Adventures in Seminary: Finding Grace

A trip to the hospital.

When I first found out that I was going to have to do an internship as a hospital chaplain, I responded in the same cool and collected fashion that any rational person would. I took a deep breath, sighed, sat down, and began to imagine exactly how many germs I would be interacting with on a daily basis.

I’m a germophobe. It’s neither something I’ve always endured nor something I’m proud of, but ever since a few years ago when I contracted CFIDS — a chronic condition that zaps your energy, fogs your brain, and, most importantly, weakens your immune system — I’ve been a little, shall we say, extra careful about germs. Alright, a lot extra careful. Alright, I’ve become one of those people who won’t touch door handles, who lines the seats of public toilets with toilet paper before sitting down, and who crosses the room whenever someone starts coughing or even when someone energetically clears his throat.

A little nutty, I know. Not certifiably so. I don’t wash my hands 400 times a day with a different bar of soap each time. And I do still visit my sick friends, even though I sit pretty far away from them. But being so susceptible to getting sick heightens one’s fear of sickness. It’s a difficult thing to get past.

This is not the only thing that concerned me about working in the hospital, though. Far greater than the fear of germs was the fear of encountering death. In our death-denying culture, I’ve done as much as any man to smile and play along with the myth that life just goes on forever if we think positively, that those who die are unfortunate victims or aberrations. In the hospital, I would be surrounded by signs of mortality, even amongst patients who were not in mortal danger. It would be impossible to hold onto the myth in such an environment.

Of course, I would need to deal with my feelings about death eventually, since grappling with mortality will be a big part of what I do as a priest. Career aside, as human beings our mortality is something that all of us have to face. But having spent much of the last year grieving a couple of significant deaths, I wasn’t sure if I was quite ready to give the Grim Reaper a big old bear hug just yet.

I follow the nurse into the cardiac room in the Emergency Department, having just received a page moments ago.

“They just pronounced him,” she tells me as we squeeze in with the various people attending to the body.

That’s as close to saying “death” as anyone gets in this part of the hospital. This and the word “quiet” appear to be the two forbidden words in the ED, for different reasons. If one remarks on how quiet it is on any given evening, the result will be an influx of patients to break the calm. On the other hand, if one mentions death, it’s possible that death itself will show up to invade our consciousness.

The nurse fumbles through the patient’s wallet, looking for identification. “Driver’s license says his name is William Anderson. Oh, and that’s interesting: he’s got a specialized license to be able to drive motorcycles. You don’t see that every day with a man in his 70s.”

This is true, though in the end it was not a wild jaunt on a bike that killed him, but simply a weak heart.

The staff is attending diligently to William’s body, pulling his pants up and placing a gown on him, removing the tubing from his mouth and throat, covering him up to the shoulders in a blanket, and resting his head on a pillow. In part it’s for show, so that when family members arrive they will see their loved one looking peaceful. But it’s about more than that. It’s also about granting human dignity to this man who gasped his last breath in our midst. It’s about honoring what we would like done with us someday when we take William’s place on the stretcher.

The nurse is still pulling things out of his wallet. Some cash, some credit cards.

“I found a prayer,” she says to me, “so I think he’s Christian, if you want to do Last Rites or something.”

“Oh, okay,” I say, not bothering to explain that I’m not Roman Catholic and that even if I were, it would be too late for the Anointing now.

More fumbling in the wallet. A picture of a saint comes out with some Italian writing on the back. Perhaps he took a trip to Rome at some point. A piece of paper with a phone number and a name. Family? Friend? An ID card indicating his status as a retired naval officer.

“That’s probably where the tattoos come from,” the nurse says looking at his arms.

“Yeah,” I say, “my dad’s uncle was an old Navy guy and he had similar tattoos.”

It’s only now that I realize that the nurse is keeping busy so that she won’t lose it. Everyone in the room is exhibiting some sort of defense mechanism, from the woman carefully fluffing the dead man’s pillow to the nurse assistant who cracks a sly joke about Connecticut being the best state in the union in which to murder your husband. But this nurse, clutching William’s wallet, is the only one in the room to really let the sadness show. Her eyes are red; she’s barely holding back tears. Every few moments she sniffs and exhales.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m okay,” she says, rubbing her face. “It’s nice to see him peaceful like that. With the ones we can’t save, it’s good to at least see them peaceful.”

I nod. “And perhaps he’s been saved in a different way now,” I say, but as soon as I do I feel cheesy and trite. I keep looking at her. I’m holding onto the moment for both of us.

I stay with the body for several more minutes, saying silent prayers and hoping the family will arrive soon. Already the body has become paler, less human. The soul is departed. No doubt about that.

