People as Sacred Texts: Chaplaincy in the Margins
By Rebecca Doverspike
The First Noble Truth in Buddhism: Life is suffering. As a chaplain, I wander the wilderness of the hospital hallways room to room, threshold to threshold, reminding myself: “Everything is included.” We work to get to know and care for one another’s spirits amid suffering—our own suffering, others’ suffering, the pervasive suffering in this world. We are each susceptible to time, each body mortal, and we are as sea to sea, moon to moon, darkness to darkness, unearthing the voice beneath the voice of our true heart. Each form holds its own honorable story’s unfolding, and, at the same time, self and other are not so separate.
At work the other day, I visited a woman who’d just had part of her leg amputated and was on palliative care, dying slowly. When I visited, she was attempting to eat dinner. She’d pushed all the carrots soggy from gravy off her plate onto the tray. Her dentures and glasses were on the plate, touching the potatoes. Her fork was moving around the turkey. She had a scab on her mouth that she picked until it bled, and her nails were long with blood underneath them. It turned my stomach. I asked her if she would like some company—I could pull up a chair. She was alone in this room, alone in all the world, dying so slowly. How could she eat without her dentures? How could she have energy to lift fork from plate to mouth without will or love? She said, “No, I really don’t. Everything is just endless. There are just endless things going on. And this, this is just an endless meal.” She moved her fork around the gravy and potatoes. I understood her meaning.
In another visit, I visited a woman who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer and it had spread all over her body, including to her brain. She’s talkative and loves animals, lives in New Hampshire, and has been grateful for the hawk that flies by her window in the hospital, circling a reminder of companionship amid a human world she’s never felt a part of. She said, “My kids wrote in chalk outside this hospital window, in the driveway across the street, ‘We love you, Mom,’ and I instantly wished that they’d have done the same for the next person in the next room.” I said, “I think love does work like that. Whenever there is an act of love, it goes everywhere in the universe. Their love for you does help heal the person in the next room.”
Suffering and love both go everywhere.
People are living human documents, sacred texts. Sometimes, conversing in chaplaincy is like writing in the margins of a beloved text or poem real-time, live-time, movement-time, rather than still-time. And in those margins, we ask open questions of the text, to know its mystery deeper, to make visible the ways in which we are in relation to that mystery, clearer. Poems allow silence to speak—they usher in from the edge of the unsayable, language illumining a path proximate to the unknown.
A woman, a stranger, intubated and sedated in the ICU. I often wonder what they can hear of the machines, the insentient beings keeping them alive while at the same time causing pain and fear (one might say the same thing of lungs and hearts—keeping us alive amid suffering). Sometimes I spend more time in the threshold of a room than in the actual room, and it may look like hesitation, it may be hesitation, but it is its own rightful space—the liminal space—gathering or dispersing prayers, witnessing the room from just outside the room.
I looked at the contacts on her chart, and all that was listed was a guardian. No next of kin or family. An arising occurred in which I felt her as alone, that the relationship with this person was only a legality. Though in the medical realm the word “guardian” denotes legality, in the spiritual realm it can reference anything from companion to angel or both. I decided to call. No answer. I left a note for my co-worker about it. He, more skilled and in God’s graces than I, connected with the guardian, who shared that the patient is very religious and would benefit from being surrounded by icons.
The next day, I placed a rosary in the patient’s hand, which seemed unable to move, though she seemed more alert. Later in the day, I returned, wanting to provide something in her line of vision. I showed her a card of Mother Mary, and she shook her head, animatedly, “Yes.” I taped the card to her bedside railing at her eye level and placed my palms together in a subtle bow. And she, ever so slowly, moved her hand. And before I could manage to relieve her of the effort by saying she needn’t move, she moved, so slowly, her other hand. And then, miniscule in time scale, as if a snail, she, so, so slowly, brought her palms together in prayer. English is not her first language; Portuguese is. So, there we were, palms together, praying in silence.
Rebecca Doverspike works as an interfaith chaplain. She holds an MDiv ’19 from Harvard Divinity School and an MFA from West Virginia University. She’s a Soto Zen Buddhist practitioner and a poet. She feels most at home in conversation with a friend while walking alongside the ocean. At HDS, she took Buddhist Chaplaincy with Chris Berlin and Compassionate Care of the Dying with Chris Berlin and Cheryl Giles.