Message from a Board Member to a Colleague: December 12, 2021

Alexis,

I am delighted that you will be joining the Center for Faith and Spirituality as one of our Fellows and that you will be taking the lead on our Loss and Leadership program.

As you prepare for this new responsibility of forming students to help others in times of grief, I want to share with you some of our history. To use the language of the Apostle Paul, I want to pass on to you what I have received (c.f. 1 Corinthians 11:23).

One of the main sources of what we do is Therese Schroeder-Sheker and the Chalice of Repose Project. You have heard me refer to her several times already.

I was enrolled in two Chalice programs. I completed Contemplative Musicianship, and I began, but never completed, a clinical internship for the program in Music-Thanatology. I had the honor of serving the dying in a nursing home, and I will forever remember carrying my harp into their rooms and offering melody, harmony, and rhythm according to their needs.

I never completed that internship and the program in part because I could not meet its rigorous requirements and remain faithful to my other personal and professional responsibilities. There is a side of me that regrets that necessity. But I also recognize that I was called not to be a music- thanatologist but to take what I learned at Chalice and let it form me to be a better pastor and chaplain.

I cherish my Master of Divinity degree and Ph.D., but the formation I received through Chalice has given me the theoretical knowledge and practical understanding to develop the Loss and Leadership program.

One of the most important things we learned was that no two music-thanatologists would serve the dying in the same way. All too often, we think according to a mechanical model that presumes that there is a right dosage of a specific medicine to address the patient’s needs. In this mindset, one would have to find the one right piece of music and offer it like a pill. We learned, instead, that music-thanatologists are offering not only music but also themselves. Certain elements of prescriptive music would be called for or contraindicated based on the patient’s unique physiology and unique spiritual condition, but the choice of what to deliver and how to deliver it depended in part on the capacity of the music-thanatologist.

In the ancient epic Gilgamesh, which Therese taught us, the hero wanders the world in grief for his dead friend. He ultimately comes to meet an old wise man, Utnapishtim, and the hero says that he has found someone – finally! – whose countenance does not make his sorrow worse. We learned from this story and so many other sacred and philosophical texts from diverse traditions that music-thanatology requires the transformation of the music-thanatologist into someone who can be a learned and loving presence in the midst of brokenness, tears, and death. The Christian tradition calls this transformation metanoia, an ongoing refining of the person so that one can participate in “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).

I believe that you and I have already discussed the importance of cultivating the ability to be an observer-participant. This is something that Therese taught us, and I think you can see it differently now in light of the extraordinarily high calling to be an Utnapishtim for others. Being fully present as a participant in a conversation while simultaneously being able to observe ourselves and others with critical detachment enables us both to relax and to focus; it allows us to offer ourselves with a combination of strength, confidence, self-awareness and tenderness.

As we say in Loss and Leadership, we can’t change the reality, but we can change the experience. We cannot change the fact that someone has died, but we can change the way others experience grief. To do that, we first have to change ourselves and make ourselves generous vessels capable of receiving grief and pouring out love – a vessel very much like a chalice.

I look forward to working with you and continuing to pass along what I have received.

David Keck, PhD
Chaplain
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, Florida

 

Last updated January, 2022

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