Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #134. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Aug. 31, 2018; in print Sep. 2

I write this on Tuesday from a room in St. Cloud Hospital. I'm being treated for, and recovering from, pneumonia. I say this not to evoke your sympathy (though I never could have imagined how debilitating the disease can be), but to provide context for this column. By the time these words are published I should be up and about and well on the mend.
I have a conversation with Deb Galvez of the hospital's chaplain staff. We talk theology and experience, and I quickly realize that where I am right now links directly to my passion for the renewal of human community.
Deb asks: "Is there anything more I can do for you?" "You've already done a lot — you've triggered my thoughts for my September column!"

This is not my first time in this hospital. On every occasion the reality here of community and hospitality has been evident in eyes, tones of voice, strength and delicacy of attention.
I don't doubt that these are characteristic of most hospitals, but there is a special quality here that can be traced back to the hospital's founding by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1886. "Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may be truly served as Christ," says the Rule according to which the sisters fashion their life.
With the lessening of direct involvement in their ministries as their numbers decrease, one of the sisters' concerns is how their spirituality, which infuses everything they have started in a century and a half in Central Minnesota, can be perpetuated.
I want them — and everyone reading this — to know that the way St. Cloud Hospital is run is a clear and positive answer.
The answer is not just in the hospitality extended to patients.
It's also in the community of the hospital's staff.
I'm sure there are hierarchies, rivalries, backbitings in this group of more than 5000 professionals; they're human beings after all. But from what I experience, there is an uncommon foundation of mutual respect and appreciation that is so characteristic of Benedictine communities — the sisters are to honor one another, the prioress is to pay special attention to the younger members, and, most important, no one claims to have achieved perfection. It's a learning community.

Last month I wrote that I like living in this area because people here can look like anyone in the world. St. Cloud Hospital is a microcosm of the diversity that is made vivid by the monument newly placed in front of the public library. The ancestries of people who are helping me get well are from around the globe — just like the worldwide followers of St. Benedict.
After chaplain Deb and I finish our mutual hymn of praise to the sisters, I ask, "What question do you get asked most?"
"Why me? Why is this happening to me?"
The moment I hear this I am catapulted back to that awful October 22, 1989, when Jacob Wetterling was abducted (and, as we learned in 2016, murdered).
I was stunned, humbled, and instructed by Patty and Jerry Wetterling's public reaction. Never did they say, as I think all would agree they had more right than most to say, "Why us?" Rather: "Jacob is everybody's child."
There may have been another statement made in this area in the intervening three decades that's as theologically profound as these words of the Wetterlings, but I haven't heard it.
"Why me?" is an isolating question. God is better to others than to me. I cut myself off from the human community. And I forget another profound truth stated succinctly by President John F. Kennedy: "Life is unfair."
The Wetterlings chose not to isolate themselves in their grief with "Why us," but to situate their own trauma into the universal nexus of parents and children. In so doing, they unleashed the power of community in the Jacob Wetterling Foundation and its sequel Resource Center.
The mirror image of "Why me?" is "There but for the grace of God go I." I suppose that when this is said, it's meant as acknowledgment that "My being better off does not mean I am better." But it has an undertow: "God's grace is calculated by success." It's a transposition into another key of the "prosperity gospel."
Finally I ask Deb about the Spiritual Care Department she's part of. It is diverse, including a Muslim.

I hear from her, as I have from other hospital chaplains I know, that the lines between religious traditions blur — and often disappear — in their professional interactions with each other and with patients. Ecumenical and interreligious reality comes alive, is undeniable and unavoidable, in a hospital room.
Here, too, the Benedictine spirit persists. The sisters of St. Benedict's Monastery and the monks of St. John's Abbey are pioneers in dismantling walls between Christians, and between Christians and others. You can draw a straight line from the founding of this hospital in 1886 to the appointment of a Muslim chaplain in 2018.