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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

'Soul Pain' - learning from how priests cope in the face of serious illness in their own lives...

This may not be a new book but it's one I know I shall return to again and again now I've discovered it. It's entitled Soul Pain - Priests reflect on personal experiences of serious and terminal illness, (Canterbury Press 2013) and hurry, while stocks last, because it's on offer at Church House bookshop online - reduced from £16.99 to just £2.50. I guess it's not a subject many people choose to confront before they have to... but it is very helpful (if sometimes tough) reading for Anna Chaplains and other ministers and pastoral visitors.

Each chapter is written by a different priest from their own personal perspective of a variety of conditions- from cancer, stroke and disability, to childlessness and bereavement. Their insights are brought together by editor Professor Jennifer Tann, a leading light in Gloucester Diocese, and with an Afterword by Gordon Mursell, former Dean of Birmingham.

Soul pain was coined by the pioneer of the hospice movement Dame Cicely Saunders. Acknowledging different types of pain, physical and spiritual, she spoke of 'soul pain, where a person's very identity seems to be disintegrating'.

Several contributors speak of how their own ageing has been affected: 'What follows is a reflection on the normal physical and mental stress of growing old accentuated by the abnormality of a particular terminal condition,' writes Canon Peter Kerr, living with leukaemia.

In his consultant, fortunately for him, he found someone who contributed greatly to his well-being. 'Healing happens when the patient feels listened to, is treated like an individual, and feels part of a trusted relationship of healing. This requires the doctor to risk the cost of offering such a relationship.'

Kerr would make regular trips to a hospital clinic, spending hours there at a time, month after month, year after year. 'Dr A... collaborated at some cost. He offered an honest hope of redemption, a must for those who would live with cancer. By what he was, as much as what he did, he has helped those of us reclining in blue chairs to put ourselves back together again'.

Two of the writers refer to the book Enduring Melody by Michael Mayne (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006) quoting the author's words as he was writing from his own experience of throat cancer. To die, he said, 'with gratitude for all that has been, without resentment for what you are going through, and openness towards the future, that is the greatest gift we can leave to those who love us and who are left behind.'

Mayne is quoted elsewhere too, describing healing in its broadest sense as being about developing 'a right relationship with God'.

Clergy are asked more often than anyone, one imagines, why God allows evil and suffering in this world? This book helps us understand how they might begin to answer such questions authentically from the standpoint of their highly visible, representative role, when sickness comes... and people invariably know about it.

Wounded healers in the public eye have their own issues to deal with while fielding questions and comments from others. It is inspiring to hear how the faith of these contributors withstands such blows. They speak with sometimes searing honesty. This is an exemplary book to aid the general reader, and fellow ministers particularly, to walk in the shoes of people who have been sorely tested and have proved more than resilient. One contributor turns to Rob Bell who puts it like this: 'Suffering will shape us: the question is, will we become bitter or better?' (Drops Like Stars, Zondervan, 2009, pp. 118-19)




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