There are moments in life, call them moments of insight, when an encounter, a conversation, or even a word can take hold of you and begin to shape and guide your life's journey in an unanticipated and new direction. Sometimes, it is an encounter with another person that begins to catapult your life in ways unexpected and previously unimagined. Twenty-two years ago, I met such a person and unbeknownst to him, he became a mentor to me in the field of pastoral care and clinical pastoral education.
It was a most unusual of pairing because he is a white man 28-years my senior, who spoke with a mild southern-inclined drawl, and I am a Latino, born and raised in the great metropolis of New York City. To be sure, my graduate education taught me that a mentor is not assigned, mentoring is a matter of trust, a mentor is chosen. But why choose this man of such disparate origins?
I recall the words that began to give shape to the moment that it happened. It was a clinical setting, there were over 12 seminarians in an intensive summer unit of CPE at a prestigious medical center in NYC, reviewing a clinical case of a chaplain intern and the clinical pastoral education supervisor broke the silence of the group and spoke only three words: he said, “What is commanded?” It was as if the question itself came from another time, another century. The very question “What is commanded?” captured my attention to ask additional questions about who is doing the commanding, and the authority of the command itself. Was I doing the commanding, was the circumstance doing the commanding, were the teachings of my faith doing the commanding? It was as if I were grasping for terra incognita and so I kept these things in my heart to ponder.
As I began to engage this new mentor, I discovered that when he spoke of what is commanded, he was invested in Paul Tillich's theology of justice; what he meant was, “What does Justice command of you to do?” Never did the mentor say what it was that I should do. No, instead that had to come from me.
It is true that Paul Tillich's notion of justice is rooted in Jesus Christ`s teaching of loving one`s neighbor as oneself, as the fulfillment of the classic decalogues of the Hebrews passed down from Moses. Yet, recalling that Tillich was a friend and contemporary to Diedrich Bonhoeffer during the injustices and inhumane mass extermination of human beings throughout Europe by the Third Reich, lends greater significance to Tillich's theology of love by justice. To wrap my head around the mentor's question, I drew the connection that Tillich's notion of love required a dynamic response to love. A dynamic and contextualized response to love becomes the very thing called justice. Ergo, actionable love is justice. When justice is commanded, love is contextualized, concretized and applied to the circumstances requiring our action. It requires our actionable presence and not cowardice retreat. Occasionally I heard the mentor whisper, “Don't be a coward.”
Now this becomes all the more pointed and unexpected as I engaged an intensive summer unit of CPE among a group of seminarians thinking they were participating in another seminary course to meet a requirement for graduation. As we presented case studies of our work with patients and staff, it became apparent that this was not a seminary course and the supervisor was not like any professor we had ever encountered in the classroom. Most of the seminarians resisted the feedback received from the supervisor and their peers, believing it was arbitrary and capricious. I was no exception. But when I heard the question: "What is commanded?" it was as if a light was turned on. I began to listen more intently, not so much only to what was being said, but also to what remained unspoken. The question: “What is commanded?” had prompted in me a greater degree to seek to put my faith to action—actionable love with the patient and the strangers all around me. The question placed me square in the middle of the very integrity of my obedience and authenticity as a person of faith.
So what of this white male mentor that to some appeared seemingly arbitrary and capricious, whose wealth of clinical experience, pastoral training, and desire to pass onto a new generation small gems of theological wisdom in the form of actionable love? I am sincerely thankful to him for his indomitable courage to dare to think that he can make a difference. He made of me a believer that even in the midst of the sick and the dying, one person can make a transformative difference in the life of another. His supervision pointed the way to a different kind of learning by challenging his trainees to honestly engage and to first discover the truth about who they are as human beings, to give voice to the idiosyncratic-self; then with honesty and truth to engage and relate with the other, the stranger, the patient, the sojourner with the wisdom that is borne from the transformative experience of human life itself.
The mentor remains among us as a respected, esteemed, indomitable sentinel of change and transformation. Certainly, he has not been everyone’s favorite person. He does have his critics for better or for worse. I don't want to sugarcoat that his sprachgefühl-ness has always been welcomed by the masses. To the contrary, his prolific pen has been characterized by some as irreverent and even anathema. Yet, who among us has had the support and adulation of all those we encounter on the journey? Life teaches that such is the tempering experience we are all destined to walk from the womb to the tomb. Dare I use the metaphor: We all carry our own crosses.
There is much about which the mentor and I fundamentally will disagree regarding our respective creeds and traditions. And there is also much we agree on about conviction of conscience, human decency, and justice. Retrospectively, I think that I have become a more caring and humane man for having had him as a mentor earlier in my career. I sensed a yearning at this time in my life to put these few thoughts to words and I want to extend my appreciation to a supervisor of many, Raymond Lawrence, a supervisor of supervisors, a mentor, and a friend. Thank you Raymond.
Reverend Dr. Belen Gonzale y Perez