Leading from the Liminal: A Snapshot from One Healthcare Chaplain During a Pandemic

Liminal used to be one of my favorite spiritual terms: betwixt and between. Neither here nor there… Occupying a space on either side of a boundary. Inhabiting transition. But starting a healthcare chaplaincy residency in the middle of the two biggest deadly surges of a global pandemic is so not the romantic, hopeful, juicy spiritual training ground one imagines when they assign the philosophical term liminal to a very visceral and traumatic, drawn out, violent circumstance. I want to know the place inside me where I can step back and pan out beyond the limitation of time and space and know with certainty that there is value and life-giving among all this life-sucking and death. I believe in that space even when it feels distant or absent, or I would not get up and drive into work every day.

I recite this prayer and invite you to say it, bolstered by the faith of survivors of the Holocaust:

“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when I cannot feel it.

I believe in God even when he is silent.”

“Chaplaining” during a global pandemic is a whole new kind of leading from the liminal.  The leading aspect of chaplaincy comes into play when one considers moving and living and working based on a collective soul understanding that God may not be working in the ways we want, expect, or have seen before; but that God is present and active in, through, and with us!

I re-entered the field of healthcare chaplaincy, no longer an intern, but a resident in the Fall of 2020, between the two great surges of hospitalizations, deaths, and staff shortages due to COVID.  We came into a line of clinicians who had never left the battlefield, in order to claim the “P” in PTSD.  Permanent rather than Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome makes more sense.  There are many studies and treatments for living with Post traumatic stress syndrome, but what can be an intervention for ongoing, intense, timeless feeling, life threatening stress and mass casualty in often undignified and unaccompanied circumstances?

Preparing for my own pandemic deployment and coming late to the game, after 8 months of solitude, not working, self-care, and nearly constant long distance contact with my friends and family, I could intuitively feel and anticipate the warranted exhaustion, anger, fear, and frustration.  But imagining it, does not compare to seeing and feeling the intense and intimate suffering of hoards of people who are faced with a reality no one wishes to ever accept; but everyone trying to “fix, heal, and/or cure” the bodies, minds, and spirits of a time such as this must face. 

No one enters civilian healthcare expecting to see mass casualty.  That is relegated to war-time medics.  There are emergency procedures and protocols for things like transportation or natural disaster accidents involving more than 10-15 people at a time.  But I work with nurses who had only seen 2 deaths in the first two years of their hospital careers, who had begun facing two a day, every day during the first and hardest wave of COVID.  Thousands and thousands of people died alone in empty, impersonal, fluorescent lit, sterile environments.  Many units or make-shift facilities have no windows or glass on the doors, and were in corridors surrounded by PPE and life-saving equipment that was only used for emergency circumstances, limiting patient/staff contact as much as possible, and breaking hearts and spirits.  Other units were mobile, and make-shift in parking lots and public spaces, where cots could lined up- yes, like war times. Many people either had no access or were not alert enough to use technology to call or face time with their loved ones.  If they were lucky a nurse, doctor, or respiratory therapist, maybe the occasional chaplain would happen to be in the room to hold the person’s hand through gloves, gowns, masks, and every other kind of physical barrier to intimacy.

While I wrote in a previous blog about my experience of what happens spiritually when a person is transitioned beyond their body, a piece which gives me great peace and builds the foundation of my faith in these times, I now need a piece (and a peace) for the people rushing around outside the empty rooms or crowded wards of rows of beds.  The trauma, cognitive dissonance and moral injury for: being assigned to terminally extubate people. Perform a violent and dangerous full code when the heart of a COVID positive patient stops and there is no chance for recovery but the family says, “Do Everything!” To choose who should get assistance of a ventilator. To be at one bedside feet away from the next person who dies and have just missed holding their hand.  To see body bag after body bag wheeled off a unit and put into a refrigerated truck.  To work in a robust, privileged suburb accustomed to manicured lawns and posh entertainment, which now houses a tent in its hospital parking lot to increase bed space for the sick and dying.  And my friends, that is not even the detailed description of the patients’ experiences…

People in healthcare join to fight and cure illness, to accompany vulnerability, and stretch limits.  No one joining healthcare could have imagined or trained appropriately for a time such as this. Right now I am curating what I call a Purple Binder full of prayers, blessings, centering techniques and aids, and self-care prompts, in order to offer momentary support and solace to healthcare workers when a chaplain can not be physically present with them.  If people have the chance to sit down and use the resources and materials, that alone will be a change from what many experienced before- so over-worked and understaffed they stopped drinking water on shifts because they couldn’t even break to use the bathroom or eat a full meal on twelve hour shifts. 

As a sensitive, intuitive person arriving on scene from isolation and prayer I have struggled deeply with my own meaning-making and my own ability to weather the presence of these heroes who were running on fumes when I arrived and are now digging deep to re-form the front lines against what we are now seeing as the same threat from Spring 2020.  Utter shock, amazement, honor and gratitude is the only response I have emotionally.  Professionally, I keep showing up and asking them each shift how it is for them that day; and saying “thank you”.  Some talk, some don’t. But they are all showing up. 

In chaplaincy we call one of our primary interventions “providing a non-anxious presence.”  Seriously?! Is any human fully awake to the crisis we continue to plow through after these first 9 months truly expected to achieve a state of non-anxiousness?!  I will say, buffered by what I call the Holy Spirit, and people’s supportive prayers, there are moments of it; but as a colleague who braved COVID rooms with her own body and presence suggests: Perhaps it is more appropriate to aim for being “a less anxious presence.”  I love it!  So much more realistic, and kind to ourselves. 

So right now, healthcare chaplaincy for me looks like being a less anxious presence; praying with people wherever they are, and in places they cannot be, like the rooms of all the dying; and holding space for celebrations of any success or joyful moment.  I also recommend focusing on the basic blessings and wonderment of nature- the only safe place to live and move and have our being right now.

