I’ve been exploring chaplaincy for the past nine months. I’ve always felt prompted to work in the spiritual. When I was in undergrad, I strongly considered Pagan ministry, but I realized that wasn’t for me. Rather than ministering to a particular path, I wanted to work with people of all different faiths and non-faiths. I want to work with what was important to them. I didn’t know what chaplaincy was a decade ago; had I, I probably would have pursued it right out of college. Perhaps it’s better that I’ve gained some formative life experiences and have established myself in a religion (Alexandrian Craft) before coming to chaplaincy.
I used to think, like many people, that chaplaincy was a religious role. That’s not the case. Chaplains work in spiritual care–they help people identify and create meaning in their lives. Sometimes this takes a religious bent; in fact, it often does in the hospital, which is the most traditional place for chaplains. But, it doesn’t need to concern religion at all. One of the things that’s inspired me most about chaplaincy is listening to the great work that atheist and Humanist chaplains have been doing. Chaplaincy, and spiritual care in general, is a human service.
To become a certified chaplain, you need an Masters of Divinity (which I started with Cherry Hill Seminary this winter) and a number of units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I’ve reckoned CPE to clinicals that healthcare workers undertake in their education. CPE takes place in a clinical setting, and the student acts as a chaplain. The duties include responding to requests from patients for spiritual services, working with staff to keep them grounded and supported, and stepping into times of crisis and major life transitions. While in CPE, the student makes use of an action-reflection model and works with a mentor and cohort of other students to better their spiritual care practices.
I started my first unit of CPE last August, and I am just about to wrap it up. It’s been an intense period of connection, growth, and refinement. I’ve been lucky to find a program that meets my schedule needs and is also very open to my faith tradition. The ACPE–the organization that accredits CPE educators and programs–has been working on being more inclusive of non-dominant faith communities. It’s an active process, as the profession reconciles its strong Christian past (and present for many of its members) with the ever-expanding milieu of American religious life. To be sure, I encountered some growing pains, but I have overall found the environment to be one of mutual support, respect, and education. I’m looking forward to doing a second unit in the fall.
So what’s it like, being a Witch and serving as a hospital chaplain? I often wondered that before the program started. It was something that gave me pause–how would I fit in? I imagined most people would expect a chaplain to be Christian and, if not, certainly a monotheist. I thought on this a lot as I first started CPE. I eventually got some direction from a new-found friend of mine who works in professional chaplaincy: “I tell people that I’m an interfaith chaplain, because that’s who I am as a chaplain! I’m a Witch in my own practice, but for that patient, I’m there to connect them to their needs and do an interfaith ministry.” These words really struck me; they verbalized something that I felt about chaplaincy in general but didn’t have the experience to articulate. I’m so thankful for this purposeful clarity.
We use a lot of metaphors in CPE. So many human experiences can’t be put into words or nice little models. Metaphors allow us to explore the Mystery of it all. Here are four that have served me thus far, all of which have come from my Pagan upbringing and current Witch-hood.
6 of Swords
My CPE educator often compared chaplaincy to ‘getting in someone else’s boat,’ as chaplaincy functions on empathy, on being able to feel into another’s situation. I interpreted my educator’s imagery as the 6 of Swords. The chaplain creates a safe, neutral place (the boat) for the patient and the chaplain to sit with the issues at hand (swords). Together they observe the stresses that are in the current situation (tumultuous waters) and identify the places of hope going forward (the calm sea). The chaplain doesn’t solve problems, doesn’t fix anything. The issues remain, but now the patient is able to navigate the boat towards the calmer waters where they can start to work on reconciliation.
As I worked with patients, I was often reminded of Hekate, she who walks the area between life and death, who led Persephone back from Hades. As a chaplain, I did a lot of journeying with patients and their families. Sometimes this was walking between life and death. Other times it was between independence and dependence. Whatever the situation, I was there, as a torchbearer to pass along some company and some light to their current trek.
I also was reminded of Hekate as I worked with patients within their own faith tradition. I’m not a Christian, but many of my patients were, and I would often accompany them with prayer to their god. I found this to be a strength of my polytheistic worldview: I could work with people of many faiths in a very intentional and genuine way. Like Hekate reuniting Persephone with Demeter through the darkness, I could come into my patient’s nighttime and hand off their care to their god. It was transcendentally collegial.
The Sacred Poet
Stories are sacred, and perhaps none are more sacred than our life stories. I remember telling my educator how taken aback I was when, upon introducing myself as a chaplain, the patient would start spilling their deepest desires and fears to me. I didn’t feel that I deserved to know all that, especially not after just having met someone. “Of course you don’t deserve it!” she chimed. “None of us do. This is sacred ground we are walking with our patients, these are their sacred stories. If you thought you were entitled to it, this wouldn’t be the right place for you.” She had a point.
In chaplaincy, I was able to gain life experience I will never have myself. I was able to experience and feel love, loss, terror, hope, and Divinity all through the tales of my patients. I’ve been fortunate enough to call forth these stories and to watch them as the patient discusses them. I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) how to craft hope, tears, and healing from words and images. I am a sacred poet.
Chaplaincy is about being with others. It’s about using empathy to feel into their situation. It’s also about healing, about noting spiritual distress and sitting with people as they navigate it. The patient does the work; the chaplain provides the catalyst. This can be difficult, especially in our society wherein we want to fix everything. Some things can’t be fixed, and in spiritual matters, one can only change themselves.
I struggled with this, especially when I saw patients who were coping well. I wanted to be of use, to let them know that I cared by doing something. But, what could I offer? Really, I needed to find my own coping mechanism to get through these situations.
What I found was beauty. Beauty is an important concept in Alexandrian Craft, to the point that some have said, “If it’s not beautiful, then why do it?” I found that beauty was by far the best thing I could give–I could do–for my patients. Sometimes this was the beauty of human interaction, as I listened and allowed them to be heard. Sometimes beauty was pouring myself into a prayer that connected deeply with them. Sometimes beauty meant touching love as I revealed to the patient that I cared for them and was there for them should they need it. As I ended my first unit of CPE, I realized that my ministry was about bringing beauty to others.
Tiferet is often called Beauty, and it has been said that Tiferet is the highest state to which we can attain while incarnated. It’s interesting that this Beauty is also called the Christ Center, where we sacrifice Ego to glimpse the Divine Light. Perhaps, then, beauty is the most precious gift we can give one another, and perhaps being a conduit of that beauty really is what it means to for me to be an Initiate.