Sunday, March 27, 2005

So, who Is This Guy?

Robert Whalley has taught classes, led seminars and conducted retreats in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years while working as a teacher and chaplain in higher education. He served at San Francisco State University and The University of San Francisco - a Jesuit school where he was adjunct faculty - as well as the Visiting Chaplain at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, where he graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 1989. He also has done further work in the History and Phenomenology of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley. He moved to Melbourne in 2001 to be the first director of The Merton Centre, St. Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne. He is also an adjunct tutor at the theological school at Trinity College, Melbourne University, as well as Anglican Chaplain at RMIT University and La Trobe University

How did you start out doing this?

I was baptised and joined the Episcopal Church in 1967 when I was twenty-one years old. Part of this had to do with the search for respectability within the culture – I was going to join a tennis club and a college fraternity at the same time; but on a deeper level it was searching for a place to say, “thank you” and “I am sorry.” There was something in the church that met that need, and a few more too. It felt safe, but there was also something dangerous, subversive to my plan, because it was both adult and childlike; strong and innocent; fragile and enduring; here was a community that came together to pray for themselves and others, confess their sins, ask for forgiveness and receive it in some kind of faith that life could be trusted. Here I saw the possibility of a community of people washing their finitude, their lives, in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of this Jesus, and I was scared and surprised and attracted by this. I still am sometimes.

Around the same time I started reading the work of Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic monk, writer and poet, who was a renowned authority on Zen Buddhism as well as an articulate critic of modern world civilization. I read – and teach – him still. Merton gives me a model for meeting the world based on devotion, intellectual and personal honesty, and a certain kind of off the wall humour that I find attractive and indispensable.

So, what does a chaplain do?

Over the years I have led, facilitated and team-taught programs, discussions, presentations, and reflections on subjects as diverse as time management, meditation for busy people, poetry workshops, and writing on the right side of the brain. I’ve also offered programs on social ethics, men’s spirituality, the Enneagram and the Myers Briggs Type Inventory, and the life and thought of Thomas Merton. I’ve presented several series on spirituality and religion with films from a spectrum as diverse as Monty Python, Steven Speilberg and Ingmar Bergman.

All this in addition to taking part in annual programs on pastoral care and listening skills for campus leaders, and serving - on request - as an occasional mediator for student organizations in crisis. Each semester also meant sponsoring and organizing group outings to Cathedrals, Temples, Art Museums, and award winning plays, as well as ongoing work in fundraising, planning, publicity and preaching in nearby venues. And one memorable year I even was one of the stars in one of the annual campus musical!

And with this list of wide-spectrum and seemingly ceaseless activity it is of crucial importance that one of the highest compliments I ever received came when a student told me I was a “creative loiterer.” “You hang around and let things happen,” she said. I take her remark as pointing to the very essence of chaplaincy as well as very serious praise indeed.

Why is it called that?

Chaplinesque. My spell-checker even recognises it, though it offers no definition. Mine would be, “reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedian who walked, danced, marauded through the world cinema from the 1900s to post WWII, the shabby tramp who made light of politics and pretension, aspirations and art.”
So maybe that is close to my mode as a chaplain here in the northern region of Melbourne in the autumn of 2005: a clown as well as a cultural critic, someone who’s spent time being alternately amused and terrified by the depth of pretension and hollowness in the modern world, but aiming towards some greater clarity, integrity and freedom.
But sometimes I think I work as a minister simply because it gives me such great pleasure: to talk and pray and play with people while offering them a safe and considered place to consider their relationship and response to what God and life may be asking of them. It is a joy and delight as well as an awesome responsibility.
I see myself as a teacher and minister of the parables: highlighting and exploring the biblical tales that Jesus tells to remind us who and whose we are; as well as helping others in their own moments of choice and chance when life – or God - drops a direct question in the midst of history, identity, or community and says, “So, where do you find me here?” I have worked well there because I have been there too: sustained struggles in my own history have taken time but it has often turned out that the raw material of my own life made me a better companion and minister for others going through the same or similar territory. I am convinced that God can use every experience in moving towards a new creation, and so can we!