I would go on retreat at the New Mallory Monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, in my early days as a Hospital Chaplain.

.As one who lives with an unresolved identity, a term used by the psychotherapist at one of our chaplain conventions, I have others of my own choosing as well.

The one most frequent is John 14:27 King James Version (KJV)
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

I began using this when I returned from a late night after being called to the hospital for an emergency or death. The repetition of this verse helped me get back to sleep. No longer a hospital chaplain I still use this verse to lower my blood pressure, manage stress, and go back to sleep at night. There is something about the beta waves in the brain get involved. And if the Vegas nerve connects the brain, heart, and gut there has to be a lot of good things happening, like managing inflammation at the same time.

There is also the teaching from Eastern Theology of the unitive nature, and a more conscious intimacy with the Holy Trinity. My brother has been reading a book where the formation process is called “divinization.” 

My bog on theophany would relate here as well.

I looked up the definition of mantras. 

“Meditation could have various purposes. Some people meditate to achieve inner peace, others – to accomplish higher focus, or for self-motivation. There are guided meditation techniques aimed at assisting the participant to sleep better, to lose weight, to quit drinking…

A mantra is supposed to help you clear your consciousness out of the noise, so you can make room for one idea you want to concentrate on. A mantra is an idea, a philosophy or a world overview, concentrated in a sentence, a phrase or even one word.
Repeating your mantra in your mind will immerse you completely in an idea and will bring you closer to your goal.”

My earliest mantra, although I didn’t know about mantras at the time was “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. I began with Scripture when at the age 16 I preached my first sermon in a youth service with Morning Prayer and Trinity Episcopal Church, Muscatine, IA. This was the text for my first sermon from the Gospel for that day.. 

Amazing, a lot of things have been added to my life. I have been blessed. I have received gifts beyond my expectations. Thankfulness is in order.

More recently with the successful cancer surgery and recovery I have been saying these two Scripture lines. The one with “Your word is a lamp for my feet” I have used many times before. They both seem to have more relevance now in combination.

Psalm 90:12 Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 119;105. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light upon my path.

Romans 15 New International Version (NIV) was a discussion at the Bible Discussion on Saturday morning in early January. This as the Sunday Epistle. 

15 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[a] For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement  (Scripture is the called one alongside us.) they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement (as the called one alongside.) give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews[b] on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

The long passage probably doesn’t qualify for a mantra. I will take a line from the passage.

“through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”

What makes this special for me, and again it is the intimate and relational aspect, the word encouragement is from the Greek word parakaleo, again another blog title, meaning a called one alongside. Through Scripture the Holy Trinity is with us as, endurance, as an ongoing relationship giving hope. 

I’ll close with the mantra from my mystical experience while celebrating the Eucharist, “broken is not the last word.” The bread and wine nourish and heal our broken lives.


Marlin Whitmer, retired hospital chaplain
Now a community facilitator for mental health issues.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

History of the Befriender Program

The Befrienderforum blog has a connection with the Befriender program at St. Luke's hospital beginning in 1966. A member of the hospital Auxiliary was disturbed by the rule, “do not talk to patients when you take the notions cart (candy and nick hacks) around.” Mavoreen found patients wanting to talk.

My background, revealed in the different blogs, made her think I could be of some assistance. She asked, "How can we change the rule?" I was in my second year as the first resident chaplain and Mavoreen had been a youth assistant when I was in charge of Christian education at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport. This was where my ministry resided for three years before coming to the Hospital. She knew my interests in lay ministry training.

At the time she appeared I was reading a book by Chad Varah, The Samaritans. He had started a suicide prevention group in London and the book told the story of their beginning as well as some of the emotions in the lives of those they cared for. Their discovery was to incorporate lay people as fron oft line responders. After lay people volunteered to serve tea to those waiting to see the professionals only half the people coming needed to see the professionals.

While reading I had been thinking that many of the same emotions written about were present in hospital patients. Could hospital patients benefit from a listener? Mavoreen gave me the opportunity to test this out. There is more than ample evidence today. We all have a needed relational component.l 

My proposal to the administrator was to train lay people to visit patients as "story listeners." As I made patient visits I found patients had a story to share. In fact, part of my training in Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital in New York City during the summer of 1953 had been with a supervisor whose approach was "story listening." I was to learn later that Fred Kuether was pioneering this approach in 1953. Almost 70 years ago now.

My proposal was not accepted immediately or readily. I needed the approval of the Hospital Auxiliary, nursing service, and the medical staff. The Auxiliary readily approved since they would have another volunteer service. Nursing service wanted the doctors to decide first. The Executive Committee of the Medical Staff took considerable time before giving their approval. It was reported to me, “they did not want amateur psychologists running around the hospital.” As a fact, at this time (1966) psychologist were not allowed to visit patients, only psychiatrists.

Upon approval of all concerned, the task was to train a group to be the "story listeners." Paul Swanson was the pastoral care professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Rock Island at the time. He had some experience with lay visitors when he was at Massachusetts General in Boston. 

I chose three people from Trinity Cathedral to be the first Befrienders. They had been part of our Youth Lenten discussion to facilitate and listen to the concerns of high school students. They received some listening training.

The initial course was 20 weeks, two hours a week, with listening being the major skill. An active listening approach was in vogue, although Fred Kuether was in the Rogerian, a non directive approach of Carl Rogers .

After some initial training our morning schedule began with chapel time, Scripture reading, discussion, and prayers. We used shortened Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  Patient visits were then assigned. On the nursing floor they checked with the nurses about the advisability of seeing particular patient as well accepting referrals. The impact over time brought about a culture for story listening. Before leaving the hospital each Befriender wrote a short account of their visit to provide a debriefing session. The debriefing had multiple purposes, mainly to "keep our learning close to the practice" and “maintain confidentiality.” Over time a number of Aha!s were experienced. More about that as we go along.

The second year six people were accepted into the training and visiting. Folks came from different congregations. An application procedure for acceptance was put in place. In a few years our training involved 30 weeks with a two year commitment. There was no charge for the training. The 30 weeks were divided into three units. (1) The art of listening informed by the Incarnation,  (2) The different focus areas of our listening informed by reconciliation, and (3) a discussion of the three verbatim visits each was required to write informed by community building. They began to visit patients during the second unit and shortly after that they chose visits for the verbatim.

With this beginning we were about to learn as we went along making changes where needed. Antoine Boisen’s instructions, “study the living documents” became a guiding principle as well.  I later incorporated a management saying from MIT, "keep the learning close to the practice" The program is now past the 50th year and counting. I managed the Befrienders for 25 years. Others are continuing to lead in both Genesis and Unity Hospitals. More about our continuing history and our method of reflective listening will be added to the blog.  


Marlin Whitmer