For our final session in "Pastoral Images" course, our assignment was to integrate our reading from Dykstra's book to form a pastoral images of our own style of care. What metaphor works for me? Wounded Healer? Intimate Stranger? Wise Fool?
As I thought about the last five months, I realized that I am finding a deep faith in how God moves me and enlivens me in my care giving. I variously serve as a witness, companion, investigator, awkward hospital staff person, translator, interpreter, loving listener, reframer of perspectives and affirmer of God’s love.
It suddenly hit me today, Saturday, as I watched the World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions. The presentation of these amazing athletes by their equally well-educated riders captured my imagination as I realized how the role of the Dressage rider/trainer resonated so well for me and my pastoral functioning.
The idea of dressage is a way of training the horse to emphasize a horse's natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, so that its potential as a riding horse can be maximized. A fully trained horse will smoothly respond to a skilled rider's minimal aids - all the while the rider remains relaxed and appearing effortless. In chaplaincy, I find that my role is to smoothly respond as a rider, with minimal aid, remaining relaxed and making it look effortless – so that the patient/family can sense their own potential as a human being in which God delights.
The Lipizzaner horses, in particular, are bred for their athletic ability and are allowed to roam free until they are four years old. During this time, the trainers observe the horses in the natural environment and learn their natural rhythm. Only after this waiting time do the trainers begin to work with the horses for re-enacting their athletic ballet moves in the show ring. In chaplaincy, there is a bit of a "waiting time" associated with caregiving, in which I observe the situation and am better able to invite the care seeker to re-enact their own theology or to realize God’s ever-presence and how it can bear on the situation. This “background” perspective informs my pastoral functioning.
Historically, it was Xenophon (427-355 BCE) who is well known as one of the earliest European master trainers. His treatises, written in Greek, advocated the use of sympathetic training of the horse and many of his methods and ideas are still widely praised. Also in Christianity, there is a long tradition of pastoral care methods and these are mirrored in my pastoral image formation. With God's help, I hope to bring this long tradition to bear on the moment of care.
The Dressage Rider/Trainers train the horses to fully use their artistic ballet gifts, such as changing lead on every step at a canter, take years to master by the horse as well as the rider who needs to learn the appropriate cues. As a chaplain, my role is also to recognize the inner life of the care seeker and connect with my own, so that together our histories can find something new in our time together.
Further, the rider/trainer's goal is to have the show be about the horse, not the rider. The riders themselves have learned their own skills for riding and cuing the horse over years of education, usually a lifetime. The less obvious the moves are, the more effective the “show” is and the horse’s true essence comes out. This is much like chaplaincy. The less “showy” I find that I am, the more of God can show up and the more the patient/family is central to the intervention.
Even though there are standardized methods, each combination of horse and rider is unique. With horses, it is not uncommon that one horse trained to perform at a high level may be completely spooked by a venue that is loud or unfamiliar. The trainer’s role is to deal with the venue that comes up and work with the horse’s personality in that moment to bring out the horse’s gifts and graces in that particular instance. As it is with each pastoral intervention, where every relationship of chaplain and family is unique and changes based on the patient’s diagnosis/prognosis or sense of the future. As a chaplain, I am learning to adjust my interventions, my use of “training methods” to each situation.
Riding horses requires balance, harmony and relationship. This subtle type of sport requires some translation of ideas to the horse and interpretation from the horse’s response back to the rider. The rider must always listen to what the horse is “saying” in silence – through body language (horse’s ears are perked or lay back, how the horse moves away from or into the leg pressure or even how the horse may cling to the bit or avert from the movement of the reins). The chaplain, too, must listen to what the care seeker is "saying" in silence - through body language, facial expressions and reactions to others in the room. My role as chaplain is to then translate what's going on and interpret how the care seeker is responding to have any sense of how we can be together in the care intervention and become aware of God's ever-presence.
Sometimes, training a horse involves reframing a“scary” situation, such as “threading the needle” movement. In this movement, horses face one another as the riders guide them and weave between their neighbor horse/riders. Normally, horses avert or shy way from trotting or cantering directly towards another horse. Only after coaxing by the rider and developed trust in the relationship does the horse allow this “threading the needle” move. This kind of relationship takes loving listening, companionship, and true affirmation from both the rider to the horse and from the horse to the rider.
In chaplain work, I find that some patient/families, while gifted in other situations, are completely "spooked" by being at the hospital - a venue about which they are unfamiliar. When appropriate, I might reframe a ‘scary” situation for the patient/family into one of “normalcy”. This usually takes time, trust, and relationship. My pastoral functioning is one of relationship as is dressage riding.
In Dressage, as in Chaplaincy, both the horse and the rider (care seeker and chaplain) become more of themselves through this relationship – they know their own strengths and weaknesses individually. As a unit, something new happens.
Grace and beauty
For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; e will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD - Psalm 102:16-18 (New International Version)