I leave you with what is known as the Bathroom Blessing in Judaism, the Asher Yatzar which blesses the wonderous and complex workings of the Body, and the One God who created and can heal it all, which is traditionally prayed after toileting, as a daily reminder of God’s presence and action in our lives:

“Blessed is God who has formed the human body in wisdom

and created many orifices and cavities.

It is obvious and known before You

that if one of them were to be opened or closed incorrectly,

it would be impossible to survive and stand before You at all.

Blessed is God, who heals all flesh and does wonders.”

Holding Space

We have been in the midst of the storms of a pandemic, as well as economic and social crises now for many months; in some ways, for some of our siblings, many centuries.  In this time of deep turmoil, struggle, fear, anger, separation, emoting, efforting, AND, gathering, listening, knowing where we are is not quite working, resisting change yet intending to reconstruct and grow forward together— I have an invitation for us all.  In chaplaincy and spiritual direction we call it Holding Space.

I wanted to fill the space of pain and uncertainty we each continue to uncover and press through in our own ways with research, helpful tips, words of instruction and affirmation, narratives of past resilience.  But in that desire to fix, to be other than where we are, I realized I was forgetting the best part of chaplaincy- Holding Space.  In my resources link, the work of Fr. Richard Rohr is recommended.  He is part of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  The key here is that in order to act, we must be balanced with contemplation.  On this path we seek to respond rather than react.  Part of contemplation is being in sacred space with the Holy in our experience of Divinity, our Selves, and the Divine in other people with whom we share this world.  When we are in contemplation there is no beginning or end, just a stepping into an ongoing flow of the Holy Spirit- the creative, life-giving, transformative energy of God moving in and around us at all times.  We are consenting and intending to tap into its resources and abilities- which are limitless.

Siblings, I mean for this leaning in to the Spirit within and around us to give us ease, comfort, and boundaryless steps to healing what hurts.  In an effort to minister to my own monkey mind and anxious heart, I summed it up like this- “Remember, you do not have to try to fill the space, only hold it open.”  Pay attention here to the words hold– indicating strength and stillness; and open calling to mind a sense of expansiveness.

The description for how Holding Space might appear visually:  There are two human figures, anonymous and genderless, standing facing one another.  The are just inside the borders of a vertical column of light (think Star Trek Transporter 😊).  There is circle on the ground they stand on, the boundary and threshold marking that space from the surroundings which are full of grey, slashes and splinters of messiness, objects and possibly scenes of trauma spinning all around.  One figure stands with their arms down at their sides raised about 45 degrees, appearing to literally hold open the edge of a physical space that needs to exist for the vertical column of light to flow- and contain within it the two figures.  It is as though the person doing the holding open is separating the winds of a storm.

If we interpret that image a little further, you might know that in theological studies vertical has been associated with human connection to the divine; while horizontal, with things of the earth and the material world.  In the reality of God that I know, there is no space in which God is not.  But sometimes we really need someone else to stand in our space with us and remind us in the flesh of that possibility. Storms come in forms specific to each individual and change over time.  Holding Space does not stop the storms from spinning around us, it connects us with the Love of God, where we are seen, known deeply, and loved just as we are.  It creates a place of healing, wholeness, and nurturing where we can cultivate whatever we each need to move on, or be transformed into, for the work only we can do.

Holding the space for ourselves and each other is a powerful way to stand in the mysterious stillness of eye of the hurricane, while the storms of fear and pain thrash and rage around us.  Just show up, listen, allow yourself to feel all the emotions, to be uncomfortable with another person.  But know that when you stand in that intention with another you are plugged in to the limitless love and creativity of God, always moving towards Life, Love, and Wholeness.  You do not have to know what is next, what to do, or how to do it.  God does.  Just hold the space open for the possibility of the presence of God- no matter what.

A companion piece to this reflection is a prayer whose author is unknown to me, but which I have found helpful for many years.  Enjoy:

Into the Eye of God

For your prayer

your journey into God,

may you be given a small storm,

a little hurricane

named after you,

persistent enough

to awaken you to new depths,

strong enough

to shake you to the roots,

majestic enough

to remind you of your origin:

Made of the earth,

yet steeped in eternity.

Frail human dust

yet soaked with infinity.

~

You begin your storm

under the Eye of God.

A watchful, caring eye

gazes in your direction

as you wrestle

with the life force within.

~

In the midst of these holy winds,

in the midst of this divine wrestling,

your storm journey,

like all hurricanes,

leads you into the eye of God,

where all is calm and quiet.

~

A stillness beyond imagining!

Into the Eye of God

after the storm

into the silent, beautiful darkness.

Into the

Eye of God.

Once again, thank you to Astronomy Picture of the Day and photographer Thorleif Rodland for this beautiful image of a Sun Pillar.

Safety and Comfort

“Beloved Source of Security: I wish for the total freedom from all forms of destructive fear.  In its place, lead me into the freedom of surrender.  You hold me while I grow, and in this confidence I release anxieties about my life- its survival and success- and trust you with my unfolding story.  Amen”

Author Peter Traben Haas Centering Prayers: A One-Year Daily Companion for Going Deeper into the Love of God featured as an opening or closing quote for Centering Prayer in the Center Prayer App developed Contemplative Outreach.

The question I am asking myself and those with whom I am conversing in this time are

            “In your circumstances, in this moment: what do you need to feel safe?”

            “In your circumstances, in this moment: what would feel most            comfortable for you?”

Safety and Comfort.  Those are the qualities I am choosing to prioritize and support right now.

That is going to appear differently for each person, each day.  We never really knew that we were always, already living this way; but now moment to moment, and day to day living is at the front of our national and global consciousness and “new abnormal”.

Meditation teaches us to stay gently and attentively with each moment as it ebbs and flows in our minds, emotions, and bodies. It builds a familiarity with the range of our inner experiences as we live and react to life.  I am feeling grateful for having an inner solitary practice on the roller coaster of life, which is allowing me to live in peace and compassion with myself and others right now.  I am feeling especially grateful for my bubble of privilege, and that of those close to me.  I am mindful of the other sides of peace and privilege.

