(This post is part of the ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
“Why do we look down?” I asked my grandmother one Sunday after prayer time in church. “Isn’t God up in heaven? How come we don’t pray looking up?” My childhood question was a sincere one, but I don’t worry so much now about the right posture for praying. As a hospital chaplain, I have seen and participated in countless forms of prayer. I no longer think that God would be more likely to hear us if we looked in the right direction. Anytime we pray — and I believe we all do, whether or not we call it prayer — we are somehow looking for, reaching out for God.
My job allows me to hear and be part of many formal prayers from different religious traditions. I have prayed the Shema with a Jewish patient (at least as far as my one semester of Hebrew would take me). I have helped Muslim family members find the right direction so they could pray facing Mecca before their loved one went into surgery. I have used The Book of Common Prayer to pray with Episcopal and Anglican families. With many, many Christian patients and their families I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father. I once prayed the rosary in Portuguese with a woman whose son was gravely ill. She spoke English well enough, but said it just didn’t feel right to pray in anything but her native tongue. Over and over again she repeated the words, holding tightly to my hand, and eventually I learned the sounds well enough to repeat some of them with her. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese, but I’m always trying to become fluent in the language of prayer.
Often in the crisis situations so common within the walls of the hospital, prayer is much less formal. Sometimes it comes out in a wailing plea for help. Sometimes it is a terrified whisper of, “Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God . . .” or “Jesus Jesus Jesus . . .” or words and sounds in a language I don’t even recognize. Plenty of times it is silence. I’ve learned over the years that there are lots of different kinds of silence. Most of us know awkward silence, angry silence, restful silence. But there’s also a kind of active, reaching, searching silence. At times I can almost feel the struggle going on in the person I’m sitting with, wanting so badly to understand the incomprehensible tragedy that has befallen them, but more than anything hoping — and fearing to hope — that there’s some meaning in this and everything else they’ve been through, that there’s something or Someone greater than themselves who is on their side.
My own prayer as I drove to the hospital each day during my first unit of CPE used to be, “Dear God, please don’t let me pass out or throw up.” These days I’m more likely to pray something like, “God, I don’t know how to help the people I’ll meet today, but you do. You created them and you love them. Help me express that to them in all I say and do.” But in the middle of a long shift, when the pager has gone off yet again, my only prayer may be an exhausted sigh and a four letter word that slips out. When I get called to any of the pediatric units, I often pray elevator prayers like, “Jesus, she’s just a baby. Please, please, please . . .”
I get asked to pray spontaneous prayers for patients often. Before I was a chaplain, I was always a nervous wreck when I got asked to pray in front of other people. Praying at home, in my own room, maybe with the help of a favorite prayer book like the one pictured above, was very different. Prayer seemed like such a private exercise, praying publicly made me feel exposed, vulnerable. Now I anticipate the question. I can usually tell after spending a few minutes with a family or patient whether they will ask, “Chaplain, will you pray with me before you go?” I always ask, “Is there anything I need to pray for specifically?” Their answers can be deep and revealing. But at times, they have no answer. “I don’t know. Just pray as the Spirit leads,” they often say. So I bow my head (usually) and reach out. I’m still learning to pray, too, and I need all the practice I can get.