Spiritual care is, for many, a very important part of loss and grief. When something unexpected or unfortunate occurs, people tend to turn towards a higher power. It doesn’t have to be the same god or even a deity at all, but there is a comfort that comes from the idea of praying or just sitting together. The impact isn’t only on a patient or a loved one, but also on the chaplains who provide that care. A Still Small Voice presents an eye-opening look at the benefits and burdens of counseling others.
Mati is a chaplain resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City working during the height of the pandemic. She sees patients throughout her days and works with their loved ones, and meets regularly with her cohort and her supervisor Reverend David. As she stretches herself thin, she processes just how much she is investing in the people she is meeting, which takes a toll on her own well-being. When Mati goes to Reverend David for support, she finds that he has a different take on her involvement in her work, and he also needs to talk through the strain he is putting on himself with his own supervisor.
A Still Small Voice gets its title from the Jewish High Holidays liturgy that contrasts God’s voice with the loud sound of the great shofar. Reverend David explains that he likes to flip the expression “don’t just stand there, do something” to a sentiment that applies particularly to chaplaincy: “don’t just do something, stand there.” Even just the presence of another person can be tremendously meaningful, and a chaplain’s role, among other things, is often to simply be and to provide some source of comfort to someone who is going through something.
Mati’s work is understandably difficult, and her residency taking place during the pandemic only exacerbates that. One memorable scene finds her serving tea to doctors and nurses, who are tremendously appreciative since they rarely find the time to take care of themselves. Mati is on her own journey, and when asked by someone who has just lost a family member for the Jewish perspective on death, she explains that she will give that as well as her own slightly different take. She also expresses an important sentiment, which is that anyone who claims to know what happens after death can’t possibly know that for sure.
Director Luke Lorentzen was previously at Sundance for another riveting look at a facet of the medical care industry that doesn’t always get a spotlight, Midnight Family. Though this film runs only ninety-three minutes, it manages to be remarkably intimate. Early on, Mati spends a long time with just one patient, and rather than cut away to show only the key takeaways, the camera remains focused on these two people and the conversation that they are having. It’s also a very personal, revealing look at the relationship that Mati and Reverend David have, and the different types of affirmation and guidance they require from their supervisors. They are both completely open and vulnerable, conveying their personal sentiments and not trying to diminish the weight of the work they were doing.
Most people going through a challenging life cycle event would like to think that the people providing them care have it all together, but there may be something comforting about the fact that they are just normal people. More than anything, this documentary reveals the complexities of meeting other people’s needs while monitoring a person’s own bandwidth and potential for burnout. The experiences of these two chaplains are hardly universal, but they can serve as an important and educational case study for a greater applicable dynamic.
A Still Small Voice is screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.