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Being Iconic To Each Other

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I spent most of my days visiting patients and their families – that’s the job, after all. Still, rare is the job that is just one thing: even if the focus of my work was on spending time with the sick, the troubled, and the bereaved, accompanying them and helping them to process and make meaning of their experiences, that was never the whole of my day. There were meetings to attend, organizational and educational projects to participate in, and there were also forms to fill out. The chaplaincy department I worked in began experimenting with an electronic system for recording patient visits while I was there. You would log a visit by entering details about the time and the number of people involved, and checking off various boxes for common chaplain functions:

Prayed with patient (Yes/No)

Discussed concerns about health and mortality (Yes/No)

Listened to patient’s faith story (Yes/No)

Etc.

One of these check boxes read, “Provided iconic/symbolic value.” It was one that I checked only infrequently. But when I did mark it off for a visit, it was because I sensed that the person or persons I was with got some specific meaning out of being visited by a chaplain. Often, there was some ‘priestly’ role that my being there seemed to satisfy for the patient: they wanted to say something to, to hear something from, or just to be in the presence of someone with a spiritual vocation (and, generally, with perceived spiritual authority). It didn’t seem to matter much to most people I met in the course of that job that I was a chaplain, but for the people it did matter to, it really mattered.

Chaplain or minister or any sort of religious leader is an office with a lot of symbolic associations; it can be iconic of a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But, in truth, this is not so unusual. We constantly search, consciously or unconsciously, for symbolic meaning in the world and the people around us. It’s one of the things we’re particularly good at as human beings. This person reminds us of an old boyfriend; that person brings to mind a hated teacher from middle school. The boss who plays the mentor – or the adversary; the neighbor who plays the role of the neighborhood organizer – or oddball. Not everyone we meet finds some iconic meaning in their relationship or experience of us, but, at the same time, it’s impossible to know when it’s happening most of the time, and we can be sure that it is happening some of the time.

In the Eastern Orthodox church, an icon is a particularly beautiful and carefully made image of a saint or other religious figure. The painting is used for devotion: it holds before the worshipper the ideals and lessons of the person depicted. To slip (by accident, and perhaps unaware) into an iconic role with another person is no small thing, then. It can happen anywhere: on the street, in our homes, and even here at church. It can be found in the act of a greeting, or exchanging some deep question at coffee hour, or offering help or asking for it. There are moments when we summon up a lesson or ideal for another person. We can’t fully anticipate this – I’m not even sure we can prepare for it very well – but we can try to be mindful of the possibility and take special care because of it. The meaning in each of our lives is always there. Now and then, because we are lucky enough to be alive, someone catches special sight of a fragment of it or we do the same for them.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

office@firstparishbeverly.org

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