Chaplaincy, especially formal Clinical Pastoral Education, is a creature of institutions. I have no institution now. But I have a history with institutions and will reflect a bit on that. My formal beginner’s Clinical Pastoral Education was done in a large midwestern regional hospital. At that point I was in the midst of a four-year course of study at Meadville/Lombard Theological School wrapped around a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. All of this means written contractual standards, agreements, emoluments and so on, including theologies. A structure of daunting complexity and subtlety.
I was forty years old. I had survived a tumultuous marriage to a sculptor (white but entwined religiously with tribal people), a decade of teaching on the Blackfeet Reservation, and five years as an animal control officer. I’d faced massacre, abandonment, intimacy, sex, drugs, death and rock ‘n roll in a rough-and-ready way with little training. (One of my major contributions at animal control was developing the first primitive beginnings of training for AC officers who worked alongside the Portland Police.) I’d been suicidal, murderous, despairing and exalted -- not always on Christian terms, mostly an iconoclast.
My denominational identification was with the Unitarian Universalist Association. I suppose it still is, though I was dropped from fellowship at my request in 1988 and belong to no congregation now. UU theology is mostly defined by some general principles and an amorphous response to the specific situation.
One of my major issues was authority -- who has authority? On what is authority based? Is hierarchy effective? What if it’s corrupt? Is authority a matter of being effective? What is the authority of “The Book,” and dogma? The jewels in the crown of CPE are the stories of the people. I have no need to disguise their names, because I can’t remember the names, but I can’t remove some characteristics because that would destroy the point. They are my touchstones when I think about these issues.
In the first story, I was called to help an Hispanic woman whose baby had died inside her. Labor-inducing drugs (very unpleasant) had been given to her and in part my job was holding a bowl while she vomited into it. She had been brought in by Mercy Flight and had no relative with her. I have never been pregnant but I’m comfortable with Indians/Indios and so she was in the position of teaching me all about what was happening.
This was maybe her twelfth pregnancy, though she was about thirty. She had lost some of them. She drank quite a bit. She felt that this baby had died, not because of the drinking, but because God was angry that all her children had different fathers -- the men had come and gone without marriage. She confided that her last baby had lived but had been a monster: what she described was severe fetal alcohol syndrome, but she didn’t seem to know that’s what it was. She said she was glad the baby was a boy because his face was badly mismatched -- the two sides had not grown together properly. Because he was so “ugly” she had been afraid of becoming pregnant again and asked her priest about birth control. No. She could hardly feed the babies she had, but no.
She was pregnant again too soon and her doctor said she should have an abortion, but again the priest said no. She was very worried about what this dead baby would look like. It turned out to be a perfectly formed (on the outside) girl. The nurses, who didn’t have much use for the mother, were full of pity for the baby. The mother was given a card with a photo of the baby and a footprint. One nurse suggested baptising the baby.
This was a time period when the Catholic Church was trying to authenticate and renew their Sacraments, especially since the media had managed to convince so many people of the efficacy of baptism, practically raising people from the dead. Baptism is a sacrament for living people to indicate their determination or the support of their religious community in living a Christian life. It is meant to wash away sins and signal a new beginning. A dead baby cannot be baptised because there is no beginning at all, no need for forgiveness or washing away of sin since even dead pre-natal babies were immersed in the sacred water of amniotic fluid (okay?) until delivery. I had a Catholic girlfriend in childhood (she’s still a friend) and we spent many a summer afternoon on the front steps debating these issues and passing judgment on such arrangements as “limbo.” At that point in seminary I had no formal training about Catholic theology.
The mother became fixated on getting this baby baptised. I called her priest: no. By now the mother’s family (at least the females) had arrived and were taking care of her. I was worried about coming between this woman and her priest because I knew she was getting much needed money from him. Anyway, we were being taught to abide by the patient’s theology rather than our own. I’d have been happy to bless, to dedicate, or whatever, but the mother specified baptism.
By this time the head nurse, a good Catholic, had become emotionally involved and ripped into me. I was forcing that poor baby to stand outside on the cold marble steps of the Pearly Gates rather than opening them up with baptism! To her, this metaphor was quite real. Catholic dogma allows believing Catholics to perform as priests in the absence of any consecrated person, so in the end the nurse solved the problem by simply baptising the baby herself. The patient and her family, who had brought along an elaborate christening dress for the dead baby, were very pleased.
Just before the patient left for home, I visited to say goodbye. She beckoned me in close so she could whisper and show me an envelope in her pillowcase stuffed with money. “Baptism gifts!” she explained. “Enough money to get my tubes tied. The priest -- he don’t need to know.”
This nicely literary story must be put with another. An old Italian man died. He’d been hovering for weeks and had received the Mass for the Ill several times. Again, the Catholics were trying to guide people to this ceremony and away from Extreme Unction, which the media had made into such a melodramatic plot element that everyone felt the need for it. But the ancient wife of this old man wasn’t going to get into any dogmatic debates. She wanted her priest there and she wanted her husband to have Extreme Unction and that was all there was to it.
