Unmixed Attention: A 'New Direction' in Pastoral Care

It's finals week here at Princeton Seminary, and my brain is pretty much moosch... I just finished a research paper on John Huss and Martin Luther, I'm in the middle of writing a final paper for my class on "war and the Christian conscience" (which is fun 'cause I'm using a lot of Moltmann), and today I have a final exam for my Moral Philosophy and Aspects of Poverty class with Dr. Gordon Graham. Needless to say, I've been busy... too busy to blog with the frequency with which I am accustomed.

However, I thought I would share a story about something that happened this morning...

I caught the bus over to campus this morning in order to grab a little coffee prior to my 2-hour shift in the campus mail room. I sat down next to a friend, sipped my coffee, and talked with him about Greek, finals, and fall courses just to kill some time before work. While we were sitting, sipping, and chatting; a man walked up and sat down next to us. Neither of us knew him so I introduced myself and asked him if he was a student at the seminary. "No, actually," he replied. "I'm here for a conference on pastoral theology. I'm from a seminary in Canada." As it turned out, he was the Academic Dean of a Baptist seminary in Canada who was a professor of pastoral theology and had received his ThM from Princeton years ago. I asked him about the conference and he explained to me that it was a small conference (about 15 scholars) on the "new directions" in pastoral theology.

"So... what are the 'new directions' in pastoral theology?"

He said a few things about some of the papers that were being presented and then got onto what he was going to present.

"In my courses," he explained, "I have my students do an exercise... I send them into the inner-city for two hours, amidst some of the most obviously impoverished areas in the city, and I have them simply pay attention--unmixed attention--to suffering..."

He explained to me just how much energy it takes to pay unmixed attention to suffering, especially the suffering of others.

"...They pay unmixed attention to suffering and then the are to write a 15-20 line poem, articulating their visceral experience.... once you get past all the techniques of pastoral care, that's what's really beneath it all; paying attention to suffering and articulating it."

He gave me the impression that, while theories, strategies, and techniques might be important on one level, the real basis for pastoral care is what lies beneath--in the actual person-to-person relationship, in the empathic sharing of suffering (or maybe I just heard that because I read The Relational Pastor by Andrew Root).

"So you're trying to get beneath the techniques to the real basis, huh?" I asked (silly question, in retrospect... since that's exactly what he had just said to me in so many words).


This morning-coffee-encounter was one of those surprise blessings which you rarely come by. I wish I'd gotten his name... I'm sure he's quite a big deal in his world... but just thinking about the exercise that this professor was doing with his students really got my wheels spinning. When you just start paying attention to suffering, it's not yet determined exactly who is the helper and who is the helpee. Indeed, when we're actually entering into the suffering of others, the vernacular of helping seems labored and somehow insufficient. The encounter itself, and the articulation which allows you to internalize it, is the basis of pastoral care... the human encounter becomes the location and the experience of God.

It's a hard move for people to make. It's hard for people to understand or accept the divine quality--the presence of God--in the person-to-person encounter of sharing in humanity. It's hard for us to think about pastoral care without thinking--in some way, shape, or form--about what we need to "bring" with us. We need to "take" the gospel to the situation. We need to somehow conjure up the divine by directing the conversation or steering the relationship. We think that God is standing awkwardly outside the conversation, waiting to be introduced until we can successfully bring God into it--"oh, hey! have you met my friend, God?"

But the reality--the hard reality, in some ways--is that God is within the conversation. "Where two or more are gathered," when you shared in the humanity of one of the "least of these," God is there and by God's grace, God shares God's self. When we pay unmixed attention to suffering--when we refuse to share our attention with some alternate agenda or external goal--there God's life and being appears. When we can simply share in and pay attention to one another's suffering, then we are already well on our way through the work of pastoral ministry.