Generosity and support are neck and neck with tragedy and trial.  It is both.  It is the complicated miracle of human incarnation and community.

Prayer stories from the Bible, such as the prayer Jesus taught His disciples, reminds us to ask for “our daily bread” (Gospel of Matthew 6:9-13).  When the Israelites were living in exile in the desert, the Lord sent manna from Heaven to feed them every day anew, just enough, day by day for exactly what they needed (Exodus 16:4). One of my favorite meditations shared earlier by Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, called opening and calming calls us to be mindful of this breath… now this breath… now this… now.

What do you need to feel safe and comfortable in your personal circumstances on this particular day? 

Who or what is supporting your senses of safety and comfort? 

Who or what are you having more/less time for that you are particularly grateful for; or missing the most right now? 

How can you express that gratitude or desire in a loving, compassionate, creative way?

What image or movement best depicts release from fear and anxiety, and resting in the comfort of the Holy?

Thank you and link to the beautiful featured photo!

Waves and Light

They say that COVID-19 may come in waves: waves across countries, counties, homes, and upcoming seasons.  This first national wave, we were much less prepared than we would like to be for future waves.  When I consider other challenges in life which come in waves, I think of physical pain; emotional pain and grief; levels of intimacy in relationships; attention span; hunger and thirst, moods.  The embodied human experience is one full of waves, cycles, seasons- all transitions.  Many of them we come to recognize in ourselves, if not in others.  We see aging, sickness and healing, relationships beginning and ending, plants and weather changing with the seasons, women’s bodies cycling with the phases of the moon, the stages of sleep, arousal, hormonal potency, and even spiritual maturation.  Some of these we have measurements or standards with which we can compare ourselves individually, as couples, families, communities or nations.  However, this new experience in which we all find ourselves has no point of reference.  It is alarming, disarming, and unsettling.  Our ways of being, our known’s, our patterns, our identities are all being rewritten as we go.

Change is not optional; it is certain.  In reading William Bridges book Transitions and considering the process of life review many of us do in times of crisis and loss, I am acutely aware of how averse, and frankly unaccustomed, we are to the work of transition, the space between ending and beginning- what anthropologists who study ritual call liminal space.  We are no longer at the beginning; we do not know what is next; and the end is not on a discernible timeline.  Often, if we have seen others come out the other side of some kind of challenge or struggle, we place value on that struggle.   We determine it worthy of our time, blood, sweat and tears.  If we can assign meaning, and particularly a trajectory, to an experience, we can mark where we are on the journey.

This whole first wave of wondering if America will be affected like other countries, realizing that it is, and not knowing what our next steps will be or how long they will take is the depth of uncertainty.  It is very uncomfortable to want to simply return to what we knew before, and wonder if that reality resembles what will be “when this thing is all over.”  We tend to cling to the known and familiar, and judge harshly the different and unseen.

Certainly human history has seen pandemics, plagues, and widespread mass destruction.  One of today’s differences is how far we thought we have come, how safe and prepared we thought we were.  This is not a point of criticism; but rather a gateway for compassion, the emotional wave involving recognition, the full gamut of feelings, and the recovery which will include reflecting on what we have learned and what can happen differently in the future.  This current pandemic is a catalyst in the heart of all people, individually and collectively, who are now threatened indiscriminately along with the financial, healthcare, and worship systems that have shaped our lives.  What has meaning and how we choose those ways of being and doing in the world are shifting.

Yes, let’s name it- we are having global growing pains and identity crises, simultaneous with widespread fear and loss.  AND…For every shocked exhausted healthcare worker and grieving family member, there are stories of generosity, gratitude, and grace.   Death is upon us; but not without the ineffable resilience of the resurrection.  This Holy Week is strangely coinciding with one of America’s predicted most deadly weeks.  Of all the things we are doing differently from the past, let us turn in particular to the heroes and heroines of the world’s sacred texts who faced unparalleled challenges and still relied on the resources, grace, timing, healing, and omnipresence of the Divine.  Let us be gentle with ourselves as we each figure out how to do what is best for us.  We will make mistakes and suffer tremendous loss; but we will do it in the company of friends, family, and strangers who are all One in the Global Community.  Let us know in our souls, the way we still expect to see the sun in the morning each night, that morning is coming.  And the next wave of night that washes over you, small or crushing, remember that you have seen what happens next.  This time morning might appear differently, or at a new hour; but one thing is certain- there will be Light.

(Thank you to ipopba/Getty Images for the beautiful Feature Image in this Post)

Spiritual Accompaniment in Fear and Death

Yesterday I was sent an idea and request for people at home to provide a spiritual presence to those who are dying without the company of loved ones.  The rows of beds, people on ventilators, coffins and graves which are amassing has become overwhelming and impossible to process.  Additionally, contemplating the feelings of fear, anger, exhaustion and defeat that our brave medical personnel are facing make me think of the only reason I have the gall to press on with a future life as a healthcare chaplain- the ineffable and ubiquitous presence of God- no matter what.

I have had the honor of being at the bedside for more deaths than the average person in my previous work as a hospital and hospice chaplain.  Normally, I would not share so openly about what I will; but as these times are most certainly extraordinary, it feels appropriate.  When someone is in the last moments of life in their bodies the room is saturated with a dense, not suffocating, but rather enfolding presence of warmth and what I would call liquid light and calm- sheltering love.  There is at least one presence, if not several distinguishable “spirits” in the space around the body.  I see these things not with my eyes, but as remembering a dream while awake.  There is strong emotional quality to the lights.  Sometimes there may be colors to them like the dazzling white described in the transfiguration of Christ, or a soft gold or liquid blue, like a picture of a constellation against the night sky, where the featured stars of the constellation are the loved ones or guardians of the person transitioning.  Then those lights blend with the airy, liquid light of the soul leaving the body.  It is the sensation of vapor- effervescent liquid light dissipating up out of the body, sometimes to different parts of the room, briefly lingering over observers’ bodies; and sometimes it just swirls in with the welcoming spirits, and they all lift away, like steam blown from over the top of a boiling pot.  The only response I have ever had is deep slow breaths, and the swelling of tears of pure Joy and release.  The experience is both intensely dense, and liberatingly expansive and connective.  Words can only begin to capture the process.

