The healing place
Life constantly inflicts wounds that the mind protects with the passing of time. Though people can either accept or deny the reality of such wounds, many choose the latter, rarely allowing the light of honesty and transparency to enter their dark and morbid places. Yet, unlocking the emotions that have broken us can be the very thing that will heal us.
“I have sought to begin not with readymade formulations contained in books but living human documents and actual social conditions in all their complexity.”1 One Saturday evening about a year ago, I received a call that I was needed for a patient who was nearing the end of life. Since it was my first-ever response as a new clinical chaplain resident, I was petrified, confused, anxious, and, most of all, at a loss for words. In this painful and sacred moment, what could I bring to a family losing a wife, mother, grandmother, and matriarch?
Knowing where to be
All I could do was to be there as support for the family—not so much with my words but by my presence. When the patient finally died, the family said, “Thank you so much for just being here. We felt a sense of calm and comfort with you staying with us until she died.”
That day I realized something that had long troubled me. I have repeatedly observed, as with this patient who was an atheist, a sense of peace in the belief that this is it—life is over. Yet many a time, Christian patients have struggled with the end of life and do not seem to be at peace, causing me to leave feeling unsettled and saddened. I finally realized that it is the crisis of leaving this life wondering whether family members, or even they themselves, are truly saved, that causes such deep, inner turmoil.
It is in these moments that the chaplain must first be secure in his or her own belief system and not allow the crisis to shape the prophetic calling of his or her life. And it requires the even deeper understanding that the life of the patient is not in our hands—but God’s.
“If spiritual struggle, distress caused by something in one’s belief, practice, or experience, is not identified and addressed, it will have adverse effect on one’s health.”2 What people experiencing end of life need is not what we may think they should have. Again and again, I have been tempted to somehow find out whether their lives are in spiritual order according to my biblical framework rather than recognizing that I am trying to transfer what I feel they require in that moment because, somehow, I mistakenly con-fused their soul salvation with my intervention.
Knowing who to be
Recently, I have begun to realize that most people whom I have come across at this critical stage of their life actually have a deeper desire to discover what drives the inner workings of their own thought processes and actions. I think Robert Charles Powell makes a very valid point when he suggests that “ ‘religious experience arises spontaneously’ when men and women are ‘forced to think and feel intensely regarding the things that matter most.’”3
Both revelation and experience then are foundational if one is to grasp the development of self as a work in progress. Learning to cultivate the understanding of self is essential for the interpretation of one’s own story, psychologically and theologically. This, then, becomes the principal tool in pastoral care and counseling.
Ultimately, my question continues to be: How does God show up in my human experience, and how do I translate that into my daily role as a clinical chaplain in a way that seeks to help others find purpose and meaning? How do I use the opportunities to listen, empathize, relate, share, and ask questions that lead individuals to experience what can be termed “the healing place”—and which can only be truly found from within?
To be of value for those to whom we minister, we must first be willing to be participants of the very notions or beliefs we promote. As my mother would say, “Practice what you preach.” Hence, when we are conduits of the very thing we are advocating, it becomes authentic to those with whom we interact.
Failure to do this is something that has not only robbed us of deeper opportunities within the pastoral care field of the hospital, but has even affected our churches. The reality is that God uses those whom He calls despite our deficiencies. As we function in our roles as spiritual leaders, God can still use us even when we are not always obedient. Practically speaking, He works with and through us in spite of us. However, what would our ministries look like if we just surrendered to Him in the first place? Sometimes we miss opportunities because we listened to our own voice instead of His, and then we end up going full circle only to realize that this is the way He wanted us to go initially.
As I have seen how crises reveal hidden truths within myself, I have become aware that this may also be what happens with many of those with whom I interact. So, I have sought to begin with and continue to listen to God’s voice and trust Him in the process of being that vessel that may have the last opportunity to speak a word to someone experiencing the end of life.
Knowing how to be
What should we do, say, and be in these moments that really are completely out of our control, when there is grief, perplexity, and the reality of eventual loss? Three things come to mind:
- Be honest about who we are. If we are men or women of faith, we should permit our faith to direct us. That does not mean we should force our beliefs onto someone but, rather, let the understanding of our experiences and who we are be the very thing God uses, the authentic self at work, trusting that God knows what we should ask and say and then allowing it to happen. Although God does not need us, He chooses to use us.
- Do not judge but, rather, seek to understand. One day I was walking pasta room. Without any warning or alert, I heard something say, “Nigel, go into that room, he is in distress.” So, without any agenda, I introduced myself. The patient took my hand and gave me a firm handshake. The man proceeded to tell me about his turmoil with his wife and that his only joy was his daughter. But he also wanted to know whether it was OK to be cremated—as a Christian. He explained that he had already made peace with God and was ready to die.
