Midwife of the Sacred: Reflections of a Pagan Hospital Chaplain (Intern) in a Monotheistic World
“Would you like to pray together?”
“Yes, I would. Thank you, I would”
“What would you like me to include in the prayer”
“Just to pray to Jesus that I get well and that this biopsy does not give me any pain”
“Sure we can do that…”
This conversation happens to me multiple times a week as I engage patients on the floors of Mt. Sinai Hospital. Although our time together may result in peace for the patient, it does not always result in peace for me. As a member of a minority religious group in the United States that turns towards many faces for God/ess and not just one, sometimes scenes like this are not quiet moments. How canI engage theologically with the work of the chaplain, to be a midwife of the sacred, as I think of myself, while engaging people who have very different theologies than mine? I am Wiccan High Priestess of 11 years’ experience, a pagan for 21 years, and I am Unitarian Universalist. I often do not share my patient’s specific beliefs. But I certainly share their humanity.
Shared humanity is the most important part of this work. I may not address the Divine the same way you do when I encounter my own suffering, but I can address the divine in you and coax it out so that it can be a comfort to you. When your family members surround you with looks of concern even tears, I may not be able to conjure hope from your doctors, but I can stand there with you when you step into spaces of suffocating pain.
When I mentioned to a seminary colleague that that I was interested in doing a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), said to me that the job of a chaplain is to see people when they are in the pits of despair- not necessarily to pull them out of it, because often that is beyond your control, but to stay there with them in that pit. I have found this to be an apt description.
I am used to being a midwife of the sacred. I am a Priestess. My training in is to create sacred space, to honor my Other Worldly Allies, and to attune myself to the cycles of the year. At Samhain (October 31) we remember those who have passed, and our pain in losing them. At Beltane (May 1) another major Pagan holiday, we celebrate the glory of renewal and spring. At these sacred times, I am aware of the polar opposites of loss and renewal as it is ritually expressed in my small congregation.
But the Holy does not just get birthed at these sacred times of the year. Nor does it contain itself to observances in mosques, synagogues, and churches. The Holy must be birthed in any place where there is struggle. It is in these places that midwives of the sacred must also go.
The labyrinth that I must tread along with the help of the diverse population of CPE students- Catholic priests, Rabbis in training, Hindu nuns, and Pastors is a winding one. We all come from disparate perspectives, we each have our own “growing edges”. The struggles we have with our training are uniquely our own. It would be a mistake for me to say that I always feel safe with them; sometimes I am confronted by them, sometimes I am the one doing the confronting. The point is not to feel 100% safe. Nature itself is not always pretty. A seed may experience the fear of drowning in a strong rain, or feel the power of a wind carrying it away to soil that has uncertain purchase. But nevertheless, in this atmosphere of learning, where everyone is having similar experiences but differing perspectives, the alchemy of growth is occurring. We are anchoring ourselves in our common humanity even as we are buffeted by suffering.
One way I have been able to ground and connect to my patients is to connect to breath. Both when I talk to patients and when I am in between patients, breath is key. At the beginning of my chaplaincy experience, I was impossibly shy. Imagine walking into rooms multiple times a day and introducing yourself to complete strangers. Not always easy even for the most socially adjusted person. Not imagine that you must introduce yourself not just to them, but to their physical pain, their family dynamics, the socio-economic condition in which they find themselves, and perhaps even their addictions. I found myself struck with the miasma of anxiety that would follow me even when I was not physically present with patients. This is the kind of anxiety that I would feel physically as kind of cloak on my heart. I found that there was a specific exercise, which I would recommend to both Chaplains and patients that could alleviate this problem. It is a simple practice known to many people who practice meditation- directing one’s breath.
Simply start by sitting comfortably. Allow your eyes to gently close, and begin to take nice rhythmic breaths. Inhale for three counts, hold your breath for three counts, and exhale. Allow yourself to become more and more relaxed. As you do this, notice the places your anxiety manifests itself within your body. Allow your consciousness to experience that anxiety for a while, but objectively. Try to just experience where and how it feels, rather than what is the cause. If it helps to still your thoughts, call to your mind a color. In work related to the chakra centers of the body (chakras, of course, are borrowed from Yogic philosophy) colors are associated with different body parts. For example, the heart is associated with the color green, the spine with red, et cetera. Let’s say the anxiety you feel is in the heart. With your eyes close, and breathing in that rhythmic, conscious way, imagine that with each breath you take you are breathing in the color green, directing that breath into your heart. Imagine your lungs and heart filling up with green air. The light green air is cleansing and stabilizing that part of your heart. Now imagine with every exhale, you are breathing out smoke. Repeat this inhale/exhale exercise for at least 15 turns, or longer, depending on your need or time available. When you are ready, wiggle your toes and fingers and come back to full awareness. You can end this short meditation/breath work with any kind of prayer that feels meaningful to you.
Colors many have found useful to attribute to the chakras and body parts include:
Red: Spine (sometimes feet)
Orange (area two inches below the navel)
Yellow (two inches above the navel)
Green (the heart, or two inches to the left of the actual heart)
Sky Blue (the throat)
Indigo (the space between your eyes)
Purple (The crown of the head)
Of course, if these colors don’t work well for you, you can switch them around. For example, I personally often use blue for healing work, and my tradition often uses pink
More on my experiences of CPE later.