I have to concede that all the deaths for which I have been present were relatively peaceful, and expected; without trauma.  However, I have no reason to believe that the process of soul joining all that is, ushered by spirit or spirits of love and light would be somehow absent from those lives lost suddenly, by torture, suicide, accident, or force.  I believe that even if circumstances in which dying occurs are not filled with love, that dying to what we know and live here is.  This is very easy for me to say from my incredibly privileged life and current circumstances.  But I believe what I shared above applies to all spirits moving on to what is next.  I believe in what I have palpably sensed in my heart and body.

When I consider the fear of being lined up in a hall or room crowded with other people suffering and possibly dying of breathlessness and fear, I shut down to that belief and knowledge.  It is a real and understandable reaction to reflexively go into terror and paralysis, leading to daily fear and paranoia.  I also think about the people crowded together sharing an incomparable experience, each having their own encounter with whatever way the Holy settles into their experience.  I do not try to know what that looks like, such things are private and ineffable.  But I am certain they are real.  I also believe that those people in the beds, and those working to treat, comfort and save them are a community of their own- a sacred people bonded by an experience no one else could ever fully understand.

Karl Barth once preached a sermon called “The Criminals With Him” on Good Friday 1957 and printed in his book Deliverance to the Captives.   In this sermon to and for the imprisoned he speaks of the first true Christian community being comprised of those men suffering and dying on either side of Jesus on the Cross.  Yes, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Mary the Magdalene were present, along with several other people; but they were not present in the depth and degree of intense sharing that the other two men were.  In the way that the reasons for the torturous, undignified deaths of these men were different; vastly varying circumstances lead them to this final point; that their inner meaning-making of these last moments was completely unique; and fear or comfort in what would come next was all their own, they hung together in a time and space outside of the experience of those gathered around them.  Perhaps those rows of people in beds, conscious or medically sedated, are accompanying each other in a way even their closest loved ones never could.   The nearness of the women and men who loved Jesus was not the same kind of nearness of those breathing their last together in agony.  God was in Jesus and with those men who were criminals.  It is my experience that God is with us all, in every moment we live embodied, and AS what happens next.

We do not have to understand how this works, only that it does.  We cannot understand the reconciling of all differences, all that would threaten to make us feel separate from the love of God, all that might haunt us unto our own bodily deaths.  We have no capacity to understand and integrate these things.  We do have the capacity to share the breath and presence of God, and in that way to live accompanied, and die enfolded in the nearness of all that is.  If you are feeling imprisoned in your home, at your job, by mental illness, grief, or fear and uncertainty- know that feeling that way, is not mutually exclusive of your being held in God’s mercy; even if that gentle holding is not recognizable to you now.  Once the essence of our “soul vapor” mingles with the particles of everything we ever needed to feel loved and known, separation and suffering will be transmuted in ways that hold sacred space and healing for all that we would escape if we were choosing our circumstances.

In your prayers, movements, meditations, conversations, and the freedom of your individual breathing in and out, know in your heart a loving presence especially for you.  Know also a presence unlimited by time, space, fear, guilt, or any boundary we here can conceive of, that shows itself to everyone in a meaningful and personal way; always re-membering that soul, over and over, from one moment to the next, into the great family of all things- seen and unseen.

 

Breathing Lessons from Brother Omid

Dear Friends,

Lately in busy-ness and stress I needed a spiritual director to remind me to just get on the cushion and sit.  Just show up knowing that God is always, already waiting to sit and breathe with you.  Let yourself be breathed.  No effort, no generating of solutions and answers, no expectations other than to get to the next breath.

Please read this article on Breathing for life, and as prayer and communion with God by Omid Safi:

https://onbeing.org/blog/learning-how-to-breathe-again/

Today as I struggle with aggravated asthma symptoms, I am aware that many people struggle to breathe daily, not only due to pollutants in their air, but also to tension, tightness, restlessness and fear.  The transformational power of breath to re-center and ground us can be our greatest gift; but sometimes sitting in the center of all we have worked so hard to distract ourselves from can feel like a punishment….Until we try it.

The fear of getting lost and consumed by pain, worry, and discomfort can keep us from the sweet release of surrender to the source of comfort and solutions.  Omid speaks of asking God not only how to pray, as Jesus modeled for us, but also, how to breathe.  Please know that a commitment to conscious breathing can open a world of healing, expansiveness, and connection to the loving and creative force always around you and always within.  That Spirit of God moving in and through our bodies will will guide and direct our next breath and next steps.

If you are living with trauma, it is most advisable to seek a trained professional therapist or spiritual director to breathe with you and process that which is uncovered. Even if your trauma was not on a life-threatening scale, having a professional caregiver with you can expand the efficacy of your mindfulness and spiritual practice by working with you to unburden some of the weights which press in on your heart quite literally.

May the nearness of God be at the center of your heart, mind, and choices as you move through relationships and the world around you.

 

 

One Light in the Darkness

I woke up in the middle of the night in my very dark bedroom with a sense of disorientation from a strange dream.  For a moment I could not get a sense of which direction my bed was facing, where the door was, or even where the lamp on my night table stood.  I just sat there and searched the darkness for one single glimpse of light- from under the door, from around the window shades, from my alarm clock.  I said to myself, “I only need to find the source of one light I can discern and it will lead me to all the rest.”

This late night epiphany seemed profound in the liminal space of dreaming and waking.  It reminds me of the quote by St. Francis of Assisi,

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of one candle.”