Clinical chaplaincy has taught me about the dangers of pairing and countertransference. Pairing takes place when we have something in common with a patient (as I did with him), so we minister from that so-called common place of things. Transference takes place when the patient redirects feelings meant for others onto the therapist or chaplain, but countertransference occurs when the counselor or chaplain unconsciously projects his or her feelings onto the client. The results of pairing and countertransference can produce an emotional entanglement with a client in which the chaplain can begin to function as one who has been there and done that—“so let me now show you how life is in that context.” It can lead to a judgmental type of conversation that is usually nonproductive because it becomes more about the chaplain than the patient.
Being in spiritual crisis, what the man needed was the ability to realize where he was and what true meaning looked like at this juncture of his life. Here is where the ability not only to see oneself but to explore and grapple with someone else’s perspective becomes more than a casual conversation. It involves a deeper awareness of the patient and what is being said, understood, and finally evaluated. Hilsman states, “It may take significant practice to develop this skill, replacing diagnostic listening with personal listening which seeks to access the soul.”4
3. Seek to discover the healing place.I have learned in clinical chaplaincy work that what people seem to desire most is healing. That does not necessarily mean that their problem will be miraculously transformed—but that they are healed in their spirit, meaning to be at peace with whatever they are facing. The healing place, then, lies not outside of us but deep within us and becomes a reality when one can say, “Despite what life throws at me, ‘It is well with my soul.’ ”
For us to be able to access the soul—or, should I say, the deeper parts of a person’s experience—we must be able to connect with them. But that requires the personal investment of time; showing genuine care; and offering, if nothing else, a comforting heart. When people sense that we care, it is amazing how much they are willing to share.
Clearly, my role as a clinical chap-lain is not one of being judgmental or spouting rehearsed sermonic lines or pastoral remedies but to be present and allow those to whom I am ministering that opportunity to share their story. As I listen, I am offered the unique opportunity to be invited into someone else’s world, an act of unbridled trust somehow involving the perception that the chaplain is connected to something spiritual.
In turn, this affords the opportunity— sometimes in a very small window—for God to use me in aiding that individual to find meaning and purpose from their perspective. And somehow, through our interaction, to discover that which may be missing or needed in their present situation.
Knowing when to be
So, how does Nigel David the chaplain differ from Nigel David the pastor? Nigel David the pastor sees his primary role as empowering members to be the best they can be, in light of their spiritual gifts, for the edification of the body of Christ. He also has a platform from which to minister as the shepherd of the flock through preaching, teaching, and offering pastoral care and counseling.
On the other hand, Nigel David the chaplain does not enter a patient’s domain with pastoral authority to share the good news of the gospel without permission or regard for the patient’s belief. Rather, he is to listen, comfort, and ask searching questions that may unlock the quest for purpose and meaning in the midst of grief, loss, perplexity, and distress. Nigel David the chaplain will also share the power of prayer and God’s Word—but only if invited. On one occasion I received such an invitation.
I had a patient who was a 20-year-old African-American gunshot victim. Although he was in the intensive care unit, I thankfully learned that he would make a full recovery. Before I went in to see him, I researched his case and realized that he had some type of gang affiliation. It immediately reminded me of my own past as a former gang member and the close encounters with death I had experienced. At the same time, I also remembered how, back then, I thought I knew it all, believing that someone outside of gang life had no idea what it was like—and how I would not want to speak to such a person. With this in mind, I decided not to enter the situation with all the answers but to be willing to listen and to learn about his story and what it meant to him.
I went in and saw the young man. His mother was present and greeted me warmly. The patient smiled and asked who I was and what I did. After I explained, lo and behold, about five minutes later, he asked whether I knew anything about gang life. That was an invitation. I shared my story. When I finished, everyone in that room was in tears. The young man declared, “If God can do that for you, then I know there is hope for me.”
The joy of this work is knowing that the chaplain sows seeds from which the patient may experience fruition in this life—or even in the life to come. This joy becomes, for patient and chaplain, a mutual healing place.
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1 Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience (Chicago, IL: Willett, Clark & Co., 1937), 185.
2 David A. Lichter, “Studies Show Spiritual Care Linked to Better Health Outcomes,” Health Progress 94, no. 2 (Mar–Apr 2013): 64.
3 Robert Charles Powell, “Religion in Crisis and Custom: Formation and Transformation—Discovery and Recovery—of Spirit and Soul” (Address, 8th Asia Pacific Congress on Pastoral Care and Counseling, People’s Republic of China, Tsuen Wan, The New Territories, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, August 2005), 2, metro.inter.edu/facultad /esthumanisticos/coleccion_anton_boisen/case _study/Religion%20in%20Crisis%20and%20 Custom.pdf.
4 Gordon J. Hilsman, Spiritual Care in Common Terms: How Chaplains Can Effectively Describe the Spiritual Needs of Patients in Medical Records (London, UK:Jessica Kingsley, 2017), 253.