Why Listening Can Be a Gift

How I ended up working as a hospice chaplain is still a bit of a mystery to me.

When I let go of my plans to attend law school after college and instead traveled from California to New Jersey to attend a seminary, I had visions of teaching, writing, and headlining speaking tours. One of my favorite authors, Susan Howatch, wrote a book about a Catholic priest called Glamorous Powers, and I was sure that my glamorous powers were wrapped up in the quality, the insight, and the impact of my words. My first job after school landed me behind a pulpit, and everything was going according to plan. I stood up in front of a congregation every Sunday, and I talked real good.

In order to get ordained as a minister, I had to intern as a chaplain at a local hospital. Believe me, I put it off. My gifts were in preaching and teaching; what was the point of me visiting patients in hospital rooms? In other words, I was terrified. I think even then I suspected that the cloak of insight I wore was merely shabby protection from the realities of fragile human life. I am grateful that my glamorous ambitions to ordination prevailed back then because they led me into a season of life that would destroy those ambitions forever.

During the autumn of 2003, I sat with patients in the oncology wing of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California, and I did, well, nothing. At least it felt like nothing at the time; I thought I only contributed to situations when I spoke, and those afternoons with cancer patients left me mute. The power of our words has a way of fading when we sit by the bedside of those suffering post-chemotherapy. That deep insight we could offer falls flat when we’re with young children saying goodbye to their dying mother, while her utterly lost husband sits in the corner.

Whenever people ask me what in the world led me to become a full-time hospice chaplain, I tell them one particular story from that internship. It was my first Saturday on-call, which meant I was the only available chaplain in the hospital. I sat in the chaplain’s office, my breathing shallow, my ears tuned to the loudspeaker waiting for someone to announce “Code Blue.” If that happened, I was to hurry to the location of the code, find the patient’s family, and offer emotional and spiritual support. I wondered who would offer support when the nurse called a Code Blue for the chaplain who passed out in the waiting room of the ER.

In the mid-afternoon, the call came. I was summoned to the ICU to be with a large Hispanic family who were losing their patriarch. I nervously pushed the curtain to the side and introduced myself to the family. They all made eye contact with me. One woman by the bed gently nodded but no one stirred beyond that. I asked a couple of awkward questions, which received equally awkward three-word responses, and then I went silent.

I stood by the curtain, my hands clasped in front of me in some kind of a chaplain-like prayer gesture, for what felt like an hour. In reality, only ten minutes had passed. We watched the patient’s chest move up and down … until it stopped. I stayed with the family as they wept for a few more minutes, offered a brief condolence, and escaped.

I fell onto the couch in the chaplain’s office. I had failed. I had done nothing to comfort the family, said nothing to ease their pain. I questioned my calling to ministry and my adequacy for the job. I considered resigning. Maybe it wasn’t too late to go to law school.

The next week I received a card from the wife of the patient who died. It read, “Thank you for being with us in our time of grief. You are part of our family now.”

In the days prior, I had wondered whether my perceived failure had been the result of a language barrier between myself and a Spanish-speaking family. It turns out that the sacred moment of a loved one’s death is just not a time for language.

That afternoon would be the first of hundreds of times I would sit quietly with a grieving family and watch someone they love stop breathing. Three years later, I surprised everyone I know by accepting a position as a hospice chaplain, and I served in that capacity for 5 years.

The address for this website is QuietRev.com, and “Quiet Rev” could easily have been my nickname during those years. I had learned that it is in quiet that we honor the sacred and painful moments of life. I had learned that presence is more than speaking, and that words can be barriers that separate us from others and from entering the moment we are currently living.

 

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