The living tradition which we share draws from many sources. This is our First Source: Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
People ask me why I went to divinity school, then immediately tell me religion is disappearing. Most recently, I was on a flight and my seat neighbor asked me what I do. “I’m a hospital chaplain,” I said, and though I was exhausted, I could feel my whole body lift. I could feel my spirit wake up. I love what I do.
She looked at me with pity. “Oh, honey. What’s happening to religion in this country is disturbing and devastating,” she said, her face tensing. “Young people will make religion extinct.” Her pity had turned to anger. I suddenly felt lost, as if the plane taking me home landed in a place I had never known.
After years studying with people of any, every, many, and no affiliation, I’ve had a chance to explore the religious and spiritual landscape of my country. I see the changes.
A huge and still growing number of our population are identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” A religious person adheres to a set of beliefs upheld by a set denomination. Spirituality has to do with the way one experiences, expresses, and/or seeks meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and the way they connect this to themselves, others, nature, and/or the sacred.
People who identify as spiritual but not religious are incredibly diverse. Diversity within religious affiliations is also growing. Believers are rejecting, challenging, or changing teachings that have been upheld for centuries. Culture and experience color religious practice.
Change is scary, and fear can make the changing religious landscape seem disturbing or devastating. As a resident chaplain, I am trained to serve people of all faiths and beliefs. Most important, I am called to bear witness to staff, patients, and their loved ones. I am called to provide spiritual and emotional support, whatever that means to those I walk beside.
So every day, I show up. Abe stops breathing. Megan has a terminal illness. Ralph has to make a huge decision. Madeline is alone. Paul has a family that can’t agree. Sam is terrified. Betty is exhausted. Jack is dying. So many people help, so many people watch. I step next to her, him, them, and all of them. I plunge into their spiritual and religious landscapes. I do not see spirituality as disappearing, but as being present everywhere.
Lucas is dying. His brother Arthur has been beside him the whole time. Lucas has told Arthur that he does not want to live without his independence, and his room is filled with machines. Now he cannot communicate. I’m asked to attend a family meeting, where the care team tells Arthur that Lucas will never live without the machines. They gently ask Arthur what he wants them to do.
Arthur anguishes. Arthur tells us that when their grandmother, who raised them, was dying, Lucas was disgusted that Grandma couldn’t eat or drink. “So he snuck in macarons,” Arthur said. “We’re French, and Grandma always had these for us. He picked up a few, and snuck them in. When the nurse wasn’t watching, Lucas carefully fed Grandma little pieces of macaron. And it was the only time on hospice that Grandma smiled. My brother always talked about that.” Arthur decides to stop treatment and focuses on keeping Lucas comfortable.
The team decides that Lucas needs some macarons. I buy a small box of macarons, and the administrator finds a place for them in the fridge. His nurses guide Arthur in carefully feeding them to Lucas.
Millie is frantic. She has been in the hospital for a week and has had very few visitors. There is so much Millie cannot remember, that what she does remember doesn’t make sense to the care team just meeting her. Millie rips out her cords, throws her juice, and cries.
As her behavior continues, the care team assumes this is simply diminished health. Jonah, her nursing assistant, notices how often Millie mentions going to Cheri’s. At every mention, she rubs her hands. Jonah asks if Cheri paints her nails. Her face changes instantly. She smiles. “Yes, yes, then I don’t look so terrible. I need to get to Cheri,” she pleads.
Jonah starts painting Millie’s nails each morning.
Chris is terrified. They have never been to a hospital, even though they have lived through a lifetime of poverty and poor health. Chris doesn’t trust anyone here. But their social worker Anne and I keep coming by. They let us in but look at us as if there’s no point. “I feel completely empty,” Chris tells us.
“Have you ever felt whole?” I ask. They look down. Chris tells us we’ll think they’re stupid. “Oh, I wouldn’t think that. I’m here to listen when you’re ready,” Anne says with love and care. “When I had my canary, I mattered to someone. He loved me,” Chris says softly. As the days go on, they can’t sleep. They are terrified by the white walls and huge machines.
I print out tons of canary pictures. Anne and I cover the wall facing Chris’s bed with them. Chris’s hospital room now has canary wallpaper.
The change in religious and spiritual landscape is an opportunity to see the sacred take new shape. Macarons are a holy meal. Nail painting is a sacred ritual. Canary wallpaper transforms a room into a holy place.
Seeing the sacred in new forms does not diminish the sacred recognized in traditional and long-held ways. Down the hall from Lucas, a woman is receiving Holy Communion from Reverend Taylor and as so much changes, she finds peace in a practice she has known her whole life. On Chris’s floor, Father Gannon is praying the rosary with a patient whose grandmother first taught it to her. Millie’s roommate is out of the room; her nurse has brought her to Rabbi Cohan’s Shabbat service. These sacred rituals and sacraments have not disappeared; they have just found greater company.
When I see how pastries can bind a family together beyond life and death, I am submerged in wonder. When I see how receiving Holy Communion can instill peace amid chaos, I am held in mystery. When I see Jonah notice how important nail painting is, and then offer himself as a manicurist, my spirit is renewed. When I see Father Gannon kneeling on the floor to pray the rosary, and when I see Anne carefully decorate Chris’s room, my spirit is renewed.
We associate hospitals with a threat to life, and an end to life, and that is real. But as life is changed, as life is threatened, as life is fractured, and as life is taken away, life is also upheld in wonder, in mystery, and in renewed spirit. And this is happening as our spiritual and religious landscape is changing.
Patient stories have been adapted to maintain confidentiality, but the essence of the experience remains.