“Let’s have a prayer,” Faye said. I’d been visiting Faye and her husband, Harry, since Harry’s heart transplant a few weeks back. His recovery had been lengthier and rockier than expected, but he was finally getting ready to go home. Faye was Catholic; Harry had promised her that he’d convert if he recovered. We joined hands and offered prayers of thanks to God the Father, Christ his Son, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. We vowed to do our best to benefit those less fortunate than ourselves. “You’re my rock, Chaplain Pamela,” Faye said. “Your faith has carried us through. I’ll miss you.”
As usual, I vacillated between gratitude that I could be of any help at all to people facing such trials, and the sense that I was pulling one over on good, unsuspecting folk who assumed I was as Christian as they. Could I—a JewBu chaplain-in-training unversed in Christianity—get away with praying out loud to Judeo-Christian gods while envisioning soothing waves of lovingkindness pouring forth from Avalokiteshvara? I didn’t know any of the standard prayers by heart and was ever pulling out my dog-eared prayer booklet. Was I an interfaith chaplain or a Buddhist chaplain? Would I ever feel qualified to be a chaplain at all? Three intense months of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in Philadelphia some summers ago left most questions dangling.
An increasing number of Americans who identify as Buddhist are becoming involved in chaplaincy, notably (but not exclusively) in hospitals, hospices, and prisons. Many inspiring spiritual leaders and practitioners have translated their commitment to dharma into palliative and end-of-life care for patients and their loved ones, or applied it to the experience of incarceration. The mindfulness movement is also very present in modern chaplaincy.
As it happens, dharma and chaplaincy are a great fit. So what do chaplains do? We bear witness, we breathe in, we breathe out, and sometimes we pray. We accompany patients, families, hospital personnel. We bless police officers and criminals. We teach prisoners to meditate. We conduct christenings and funerals and weddings. Above all, we listen. Incredible, isn’t it, that one might actually make a living doing this?
Typically, however, the geist and language of chaplaincy are patently theistic, even when there’s an effort to be inclusive. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a chaplain as “a priest or other Christian religious leader who performs religious services for a military roup (such as the army) or for a prison, hospital, etc.” Ciao-ciao rabbis, imams, roshis, and the rest of us.
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