For those of us heading into the Daylight Savings time change where many  will go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, both in darkness, it can be a time of slowing or stagnant energy.  It can be more exhausting than the usual daily grind already feels.  But I call us to remember that like the electrical systems all around us, flowing with the potential for light and heat, we are always surrounded with the the potential for light, productivity, creative process, and healing renewal.  It may not be as simple as flipping a light switch or setting a thermostat, which is why we must dedicate ourselves to daily preparation and maintenance of our energy systems.

What is energizing to you?

Enjoying good food, fun books, time out with friends, a phone call to a distant loved one, going to a spiritual event, helping at a service project, doing something silly, getting your crafty side going, taking a soothing bath, moving your body, getting a massage, going to bed earlier, meditating…

When our bodies are reluctant to keep up with time changes, and the transition of seasons, it is an invitation to give ourselves more positive attention.  A calling inside rather than the frenetic pace of Spring and Summer can be rejuvenative and caring.

What brings light and comfort to your life?

How and with whom can you imagine yourself opening spaces in your life to include these opportunities for joy, solace, and renewal?

You are worth it!

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”

(see discussion on authorship: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/19/candle/ )

(Image from Astronomy picture of the day of the Witch’s Broom Nebula- Credit & Copyright: Adam BlockMount Lemmon SkyCenterUniv. Arizona )

Prayer for Times of Tragedy and Trauma (from an Admittedly Christian Perspective)

God of the Wounded and the Healed

God of the Guilty and the Innocent

God of the Dark Night and the Shining Day,

You exist at the intersection of all extremes

In this tumultuous human journey.

We come to you broken into pieces,

On a painful and uncertain path,

Moving forward whether we feel ready or not.

During our journey

On the unexpected, hard road of grief,

Help us to know that

Like our ancestors in the wilderness,

You are providing for us

Day by day,

in the ways most meaningful for each of us.

Open our eyes and soften our hearts

To reorganize, and make space for

The new ways you will live and move among us.

Oh God, Remind us that

You are breathing our next Breath

When our lungs collapse in grief.

You can Touch the places inside us

Too jagged and tender to handle on our own.

You are the Bread of Life

When our appetites are lost, or hunger becomes a mindless distraction.

You are the Light which beckons from the other side of the door

When we cannot bear to get out from under the covers.

You are the soothing water mixing with our tears,

Blessing each one of them.

Holy and Resurrecting One,

Accompany us on the winding way to wholeness.

When we fall into despair,

Shine a glimmer of resilience.

When we realize we have had moments of joy, productivity, and optimism,

Keep us free from the harm of guilt.

Guide our Hearts and Minds only to Yourself.

In the name of the One who was lost to Death and found in Life

Who has both gone before us,

And remains deep within us,

Now and Forever.

Amen.

Maitri: Unconditional Friendship with and Acceptance of Oneself

Friends: Here is my second theological reflection, with some love from the wisdom of our Buddhist brothers and sisters.

Honoring the Personally Transformative Nature of CPE

By Employing the Four Qualities of Maitri

I began CPE with the specific expectation that it was going to focus on the Clinical Portion of Pastoral Care, essentially: how to go “be a chaplain” or “Do chaplaincy.”  I spent a good deal of my first unit totally confused about what we were actually doing.  Somehow I was so intent on learning some nonexistent rules about what to do and how to do it, I completely discounted the immeasurable value of the portion of CPE dedicated to Pastoral Identity and Self-Discovery that is at the core of a balanced chaplain and minister.  Perhaps for the purpose of an unconscious sense of self-preservation, I was blind to the Pastoral Formation and Reflection portions of the program, and fixated on the Pastoral Competencies, particularly as they related to performance with patients.  I met the HUGE body of work around self-awareness and peer group dynamics with great resistance.  I thought I knew myself to be incredibly reflective and self-aware.  In many ways this was true; but what was lacking, and what would leave a gaping hole in my ministry unless addressed, was self-love and acceptance.

Many years of serving in my family, relationships, and bodywork career as a poster child for co-dependency and people pleasing lead to an unconscious exhaustion and bitterness that would sneak out in vulnerable moments where I did not have the energy to control it.  Yet still I prized the Idea of what a good person, a good Christian, and a good woman Should be like, rather than actually stopping and feeling my emotions and desires, and offering them the time and energy I reserved for everyone else.  Then, along came CPE.  It was the pinnacle of service, the goal I have put high on a pedestal for 17 years. I was more than happy to focus on the other and even ranked the toughest, most gut wrenching cases as more valuable, feeling like a slacker if I was not “in the trenches” enough.  All along, this was a way of keeping the focus on others, never on who I was in the experience.  It just didn’t seem prudent, much less useful.  By the end of my first unit I had arrived at a holding space for what I called the Holy AND, a place of celebration of the existence of suffering and rejoicing at the same time, like the mystery of Christ being both on the cross and resurrected at any moment of our spiritual journeys.  It was a recognition of wholeness— so I thought.  But, it was only a recognition.  The Holy AND was about situations we encounter daily as chaplains; but what about our internal encounters? What am I feeling in these stories?  Why does it matter?  I completely missed that my lack of self-consideration showed a tremendous lack of faith and underestimation of who God is.

Finally, after years of listening to lectures and reading books by a Buddhist nun named Pema Chodrin which introduced me to the concept of maitri, just this unit I began to integrate the concept within the context of CPE!  Maitri pronounced “my tree” is a Sanskrit word that is translated as unconditional friendship with and acceptance of oneself.  Chodrin explains that maitri is about beginning a process of looking inside oneself for love and acceptance, with loving-kindness for whatever we see when we look within.  It is suggested to be the basis of compassion and the root to healing all suffering in the world.   The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhist philosophy is that suffering or discontent is Universal; and fully recognizing its existence is the first step on the path of awakening (Brach, 18).  Buddhist meditation teacher Krishnamurti teaches that “This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky is called enlightenment and liberation.” (Chodrin,18).  Well congratulations all CPE students!  We are on the path to enlightenment here!  Somehow the answer to alleviating suffering is to go deeper into it and make friends with it.  I realize that I got into chaplaincy to help alleviate suffering in other people, lessen the existence of suffering in the world in general; but I never considered that this mission began with befriending my own suffering.

