Friday, August 14, 2009

Reflections on being pastoral, treading holy ground

While going through my notes from my Clinical Pastoral Training, I found these forgotten entries in my journal...

CPE Journal – December 2, 2005... First time visiting patients.

Walking into patients’ rooms at the hospital, I feel as if I am walking on holy ground. The reverence with which I approach the name, the room number, the condition, the age weighs heavily on me.

The walls, too, are heavy, carrying their concerns about family, children, job, home, pets, friends, illness, hope, despair, pain, anger, guilt, exhaustion.

As a new chaplain, I wonder where to start, what to say, how to pray.

Patients ask...Why is this happening? What could I have done differently? Where have I been? Where am I going? How will I get from there to here?

When people become ill, life as we know it ceases to exist - for some, momentarily, for others, permanently. When illness strikes, we can no longer push away the inevitable – the cancer, the dementia, the pneumonia, the lesion, the infection.

Everything but the pain of illness and life has stopped to make room in this room.

Words come gently, slowly – like a waltz that dips and sways, moving to and fro with hands clasped, hearts engaged, eyes locked in heartache and hope. There’s a sparkle – a light – behind those tears.

In some patients, I see stubborn will fighting back in their tightly compressed lips. In others, I observe resignation in the way shoulders slump. I see heads bow and nod in either agreement or disagreement.

And in some, I see hope and ask, "Where does your hope come from?"
"I am but a sparrow," one patient chirped. "He will take care of me – always has – always will."

"How do you cope?" I ask another.

"I pray. I say my rosary. I cry. I blow my top."

I hear strength. "Where does that strength come from?"

"I’ve had so many kids and grandkids – they keep me going," a patient heralds.

Another commends, "I am being cared for so well. The nurses and doctors – I trust them."

Inside these hospital walls resides the pressure of illness, the hard work of searching for hope and the fear of the unknown. There is spiritual tension between patient and chaplain as to where they will go in pastoral conversation.

Perhaps this strange and unfamiliar land – this uncharted territory of being a chaplain is where one finds the greatest meaning in relationship with oneself, with loved ones, with friends and with God.

Perhaps here in the isolation of illness one is walking on the most holy ground.

Being pastoral is letting go of your intent and going with the patient’s need.

Being pastoral is being with the person in the moment: accept the status, be patient with unanswered questions, bear the burden of the loneliness of the situation, acknowledge and embrace the direction even though it seems an aimless one, remain with hope and faith.

How have you been pastoral today?
2009 © Copyright Paula Damon. A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her columns have won first-place in National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women Communications Contests. In the 2009 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, Paula's columns took three first-place awards. To contact Paula, email, follow her blog at and find her on Facebook.

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