Pastoral Care with Jesus and Seneca

Nero and Seneca

Reading Seneca’s Moral Epistles* I see a model for pastoral care which echoes Jesus’ own encounters with those coming to terms with the impact of his death and resurrection.  On Easter Sunday, death and grief are tangible realities.  Even today, when diagnoses such as “stage iv cancer” are a regular occurrence; friends and neighbors are sometimes too willing to pronounce death sentences on each other.  Instead of acknowledging death as a reality to be faced, we give death a power it does not deserve.  By empowering death and feeding the fears sown by mortality, we prevent those facing a serious illness from embracing life and acknowledging death.

Seneca was one of the great Stoic philosophers of the early Roman Empire.  In his Moral Epistles, he wrote, “Consider the vastness of time’s expanse; include the universe too; then compare what we call human life with this endlessness.”  In the grand scheme of things, human life is a small part of the universe’s splendor.  Yet, we are still part of endlessness of the universe.  We are a part of time’s vast expanse.  There’s something beyond our accepted understandings of time and space.  That’s a resurrection message. Christians do not use the phrase “death sentence” in the conventional, ethical, or legal parlance.  There are no death sentences in the Christian tradition.  Death is the penultimate reality.  Courts deal in death sentences.  Doctors with a poor beside manner talk about death sentences.  There are no death sentences in the Kingdom of God.

He goes on to say, “How much we pray for death, strength, fear before death comes! How much of life is spent ignorant and inexperienced! Half of it is spent in sleep.  Add to this our work, grief, dangers, and then you will know that even in the longest life the part that is truly lived is the least.”   Seneca has a way of getting to the point.  As Jesus notes in Matthew 6, people pray in different ways for a variety of reasons.  Seneca and Jesus both call into question the content of our prayers and lives.  Our prayers are all over the map, we sleepwalk through life, and eventually we realize the lives we’ve led are fairly short.  Real life happens between the naps, misplaced petitions to God, and ignorant choices.  Our Emmaus moments are those instances where Christ ducks alongside us and reminds us that resurrection is a contextual reality we can embrace.

Resurrection life is not what Seneca describes.  Seneca says people can do better than half-lived lives.  Who wants a half-lived life?  Resurrection is life what Jesus embodies on the road to Emmaus.  He listens to his grieving friends.  He doesn’t need to be the most knowledgeable about grief, cancer, or people who’ve lost loved ones to crucifixions.  He does not judge their grief or tell them what his friend who had a disease years ago went through or horror stories about chemotherapy, to get over it, or move on from the pain.   When Jesus does speak, he tells the story of God’s love from scripture.  If you can’t tell someone God loves them, can you say “I love you?”

Jesus is present.  Jesus prays.  Can you be present?  Can you pray?

Seneca Moral Epistles 99.10-11