As humans we share a tendency to look outside ourselves- to others, spiritual practice, distracting behaviors and addictions for love and acceptance.  We use distancing behaviors as a primal reaction to avoid being open with and close to our own suffering, both physical and mental.  It is reflexive and self-preserving on many levels.  But on the spiritual journey, Buddhist philosophy and the CPE process invite us to sit with, go deeper into, and even honor the experiences that cause inner turmoil.  Chodrin suggests that this learning to feel friendly and at home with ourselves in whatever we discover under the surface sheds a Light on the dark and lonely places of life.  Pema suggests that we engage the spiritual process with the four qualities of maitri: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress, and attention to the present moment.

In steadfastness, we develop a loyalty to our experiences, including all sensations or thoughts and emotions of the wildest diversity, knowing that they are all a part of our intended practice- or as one CPE instructor would say: “everything is grist for the mill.”  Pema teaches that, just like in CPE, in meditation we must practice patience and maitri with ourselves. When we start to look closely and see everything about ourselves and our experiences clearly, we can become extremely uncomfortable and wish to flee or judge ourselves for what is coming up.  I relate this to how I feel in IPR and receiving feedback during verbatims.  It is such a closely magnified look, with witnesses to boot, that it can be excruciating.  Yet, with a gentle curiosity, a friendly affinity for ourselves and our fundamental nature- worded in my theology: honoring the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and all creation- we can come to love ourselves into wholeness and freedom from the suffering caused by the desire to be different than we are.  We can share and model that liberating sense of friendliness, love, acceptance, and clear-seeing to others if we are willing to offer it first to ourselves.  (Chodrin 27)

As chaplains we have the unique opportunity to be reminded of most all kinds of human suffering on a daily basis.  Some of the worst suffering humans experience is a feeling of loneliness or abandonment.  Whatever pain we have physically, mentally, or spiritually is exponentially increased by the sensation of isolation in that suffering.  So as chaplains we offer to hold space for, sit in on, and dive into the empty darkness with our patients.  As CPE students we also do it for each other; and if we are really brave- ourselves.  Until I was willing to sit in my own uncertainty and squirm at my own self-recognition, forgive myself for mistakes, admit my shame and embarrassment, I was giving well intentioned, but ultimately inauthentic feedback.   Up until sometime last year my therapist who is a trained HeartMath instructor would always ask me where and how I felt a feeling.  I would use descriptions that were verbal, intellectual concepts; but I was absolutely terrified and repulsed by the suggestion of going into my heart and body where the pain was, and describing it in detail, allowing it, and breathing into it.  Then I realized that is exactly what I do when I am present with my massage clients and patients in extreme crisis.  I am not afraid to go towards it when the suffering isn’t coming from me, but when it is, I tend to resist it tooth and nail.

What I am coming to see in myself is a beloved daughter of God who at times also feels hurt, less than, unworthy, ashamed, weak, unprepared, unlovable, unattractive, fearful, lonely, misunderstood, eager, impatient, and a host of other feelings which I ate, talked, wrote, exercised, slept or helped other people in order to avoid.  I avoided them so much they got louder, bigger, more painful and expressed themselves in ways that were leading me farther from my path in God.  Using the second quality of maitri, clear seeing, we are watching our every tendency, and those to whom we minister care-fully (Patton 47).  Whether on the meditation cushion as in Buddhist practice, or in a pastoral caring moment, we are not trying to get rid of any kind of thoughts that may arise within us, or that we are observing happening in front of us.  “Rather, we are seeing clearly the defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and expectations.  We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom,” (Chodrin 27-28).  We are offering ourselves and others the compassion of holding the space for both pleasant and unpleasant, powerful and vulnerable within in the same person or circumstance.

This practice of clear seeing often times evokes the third element of maitri- the experience of emotional distress.  Here is when we need to hold ourselves with loving kindness the most.   We are no longer just an objective observer of patterns and possibilities, we are engaged participants.  We are awake and poignantly aware.  We must engage that strength and steadfastness through faith in the viability of a program that asks us to stay where we would rather not in these moments, and see into the fourth corner of our Johari windows.  Buddhist teaching offers us this: “Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience,” (Chodrin 28).  Meditation is suggested as a sort of training for staying with and growing from things we once tried to escape.  In CPE, the exercises of visiting patients, attending to crises, participating fully in group and supervision are all pieces of the obstacle course of this spiritual boot camp.  It is a delight to see that all we encounter has value, and to feel oneself expanding because of it.  It is empowering to find myself in personal relationships, with family, at work, or church, or even in conversation in my own head willing to slow down, get curious, offer words of loving kindness, and be willing to try again, and again, and again- knowing it may be just as painful, or it may open up an unknown world of possibility.

The final maitri factor that we cultivate in meditation or CPE practice is attention to the present moment.  In my mystical Christian theology, this takes on a particular brilliance, because it speaks to the presence of God.  I do not believe in time as we know it as an ultimate construct; only that as humans living on the earth plane we are temporarily and partially subject to its divisions.  Staying in the present moment is directly experiencing the fullness of God.  It is knowing for ourselves, as believers of the Resurrection of Christ, that Christ was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow.  In His death and Resurrection, all barriers of time and between diversity of the Beings He created, are destroyed.  Being in the present moment is honest, brave, loving, faithful, and transformative.  Staying present is a choice, often a painful one, when the moment we are in happens to be less than pleasant.  But by staying in the moment we are also empowered, as Quay Kestor instructs, by being perpetually at “choice-point.”  “Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward the other, and toward the world.  This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.” (Chodrin 29-30).  When we seek to change the world we live in, first we must fully inhabit it, as Jesus did.  The practice of Christian Meditation called Centering Prayer suggests that every moment of suffering or distraction that we become aware of, is merely an opportunity to return to God (Thomas Keating).  So combining last unit’s awareness that God is in all experiences with the practice of maitri, this unit I have decided to be present in all my own experiences.  I decided to show up in the Dungeon and to supervision prepared to writhe in the naked truths of what I was feeling, hiding from, wishing to change, and watching in others.  Employing the concept of Radical Acceptance for all that is within in us, which sits at the heart of maitri, allows us to meet the God, the hound of Heaven, who seeks us wherever we may tend to run to or hide from Him (Psalm 139).

