When people ask me why I’m studying theology, I usually just explain, “Well, I want to work as a chaplain, preferably in hospice.” Sometimes I just get a strange look, more often I get the look along with an “…oh, okay…” Occasionally a brave person will speak up and ask me what a chaplain actually does, or why I’d want to do something so depressing. A relative told me once he wished I would do something more worthwhile with my life than prayer. Um, okay.
I did my first chaplaincy internship back in my twenties, before I had to drop out of school to deal with my fibromyalgia and migraines. This is a short story about my first hospice consult (I was terrified) which was subsequently published in our archdiocesan newspaper when they asked for submission on the question: Who Is My Neighbor?
Dwarfed by the hospital bed, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors, she was a tiny, frail elderly woman with enormous haunted dark eyes dominating a white face. A native of Poland, she spoke little English, but was nonetheless able to understand the diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer.
Six months, maybe less, to live.
I was a chaplain intern with a grand total of three weeks experience,
observing my first hospice consult. What could I, a 27-year-old graduate
student, possibly say to a lonely frightened dying woman who didn’t
even speak English?
As I stood huddled in a corner of the room and watched, a tear formed in one of those dark eyes and slid slowly down her face. Then another. And another. Her fragile body began to shake; and suddenly I found myself far from the safety of my hidden corner, my inexperience forgotten, my arms around her and my face buried against her shoulder, I dug out my little blue
plastic rosary, and as we wept and prayed together, the healing love of
Christ transcended the gulf between us, overcoming the barriers of
language and age, binding us together as fellow pilgrims walking hand in
hand on our journey home.
In truth, I have come to realize since, we are all fellow pilgrims on a journey home to the God who created us and loves us beyond our wildest imaginings. We are, indeed, our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, and we are called to bear one another’s burdens. We have more in common than we realize, as I discovered in my first hospice consult, and it is
through Christ’s love that we are able to journey with, and heal, each
And THAT is why I want to be a chaplain.