In the late 1970’s I began to train as a hospital chaplain, know more recently as “Spiritual Care Provider”. While most of us in the programme and the profession – clergy – were from the Christian tradition, we struggled with whether to wear the traditional symbols – clerical collar, cross, or even nun’s habit – in the corridors of the hospital. The experience and wisdom of those who had been there before us suggested that these identifying religious symbols were more often a barrier than a help, to building supportive relationships with those we encountered. Our mandate was to support anybody who was going through a life-threatening or severe crisis in his or her life, regardless of their ‘religious’ position. More recently, spiritual care providers in hospitals might have their origins in a variety of faith traditions, but they are trained and thus offer spiritual care and support to all, regardless of anyone’s creed or dogma.
This understanding informs my thinking on the debate now taking place in, but not limited to, Quebec. I understand that people who wear religious symbols do so as a statement of what is important to then from a faith perspective. They may even believe that the wearing of such items is dictated by their tradition.
I invite us to step back and look at what might be going on here. Is it possible to end up worshiping the symbol, rather than understanding it as a symbol directing us to something deeper about our particular tradition?
Years ago, the multi-faith council on Spiritual and Religious Care came out with a poster that offered the statements from major world religions that demonstrate one common principle. They all aspire in one-way or another to the “golden rule,” commonly stated as “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” For me, this means, who I am and how I behave towards others matters more than my religion, or any symbol I might wear to publicly demonstrate it. Rather than focus on things that separate us from one another, can we not focus on the aspects of our traditions that seek to bring us together as human being on planet earth?
In my experience as a spiritual care provider in a downtown teaching hospital, I stood around the bedside of many people of all faiths, and of none, who were dying. In those moments of death and grief, all the trappings of our particular traditions fall away in a profound human experience that transcends them all. The world needs those of us fuelled by our faith traditions to bring more love and humanity into our world, not more of what will continue to divide.