I went to the phone and called the local priest. It was late at night and the phone rang a long time. The priest sounded very old and clearly had been awakened. I was aware that there was a shortage of priests, that the ones serving were very old, and I felt sorry. But my duty was to the old woman. I told him that Mr. So and So had passed away and that his wife was begging for Extreme Unction. “Well, if he’s already dead, I’ll come over in the morning and bless the corpse.”
I thought quickly. “Oh, Father!” I said, “Here comes the nurse. It’s a miracle. The old man has roused and he’s calling for you!”
A silence, then reluctantly. “All right. I’m coming.”
I went to stand by the elevator to intercept the priest, who luckily dressed like a priest, so I could say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Father! He’s slipped away again. I’ll walk you to the room.”
I got away with outwitting dogma that time, as had the Mexican woman with the dead baby, but how much of that can a chaplain do without being defined as out of control?
Priests, ministers, chaplains, and other religious leaders are supposed to be held to a higher ethical and moral standard than society at large and therefore they are allowed freedoms and exemptions beyond other people. Greater authority, not based on much beyond the capacity to make careful, conscientious, emotional decisions that might not be approved if known by society at large. These people are trained and vouched for by their own chosen institution, which in this case bowed to the wisdom of Clinical Pastoral Education. Our UU Director of ministry told me CPE was about the ONLY accurate reading they could get on the quality and stamina of ministers-to-be.
Most of the time chaplains in the hospital, I found, were expected to persuade people to conform, “be nice,” and obey medical personnel. To step outside those bounds, like a cop stepping outside the legal rules of arrest and restraint, is to risk the loss of everything, one’s justification for being, one’s employment.
Yet I found it a constant temptation to go outside the rules, to throw over the constraints. Once I was called to deal with a man who was “angry at God.” They said he was shouting and railing because his wife was to have surgery for cancer. They were keeping her away from him, but he was ranting and slamming things in a conference room. He said he hated God and God was evil. I was called because “you’re a Unitarian and you won’t mind the way he talks.”
So here was this big guy, crying, wailing and cursing. He said he was an evil man, a man who cheated on his wife, was mean to her and everyone else, and so on. God’s revenge was to force all this terrible suffering and probably death on his wife. And he pounded his head on the table. He wanted me to pray for God to have mercy on him.
So I went risky and contentious, too. It looked to me as though he were determined to stay the center of attention, very sorry for himself. Taking a brisk tone, I said, “This is what your God is like? He tortures the innocent? I’d just dump a God as stupid as that.” I figured if he wanted a human vengeful god, I could label Him, too. “I’d just refuse to have anything to do with Him. Get a REAL God!”
The man stopped short and stared at me. All the crying and storming evaporated. He started back up. I just looked at him.
Then he really stopped. “You aren’t a proper chaplain,” he said in a hard voice. “I want a real chaplain. Chaplains are supposed to be comforters.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m the only chaplain available at the moment.” He got up and stalked out, clear out of the building evidently. I never saw him again and I never heard about the woman.
Now, wasn’t I just doing what he was doing? Making a convenient little idol out of a great theological concept? Yes. I’d say so. Wicked? Well, I restored order in the ward.
The last story is about a doctor from that very hospital, a much-loved big Alpha doctor, an effective administrator, who was now dying -- probably only had a few days to go but was conscious. The two senior chaplains had known him, worked with him, loved and depended on him for decades. He was telling them that he had absolutely no faith, that he might just as well be buried in a shoebox in the backyard with no ceremony, like a cat. Nothing he had done meant anything. It was all a farce. The CHAPLAINS were weeping.
So they sent me in, on the principle that nothing would do any good anyway. I made my best pitch, he was unimpressed, but he sort of patted me on top of the head and said, “Nice try, little girl.” I came out whipped and frustrated. It has taken me until now to understand that I did provide something for him: another underling to dominate. Power: even flat on his back in bed, no one could tell him anything.
So what does it all mean? What I get out of it is that it’s better to do something. At least you’ll have something to learn from. I didn’t tell all of this stuff to my CPE group. I’m not telling YOU about my worst debacles -- mercifully I don’t remember much about them anymore except that I’ve never felt so powerless and abandoned in my life. I learned it was possible to live through it all, until it’s my turn to die.
Unitarians have an emblem: a flame in a chalice, which they enjoy interpreting in many ways. Since I have experience with bronze casting, I use the figure of molten metal in a crucible. The crucible must be equal to the task of containing the molten metal. A crucible of cold metal is of no use. A crucible that is overwhelmed by the molten metal is a killer. An institution contains -- well, the Spirit, I guess. If the institution is too rigid or shallow, it cannot hold the Spirit or might even quench it. If the institution is well matched to the fire within it, it is a protection and guide.
What is my institution? Or should the question be what’s my chalice? I have no desire to sign on as a hospital or prison chaplain. But don’t I need a context to be a chaplain in any community? Or can I just be an old retired woman in a small Montana village and still occasionally flare up?