How poetry has helped a hospital chaplain in the pandemic

The World
An elderly man is shown wearing a blue jacked with two kids running nearby and an painting of a hand holding a candle on the wall.

The pandemic has changed so much of our lives. It has robbed so many of loved ones, too quickly, and unexpectedly. It’s changed routines and rituals.

For Mark Stobert, the lead chaplain at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge in the UK, poetry has been a way to navigate the challenges. Host Marco Werman speaks with him about his practice and what it means to be one year into the pandemic.


Marco Werman:
The pandemic has also changed many of our rituals. For Mark Stobert, the lead chaplain at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge in the UK, poetry has been a way to navigate the challenges. Mark, what has the last year been like for you? I mean, you've been a chaplain for more than 20 years. I imagine you've seen some things in the last 12 months. You never thought you'd see.

Mark Stobert:
Yeah, I have. What we've been experiencing is, that this kind of COVID trauma, if that's what I want to call it, it's been experienced across the whole hospital and across great twelves of people and in communities. And there's kind of no escape from it.

Marco Werman:
So poetry, it's art via words. Why did you turn to poetry?

Mark Stobert:
I've always used poetry in different ways. I think one of the philosophers, the great Heinrich Zimmer said, the greatest things can't be told. The next best are the thoughts about the great things are what we say about the thoughts, about the great things. I kind of paraphrased that by saying great things can't be told, the next best exclamations of the great things. For me, poetry lies at the expression, that exclamatory sense of what it is to live in these weird times.

Marco Werman:
So I'm wondering if you could read part of a poem you wrote called "The Slow Questions"?

Mark Stobert:

The slow, slow questions wait In hiding.
They wait until they perceive that Once exposed in the open they Won’t be dropped or damaged.
Even a ‘space (opened) between will suffice Only after delicate testing
Emerging from the shadows
The slow, slow questions search for Somewhere to alight
A bird flying to a perch And sing its song.
Does it matter that the song Is not replied to?
The slow, slow questions Sing as sing they must.
The reply? Ah! The slow, slow, slower answers Reach and embrace the questions,
Not with words
Not in song
But as dance The dance of love.

Marco Werman:
So explain what the slow questions are and why you wrote this.

Mark Stobert:
Slow questions are questions that don't have fast answers. I was actually in a seminar when I wrote it — when I heard another chaplin speak about how she creates safe space in place so that her patients can ask slow questions. And I was thinking about all those existential questions that people asked by me, 'who am I?' — about mortality. And often the questions are asked sometimes in fear of what the answer might be. But there can only be asked when it's safe to ask. And there's an invitation. And that's sort of where my practice is.

Marco Werman:
How does it help us during a pandemic?

Mark Stobert:
Because I think the questions about who we are as human beings and about mortality and about the nature of existence are in our faces constantly. And finding a place to ask the questions is really important. And in the midst of trauma, the sense that the questions will be answered with words is also important. It just creates an opening, a safe, compassionate space in the midst of chaos.

Marco Werman:
So Mark, we've been living with this pandemic for a year now. We've seen the graphs go up, down, up again and down again. We've stayed away from family and friends. We've watched as others have downplayed or even denied the pandemic. What does this moment mean now for you? What have you learned?

Mark Stobert:
I think it's the universality of it. Because none of us get to get away from it. But what I think happens in this moment is, in the midst of trauma, trauma shatters the narratives by which we live by. And what do we do when that happens? Theologically, we replace them possibly with the poetic expression. But also the human touch with what we give to each other in the darkness. But because it's happened universally, I think individually we may find we've got to find a new narrative. But collectively, as a society, we also have to find a new narrative that fits better. That's what's made it quite different. And I think we're going to take a while before we get those sort of narratives. And they won't come from up there, out there. They'll come from amongst us as we are able to articulate and express what it is to be human beings living together in compassion.

Marco Werman:
Mark Stobart, lead chaplain at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge in the UK, thank you very much for speaking with us and sharing your poetry a year into this pandemic.

Mark Stobert:
You're welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.

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