I would certainly not call myself enlightened, but a light has been shed on pieces of me and the common experiences of suffering we all share.  Now I can see more clearly how my own tendency to fix, fast forward, rescue and defend others wallowing in discomfort and uncertainty denies them the valuable experiences of resilience and growth.   God exists in all times, places and experiences.  I was refusing to meet God where God was, by refusing to sit quietly and lovingly with my own discomfort.  I was lashing out at Marla for beckoning me to come closer, and hiding from the group that was not trying to shame me into self-awareness, but rather love me into wholeness.  “Carl Jung describes the spiritual path as an unfolding into wholeness.  Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness- broken, messy, mysterious and vibrantly alive.” (Brach 42)

Through maitri we can know that at any one time we too have been hurt, scared, angry, hungry, lonely, happy, in love, excited, brave, or peaceful.  We share this collective human experience and the planet on which we are having it.  We have to practice.  We have to trust the process.  We have to love ourselves first in order to love our neighbor.  Employing the qualities of maitri in CPE and life helps us not only sharpen our listening and communication skills, but softens and expands our hearts.  “When we carry our pain with the kindness of acceptance instead of bitterness and resistance, our heart becomes an edgeless sea of compassion and we become the compassionate presence that can hold, with tenderness, the rising and passing waves of suffering (Brach 216).

 

Works Cited

  1. Brach, Tara, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.  Bantam Books, New York, 2004.
  2. Chodrin, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  Shambala Classics.  Boston, MA, 1994.
  3. Chodrin, Pema. The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.  Shambala Classics. Boston, MA, 2001.
  4. Chodrin, Pema. Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion.  Audio Lecture produced by Sounds True.
  5. Patton, John. Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide.   Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 2005.

Incarnation: the Holy AND

Thank you for the beloved art: Richard Hooks:  “Head of Jesus”

Dear Readers, It has been a long time since I wrote, as seminary has kept me busy.  I promised in my introduction that some day I would share more about the experiences which shaped my way of understanding and living in the world.  Here is a theological reflection I wrote following my first experience in Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital.  As we approach Easter, I thought it appropriate.  It is long…. so if you are interested- get a snack and a beverage!  Peace- Gina

As a former Roman Catholic and family member of several mechanical engineers, my embedded thought processes and theology flowed easily into a polarized dualism.  I was either good or bad; getting A’s or anything else that was not as good;  I was either pro-life or pro-death, people go to Heaven or Hell, I needed to  do what other people want or I would hurt them.  There were many of what John Savage refers to as “life commandments” that I have been applying to myself, others, the way the world operates, and yes, God (Savage, 117).  Until CPE I was convinced that I had been doing a pretty good job of returning myself to the spiritually coveted non-dual thinking and functional self-awareness.  However, I realized that CPE is the ultimate crucible for Truth; and that it, Truth that is, is beyond all definition.  In its fullness, it is Mystery.  There is no greater mystery or representation for me of the CPE experience than the Incarnation, the Holy AND.

The mystery of the incarnation is that God who exists outside all boundaries and yet inhabits all possible spaces, times, and circumstances loved His creation so much that he made full communication and communion possible by inhabiting our very selves and cells.  Furthermore, the mystery of Christ is that this person was human and God simultaneously.  Christ’s part in the Trinity connects Him with the timeless, ubiquitous presence of God.  How can that apply to us at IU North?  It puts a framework around all that we humans live and know.  It puts the ministry of hospital chaplaincy and the evolution of our pastoral identities in a context.  It informs my ministry to the point that I can say with confidence to someone in immeasurable pain that the One who is without measure is present both in that pain AND on the other side of the crippling acuity it causes at the moment I am re-iterating Christ’s promise: “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age”  (Mt: 28:20).

The story of the person of Jesus, flesh and blood, connects humankind so completely with God that for me it bears the power to give all human experience a holiness.  The science and the hidden secrets of the biology and physiology of the body, shared by Christ are proof of God’s magnificence.  Seeing people whose wish in a particular moment is as simple as breathing unobstructed, being able to control their own bowels, being able to keep all of their original body parts, etc. is an exercise in Grace and gratitude.  The body simply working how it was originally designed is a miracle that I am reminded of each time I am on the medical units.   This clinical setting shows me the Grace of every-day life and health; and it also reminds me of the fact that nothing in our lives is outside of God’s awareness, and empathy through Christ.  The suffering, frustration, and feelings of abandonment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane and passion encompass an extreme edge of experience that touches into some of the atrocities human kind has committed and faced.  AND accompanying that suffering in his life was forgiveness of those who betrayed and tortured him, and finally transcending the ultimate alienating experience, death.

Several months before beginning CPE I attended a series of lectures on Discernment which re-introduced me to some of the language St. Ignatius of Loyola used to describe aspects of our faith journey: the terms consolation and desolation.   Consolation refers to that which enflames the soul with love, increasing joy, faith, hope, charity, faith and tranquility in one’s being and a feeling of closeness and movement towards God.  Whereas desolation refers to the opposites of those feelings such as turmoil, agitation, loneliness, temptation, listlessness, unhappiness and feeling generally separated from God (Martin, 308-309).   That which fills the space between these two experiences with meaning and possibility is the mystery of the Incarnation, the IAM.

