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BookREVIEW: Voices from the Hospice: Staying with Life through Suffering and Waiting

 

Bob Whorton
2015 
SCM Press 
pp134

Reviewer Uta Blohm

This is a beautiful book which deals with life’s deepest questions in its own calm way. And yet there is also a rawness to be found when Bob Whorton speaks about what happens when people come close to the boundary between life and death. The book is a reflection on his work as a chaplain in a hospice.

Whorton skillfully interweaves voices from patients in the hospice, his own reflections, and ancient voices from biblical prayers (the psalms). These prayers present a rich source to give voice to human joy, suffering and the struggle with a divine presence, which may or may not be there.

The book is not so much about dying but about the struggle of ‘Staying with Life through Suffering and Waiting’ as the subtitles indicates. Whorton compares life when dealing with illness to a train journey where we are not in charge but have to rely on others to drive. It is not for us to decide where we stop and for how long. Life in a hospice (and prior to that) involves many unwelcome stops in hospitals, with loved ones, at work. Whorton talks about loss of control, waiting and uncertainty.

When working on this review, the book became a resource for my own spiritual reflection, a tool for meditation with many meaningful sections that served as a reminder of what really matters in life. I pondered on the value of tears, the difficulty of coming to terms with one’s life’s decisions and the need to let go of one’s ego needs. Our ego may desperately want to be useful (ie provide a meaningful ritual) rather than face the reality of dying and one’s own helplessness. Life itself involves dying in order for new life to emerge. In this context Bob Whorton uses the New Testament metaphor of the dying seed.

I also identified with the description of an ego that can be so self-destructive that I cannot allow myself to feel good and valued because old hurts get in the way of appreciating who I am and have become. I thought afresh about suffering that, at least to some degree, is part of life – a deeply challenging message I took from this book. That does not mean we should inflict pain on ourselves but simply that there is no such thing as a life without some form suffering being given to us. We all betray oursleves spiritually when we believe otherwise. I was struck by the honesty with which Whorton reflects on his faith journey in this context. What if there really is no God? What would that mean for him, a Methodist minister? Equally, what if there is a God? What would that mean for the non-believer? Do believers and non-believers have the courage to face this possibility?

This is a book worth reading for believers and non-believers alike.

Revd Dr Theol Uta Blohm is an integrative psychotherapist and holds a doctorate in Christian theology.