Last night’s Grey’s Anatomy was, indeed, the powerful episode that had been promoted all week. As Dr. Jo Karev begins to come to terms with the discovery that her biological father had date-raped her birth mother (news which she has not been able to bring herself to share with anyone, including her husband), she is drawn into the case of a woman who has been brutally raped and beaten in a dark alley. The woman requires considerable counseling from her three women physicians before she will permit a rape kit to be performed, which is accomplished in a somewhat graphic scene, itself profound in the dignity and compassion afforded the patient by her doctors. The real viewer tears come a few minutes later, when the patient, who has been shaking uncontrollably at the thought of leaving the confines of the examining room, is rolled down a long hallway lined on both sides by the women of the hospital, silently focusing their respectful and supportive gazes upon her in a way that causes her visibly to regain a sense of power and selfhood.
That said . . . one of my quarrels with medical shows (and Grey’s is the only one I watch these days) is the near complete absence of chaplains or other religious characters. In real life in a large and busy hospital such as that featured in Grey’s, it would be far more likely for the chaplain to provide the many hours of support offered by three busy fictional surgeons, and far more probable that a chaplain would have organized some sort of ritual to empower a physically and emotionally battered patient.
But my real question, for those of us pastoring churches, is: Do we do this? Last Saturday as I conducted a funeral for a woman I had met only three times, and then only after she had suffered the stroke which had transformed her from a vibrant, independent woman headed for a winter in Florida to someone in need of round-the-clock care, I thought to myself, This is something we do well, we in the church. We make it possible for family and friends and strangers to come together to mourn and to be comforted, knowing that they are held in the arms and prayers of a community greater than themselves and of a God who has already welcomed their loved one into the presence of ultimate love. And we also create community and ritualistic reminders of God’s love around baptisms and weddings, and we provide joyful blessings for graduates, and quilts, and holiday food and gifts.
But what about the crises in human lives? Where are we with our rituals and public affirmations then? Of course, many of these events are guarded as private and personal, and it is not our call to invade those spaces. But, just I frequently note that people today, whether connected to communities of faith or not, tend to turn to medical doctors and therapists (and rightly so) for matters once exclusively the domain of the priest, so we see in dramatizations such as last night’s that the possibility of a faith dimension to trauma is not even a consideration. And while people often come to a pastor for comfort and prayer, and sometimes even practical assistance, in connection with personal and family challenges, I don’t recall having ever stepped into the breach with a religious and community ritual for such an occasion. A return home from a long recovery, a move to assisted living, the commencement of hospice care, a divorce, and yes, a case of assault ~ I’m sure there are countless other occasions where community and prayer could create a new sense of power and connection for a stressed or heartbroken individual.
The closest I have come is something long forgotten, a liturgy for cremation which I wrote after a long four hours at a crematorium, much of it by myself, watching over the final disposition of my son’s remains. Someone mentioned a couple of weeks ago that her family had just used it, which brought back the memory, and gave me a sense of deep gratitude at having had something to offer out of that terrible morning. I think that now I will ponder other occasions more carefully, and perhaps find ways to make something our of what might otherwise be nothing.