“What religion are you?” asked one of the administrators not long after I got to the ER in New Jersey.
“We don’t have that. Do you have another religion?”
Is that like choosing soup when they don’t have salad?
They had that.
Pain. The unsmiley face. A ten. I surpassed my previous pain threshold on Saturday, breaking through Morphine, then Dilaudid, and finally finding relief with double Percocet. At 3 a.m., before relief, there was Mama's hand and my breath. Love and mindfulness, two of my spiritual practices. With eight years of using breath meditation to address chronic pain and surgeries, I tried to use those techniques to get through the night. Stay in the moment; don’t begin to tell stories about what had happened or what might happen. Look at the pain closely—is it sharp? Achy? Constant? Pulsing? Really examine the monolithic idea of pain. And breathe. Keep breathing. Through the nose, out the mouth, if you can. I know I tend to huff when I hurt, expelling breath as a coping technique. With the meds, my wife, and my breath, I fell asleep eventually.
Mama had left a voicemail for the chaplain on Saturday.
I left a written note for the chaplain on the desk on Monday when I borrowed a book from the chapel.
On Monday, near the chapel, I saw the chaplain walk away before I could say hello. Later a man walked up to us, looking for me. "Are you the chaplain?" I asked. "Far from it," he scoffed. He was one of my doctors.
We left late Tuesday night.
I never met with a single member of the chaplaincy department.
The chapel was beautiful. A polygonal building on the hospital’s roof with 200-degree views of the surrounding Jersey Shore, the windows had both colorful stained glass depicting nature—turtles, geese, the sun—and clear etched windows of the nearby boardwalk.
There were a few rows of padded pews and a simple altar with various Christian reading materials. One was Ernesto Cardenal’s Abide in Love, a small giftbook with short paragraphs on a variety of topics. I borrowed it to read back in my room.
Before we left, Mama and I sat in silence. I meditated, offering metta for myself and all those in the hospital. I think she was doing the same; or napping.
Abide in Love. I can’t really respond to Cardenal’s theology, having read the book between naps and not having a copy with me now. I do recall thinking that, by defining God as everything—except sin—in order to say that even atheists are religious (actually more religious if memory serves—something about atheists embracing the idea that God does not exist and is nothing, both apophatic ideas), Cardenal was hedging his bets. He focuses particularly on God as love; similar ideas exist in some of my CPE readings, including Karen Armstrong’s Case for God and the writings of Rev. Kate Braestrup.
Love as a practice. Religion as an action. Agape, philia, storge, eros. The Golden Rule. 1 John 4:16.
Everything Mama did that week was love in action. I was surrounded by love—hers, my kids, my in-laws who rushed to help out, my family in Texas, our community in Connecticut and online, the doctors, nurses, aides, and staff members.
Not the chaplain, though.
This was religion in practice. And it didn’t matter what the label in the computer was.
I have looked on this CPE as a period of discernment in my chaplaincy ministry. To become a UU hospice chaplain, I would need to complete 4 CPEs and also earn an MDiv, in addition to other requirements. I wanted to know if I loved hospice and wanted to follow the call to chaplaincy enough to complete the requirements of what would be my second career. The answer, I have found, is yes.
The 300 clinical hours and 100 educational hours I have completed have been eye-opening. At hospice, I have held the hands of a woman deep in dementia, sung to a dying man, read to another. I have prayed over the bodies of beloved family members; I have sat with a distraught teenager as her father’s life has ended. I have prayed with Protestant and Catholics, Jews and Hindus; I have offered my ministry of presence to those who do not pray.
I have reflected on those experiences in writing case studies and weekly essays. I have analyzed them for transference and theological issues, considered better open-ended questions and prayers. I have discussed them with both on-site and CPE supervisors and my cohort. I practice taking the constructive criticism as a gifting and as a learning opportunity, striving to improve my skills as a chaplain and to reflect on myself. I know there is still so much to learn, to practice. I’ve grown so much in the last few months and am inspired to continue.
Being in the hospital and home recuperating these last two weeks have clarified my call as well. My CPE supervisor asked last night in our ZOOM meeting if not seeing the chaplain had affected my recovery. And I had said no, but not because I feel chaplains have no effect. Instead, I received the spiritual nurturing I needed from friends instead of the official chaplain. I knew I needed the spiritual support and sought it; it does make a difference—and it lifted me during the hard moments in the hospital. I know when I do the work of ministry that I make a difference for those I work with.
And I love the work, both with others and on myself. I want to continue and will be pursuing that MDiv and other CPEs later. Until then, I will continue to volunteer at hospice.