I think about my family, about the losses I’ve mourned in my life. Someone is going to have to mourn William now — a daughter or a son, a friend or a lover. I find myself wishing I’d met him a day earlier so that I could have heard his story.

I pray for hope and courage to accept the mortality that we all face, the certainty of death mixed with the uncertainty of its meaning. I pray for the courage to trust in God that despite whatever awaits us in death, our lives have meaning.

Goodbye, William, and God bless.

As I began to go through the tedious process of applying and interviewing at hospitals, I spoke at length with fellow seminarians and clergy who have been through a hospital chaplaincy internship. People either loved it or hated it. Their explanations of why did not seem to differ much from one another.

“Oh, it was terrible,” said Nancy, the priest who is supervising me in my parish internship this year. “I saw some of the worst stuff you can imagine. I even had to watch an autopsy of a two-year-old. And …”

She paused when she saw that I was turning alternate shades of green and white.

“Oh, but I’m sure your experience will be different. A lot has changed since then.”

Fair enough. So I called my friend and fellow classmate Kate, who recently went through a yearlong chaplaincy program at a hospital in New York. She proceeded to tell me about frantic calls to families letting them know that their loved ones had been brought into the emergency room, visits to patients during which they screamed and yelled until she finally left, and one particular experience with a woman who ended up having to have her leg amputated.

“I just loved it,” Kate told me. “It was one of the best things that I ever did.”

Kate did not change the subject like Nancy did, probably because she could not see the varying shades of white and green that my face was taking on the other end of the phone.

So I can say that I went into this experience with a tremendous amount of trepidation. How would I react to these situations? What would I say to people in pain or dying? What could I say? Nothing seemed big enough to cover the hurts I would encounter. Nothing ever does, except grace. And my job would be to be a witness to grace. But it’s not an exact science. It’s not something you can conjure up. You have to be open to grace, amidst your fears and doubts. I can’t always do that, and I worried that I might not be able to at a crucial moment in the hospital. I feared failure as much as anything else.

I’ve been sitting with Melissa for maybe 20 minutes. She’s in her mid-30s, and it’s clear that this has not been her first long stay at the hospital. She moves slowly and talks in a scratchy voice, but she’s very friendly, telling me about her husband and her young daughter, asking me about my fiancée and my studies. I prayed with her, at her request, at the beginning of our visit. As our conversation dies down, I prepare to make my exit.

“I’d like to say a prayer now,” she says.

I nod and sit back down on the side of her bed, taking her hands in mine and closing my eyes.

“I want to pray for all the souls in this hospital, and for my family and friends …”

She speaks for a minute or two, her voice gaining strength as she recalls those she loves. She thanks God and praises God with the sincerity of a child. As she speaks, I can feel the Spirit around us, like a warm blanket, enveloping us in love.

“… And God, I ask for blessing and peace to be upon you for all the good that you do and for being with us in our lives and our struggles …”

I feel warmth from these words that will not leave me.

I think back to the sermon from church on Sunday. Nancy had recalled for us the most perfect prayer that she had ever heard. It had come from a 6-year-old girl who had prayed for her sister with the words, “Dear God, help Mary Margaret to stop playing in the toilet.” It had been a perfect prayer, Nancy told us, because the little girl had understood God better than most of us ever get to, better than the Church does sometimes. This little girl knew that God was not some Santa Claus in the sky, checking to see if we’re naughty or nice and then doling out punishment or blessing accordingly. God is all around us and within us. Prayer is about acknowledging God’s presence, engaging that presence. Prayer doesn’t allow us to plead with God to change his mind about us. Prayer is our tool for changing our mind about God and about ourselves.

I had thought that little girl’s prayer was about as perfect as a prayer could be. But Melissa’s prayer still blows me away.

It’s the most selfless and beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Here this woman sits, in a hospital bed, away from her family and friends, with a future entirely unknown. She’s in a tremendous amount of pain. I could easily understand if she were angry with God or desperate for an answer from God or even if she had lost her faith entirely. These might be my reactions if I were in her shoes. But instead, she is filled with love and compassion. Her compassion spreads even to God.

After the prayer, Melissa wants to rest again, so I leave her. I will likely never see her again. But her prayer will stay with me as long as I live.

I believe I understand why it was so difficult for Kate and for others to explain to me what touched them so deeply about their time as chaplains. Being with people in their illness and their pain, behind the veil of polite masks that we wear as we walk through the world, is a truly awesome experience.

My job at that hospital was to be a witness to grace. And I learned that we don’t suppress our fears and doubts in order to call upon grace. Grace isn’t something to wield like a sword or a scalpel. It’s something that finds us. It’s something that courses through us though we don’t deserve it and often don’t even ask for it.

It’s something that can’t be described. It has to be experienced.

Article © 2004 by Jonathan Ratican