I AM is outside of time and without limitations, yet chooses to be with us.  In John’s Gospel and Revelations, Christ defines Himself with several bold titles including alpha and omega (Rv: 22:13) using the well known “I AM” statements.  Of the various proclamations Christ makes about who he is, and how he relates with us in the books by Matthew and John, the one common denominator is the “I AM.”  In my Trinitarian theology, this is the same “I AM” as the One who named Himself to Moses: Ex: 3:14 “I am who I am,” and the same God who spoke in Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you.”   I experience an undercurrent of consolation that is steady and unwavering, when the rapids of desolation are the loudest.  I have been thrown into the depths of desolation with my early verbatim subject asking “why her?” and fearing death from cancer; to the high’s of consolation with one of my last verbatim subjects being filled with joy and tranquility and stories of God’s blessings in his cancer journey.  These are the AND’s made accessible through the Incarnation.

In the hospital setting and in our personal lives and global community we witness great suffering on a regular basis; AND we are privy to some of the most sacred, intimate moments of life where miracles and conversions take place and Eucharist is shared.  My favorite representation of this at North is the fourth floor. There, we have peds nurses who are treating kids with terrible injuries, handicaps and disease and still choosing to get pregnant themselves.  We have the sickest people in the hospital between peds and adult ICU in one wing; and just down the hall is labor and delivery.  The fourth floor is the AND floor.  As professional chaplains and or ministers, we are the representative AND’s in the world we live in.  We must be vehicles moving with such mass and force down the highway of life that we create a draft around us strong and steady enough for people to follow when they are out of gas or have lost their ways.  Also, we must be surrounded and supported by others who can get us to the next gas station and take the lead when we lose our way.  We are not called to fix or change anything that is shared with us, or that we are present for, we are called only to be a witness and a presence.  We are called to sit in darkness and see, if not just remember the existence of other side of feelings of darkness and separation from God.

Having the Ignatian notions of consolation and desolation named before I entered CPE has given me such normalization while I struggle to “trust the process” of all these aspects of spiritual and personal development into which I have been called during CPE, the ordination process, and discerning lay association with the Sisters of Saint Francis simultaneously.   Another piece of work which was pivotal to my application of the Incarnation in accepting the process, and searching for peace within tension as it relates to CPE comes from Cynthia Bourgeault’s TheWisdom Jesus.   The way Bourgeault interprets the period of Jesus’ narrative between his Death and resurrection when he descended into Hell, describes what happened there in a way that emphasizes the constructive value of what has been painful for me in CPE.  She offers that Jesus just sat there among the faces of the collected false self who were the darkest, deepest, most alienated, and in the most constricted states of pained consciousness.  He sat there “in the midst of all this blackness, not judging, not fixing, just letting it be in love.  And in so doing, he was allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which the opposites arise and holding that to the light.”  A harmonizing love infiltrated the deepest darkness in a way that didn’t override them or cancel them, but gently reconnected them to the whole, (Bourgeault, 123).  This sitting in non judgement, inviting people back into consolation with love and presence is the essence of supervision, peer group work, and chaplaincy.  One of the most challenging parts of the peer group and supervision portion of CPE has been accepting the tension of being the one feeling tortured by my inner “constricted consciousness” and egoic tendencies, and having people witness it, care-front me in it and still love me through it.  We have been Jesus to each other: the teacher, the shepherd, the brother/sister, the pastor, and Elton Trueblood’s “AND” (Savage, 105).

God is in all experiences now, because he was, as and through Jesus.  I have used the Garden of Gethsemane time and again with patients to assure them that fear, doubt, abandonment and generally negative places of suffering are places God has been and is with them.  The Incarnation gives us stories like this, gives us God’s first hand account of faith in times of suffering and fear, of divinity within humanity.  But what about those who are not Christian?  As an acknowledgement of my learning goal involving the honor and understanding of diversity and offering witness outside my chosen Christian, Trinitarian models, I offer the cycles of nature and the body as ways for us to know the movement of God without naming God.  Imagine how people watching the sky seeing the moon grow and disappear over and over, and the sun rise and set day in and out felt before they knew what it was and how it was happening.  We have so many tools that teach us the need for growth, movement and detachment in addition to faith.  My love of contemplation in nature, and Buddhist philosophy show me that while the experiences of suffering and desolation may be inevitable parts of human life; they are not the only parts, nor are they permanent.  That is a law of nature and physics to some degree, but some patients show me that that they can die scared and angry.  So, I return then to my faith to comfort me and survivors of those painful deaths, that healing may not come on the earthly side of existence but that death returns us to our origins in God and to wholeness and love.

The cycles and inevitabilities of life are ever present in the hospital.  Patients have a way of bringing me down and holding the light, volleying me back and forth between rooms.  CPE calls me to keep going and to keep using my supervisors and peers to help get me balanced, refreshed, normalized, and safe.   I came into the hospital setting with the idea that wearing a badge that said “Chaplain” communicated the very presence of the possibility of God in all places and experiences, pleasant and painful.  I still believe that passionately on a good day; but honestly a lot of days I believe it more in concept.  I still fight to know viscerally, with certainty that I can feel, the Truth of this.  I have to choose it again and again.  I want this deeply for every person I meet.  I have to admit that agenda.  I do not attach to one set concept of what it means to know God viscerally, but I have attached completely to its potential.  CPE has challenged what I thought I knew about who I am and how to implement my calling.  I have polarized so many times.  I want to know it all and do it all perfectly.  I want to forgo my humanness and be one with only divinity.  I find myself feeling abandoned between the polarity of my egoic desires and my actual life.  CPE reminds me that just as when I put a hot glass dish in cold water, it will shatter; if I try to learn and be too much too quickly I will get broken.  The AND is not just to offer in ministry; it is to live as ministers.  Incarnation means what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin taught us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  It was good enough for Jesus, so I might as well keep working on it.

Works Cited:

  1. The Harper Collins Study Bible: NRSV. Wayne Meeks, General Editor.  Haper Collins Publishers, New York, New York, 1993.
  2. Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus.  Shambala, Boston, 2008.
  3. Martin, James, SJ. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.  HarperOne Publishers, New York, New York, 2010.
  4. Savage, John. Listening and Caring Skills.  Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1993.