When very intense experiences happen, either good or bad -- think birth and death -- the people who are sharing them often feel bonded together. Psychology experiments have established that people who weather an ordeal together often fall in love, which the scientists try to explain in terms of hormones but the people themselves might experience as openness and trust. For a chaplain, whose job is sharing intense experiences, the management of intimacy with strangers is crucial, quite different from managing intimacy in a congregation, especially in an urban environment like a big city hospital where the persons might not meet again. In a small town the pastor is present in the hospital but also at the ball game and the Easter egg hunt so intimacy has a different dimension, often decades long.
The hospital chaplain’s intimacy might be so time-limited that it can hardly be processed. One of my CPE cohort, a young and rather naive young man entering the priesthood, visited an old lady who asked him to pray for her. He loved helping people and the warm rewards of their gratitude. Anyway, by nature he was a generous young man. So he carefully took the old lady’s hand -- having learned just recently that old lady’s hands are often arthritic and must not be squeezed -- closed his eyes and prayed. He felt very close and privileged by her trust. When he ended and looked up, the old lady had died.
This young man had never been present at a death before though he had seen movie versions. In this instance there was no change in the old lady except that she didn’t move or breathe anymore. Her eyes were already closed, her temperature was the same, the lack of muscle tension in her hand was the same. It took him a while to assimilate that.
Then he had to deal with his own grandiosity: had he somehow killed her with his prayer? Was his prayer ineffective and unable to keep her alive? What was he really praying for anyway? Was it what the old lady wanted? His felt closeness might have been an illusion. Or should he think of it at the other end of the spectrum: had he handed her through the Gates of Death as though helping her into a magnificent Golden Coach? Had he stood for a second alongside St. Peter? That felt a little TOO close.
The only other woman in my group had a different sort of event. She’d been called to Emergency to support a family whose young daughter had been struck by a car. Sitting with them while they waited to see what surgery could do, bringing them coffee, talking softly about the girl with her parents and siblings, she became deeply invested in the outcome. Until now she had kept a bit of distance, as her own family had taught her was proper on formal occasions. When the doctor finally came out with a sad face to report that they’d lost the girl, this female chaplain burst into tears the same as the family. Spontaneously, they stood and put their arms around each other, and they drew the chaplain into their midst. In a while she was able to offer a prayer, but she marveled at being included so easily.
Afterwards in our cohort group the female chaplain was tearful again as she spoke about how she had always been at the edges of every human group except her family and really expected life to be that way for her. She had not known that being a minister would draw her into other people’s grief and comfort. It was wonderful but also rather terrifying! How would she know how to act? Might she lose control?
A more peculiar kind of intimacy came when an unknown person either dead or in grave danger was brought into Emergency. Because a religious person is seen as reliable and honest, it often fell to the chaplain to go through the person’s effects, to try to figure out who they were and then to call the family. The mystery of the person’s identity was almost balanced by the mystery of how the persons called might respond. We learned to say, “Is someone with you?” And, “I have bad news.” Then allow time for processing before reporting a death.
This teaching hospital was equipped for students to watch operations. One operating room had a kind of skylight and in the upstairs was a circle of seats around a railing so that one could sit up there and see right down onto the surgeons’ hands and into the incision. We were scheduled to watch heart by-pass surgery in which veins in the legs are removed and then stitched onto the surface of the heart to aid in delivering oxygenated blood to the heart muscles. It is a procedure now largely replaced by catheters and stents, but at that time in this little town of engineers and high-level managers, a hot Saturday afternoon driving around while men were mowing lawns shirtless revealed that many of them had the telltale “zipper” scar down their chest.
Next to brain surgery, this operation was one of the most impressive and “sacred” operations the hospital could offer. We were told that this was one of the most intimate ways to relate to another human being, to literally look into the very heart of them. We were also told to bring a lunch because we wouldn’t be leaving until the end and it could take hours. Before the operation began, we prayed for the patient.
The first hour was shocking. The surgeon picked up an electric reciprocating saw and went to saw the breastbone open, but the saw was faulty. Discarding that one, he took the backup saw, and succeeded in sawing the ribcage up the front. A “spreader” was inserted and slowly cranked the ribs open. Lungs bulged out everywhere. The heart/lung machine had been pumping all along and had chilled the man’s viscera to the point where it was safe to stop the heart with an injection, but for a second we saw it beating.
Blood was all over. The staff seemed to be wading in it. The nurses sopped up blood with what looked like rags and then wrung them out into the heart/lung machine. It spattered onto the gowns and masks. The surgeons used little wands like hobby wood-burning tools to cauterize shut small bleeding vessels and every time it touched flesh a little puff of smoke went up. We weren’t able to smell, but we fancied we smelled burnt flesh. We could hear and were shocked by the easy banter and the fact that music was playing. Some were shocked by the surgeon’s taste in music, NOT classical.
The second hour we stopped holding our breath and visited a bit among ourselves. The third hour some people ate their lunches in spite of having said earlier that they would never be hungry again. The fourth hour a few were having trouble staying awake. The fifth hour the patient’s heart was started again with an electric shock. When it was stable, the ribs were closed up with stainless wire, using an ordinary fence-mending tool to twist and cut the wire. Then the patient was wheeled out. The surgeons looked up at us and gave us “thumbs up!” We were startled, having forgotten that they must know we were there.
Later we went to the recovery room to meet this man. We were cautioned not to tell him that we’d seen into his heart because it was too intimate an experience for him to process post-surgery. (Also, they may not have gotten permission to watch from his family except a blanket consent.) He was conscious but woozy and probably wouldn’t remember us visiting. We had to search to find things to say. “Hope you have a great future!” Fatuous stuff when we all wanted to say something sublimely meaningful. We always wanted to press raw experience into words instead of leaving them in the sense-impressions and internal states of dreams.
Maybe the hardest intimacy was among ourselves, the student chaplains. I don’t know of anyone who fell in love, either with patients or with colleagues. We were an earnest bunch and sometimes hurt each other badly. Than again, when the supervisor turned on one or another of us, insulting us or betraying confidences, we banded together in mutual protection. We misunderstood each other, figured each other out, developed theories about each other, and grew as much as we could. Once we left, I never contacted any of the others again and I doubt the others did either.
On the last day we went to the chapel for a little farewell ceremony. Nothing we said seemed quite adequate. We sang a song and that didn’t quite do it. The other woman student, who had spent time in Japan, saw that we were standing in a circle, holding hands. Suddenly, she raised her hands high and cried triumphantly, “Banzai!” We caught on right away. All our hands went up: “Banzai!” The supervisor was alarmed. “Not so loud! People won’t understand. I’ll be in trouble.” We shouted now, letting off steam and feeling our power, “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”
That was about enough. We went home happy.