I just wrapped up another volunteer shift at the local hospital. I’m in a pretty good mood (as can be attested to by the church secretary who has had the distinct honor of listening to my melodious whistling). There were only a few dozen patients to see today, each with a story to share.
I used to think that chaplains were spiritual guides of sorts – pastors without a church. But that view has slowly morphed as the number of hours I’ve volunteered have increased. Indeed, the most religious activity I perform is to offer a prayer (something which I consider a great honor – particularly when it is requested by someone who is not a person of faith).
Instead, most of my time is spent listening. I walk into a room and introduce myself, then stand and listen as words begin to flow. I lend an ear as each individual explains their situation and shares their struggles. I empathize with those trying to balance life at home and work with the extra burdens associated with the unexpected hospitalization of a loved one. I smile as a wife shares about her love for a husband. And I feel the pain of couple awaiting test results that have the potential to completely alter their lives. Perhaps my badge should read “volunteer listener” rather than “volunteer chaplain”.
The work is deeply rewarding – if only because I understand how much it can mean when someone listens, truly listens, to my own struggles. More than once, the deepest comfort I’ve been offered has come not from those desirous to “fix” my difficulties, but from someone who was more interested in just sitting with me in my grief or distress. It is those who have shared my pain who have encouraged me most. The greatest reassurance I’ve received has come from those who “have ears to hear”.
So this is what I offer others: a pair of ears and a willing heart. As a chaplain, I become a repository for the stress of those facing a delay in their plans for life. I offer a safe place to vent the frustration that accompanies a long hospital stay. And, when asked, I share in the joys and struggles of an individual’s faith journey as well.
Truthfully, there are no “quick fixes”. Healing takes time (if and when it takes place), and that time is filled with defeats as well as victories. The road is not an easy one. While I can’t offer the reassurance that difficult times aren’t in the future, I can offer the reassurance that those who face them are not alone. Someone is there to listen, to support, to hold their hand, and to offer a prayer.
Perhaps my work is spiritual after all.