I’ve prayed all my life and yet, still, when someone asks me how to pray I’m momentarily struck dumb. I started seminary a couple years ago and working as a chaplain a year ago. Prayer is a big part of my life and yet I still find myself unsure about it. Nowhere is this uncertainty more pronounced than when I am a chaplain in the trauma bay.
When I’m doing rounds in the main hospital with patients, listening to and praying with them, my role makes sense. I feel like I’m doing something. But when I’m in the trauma bay and the doctors and nurses are rushing around trying to save a life, I say a prayer when I enter – for the patient, the doctors and nurses, and for the family of the patient. Then I’m just standing there. Sometimes for fifteen minutes or more, trying to stay out of the way, wondering just what I’m doing there.
I prayed about this question and not long after a maintenance guy at the hospital stopped to chat and unwittingly was a conduit for God’s voice. He told me over and over and over again through his story that my role was to just pray. And yet that still didn’t really answer my question since I wasn’t sure what that looked like in that context. My usual thinking around prayer is that it is either words that I’m saying to God – either in gratitude or intercession (asking for something for me or someone/something else) or it is when I’m alone, in silence, in contemplation, trying to stay still and be with God. Sometimes answers to worded prayers come in that time, but more often they come later, like with the maintenance guy.
As a person who has spent her life trying to do – in development work trying to help people get housing, as a lawyer trying to fix people’s legal problems – just standing in the trauma bay watching, just being as I’ve referred to it, is really difficult. Having been inculturated into the biological idea of healing and a world that doesn’t have much faith in a world that we can’t see, watching others “do” while I just stand there sends my brain scrambling to how I can be helpful. Sometimes I find it – whether it is conveying messages to waiting family members, or making sure the family is being called. But the vast majority of the time, I’m standing there feeling powerless and useless. This is NOT how I like to feel.
I brought this struggle up in my small group when I was a chaplain intern and one of my colleagues said that he thought that if I could just learn how to be, he suspected it would lead to great things. I took what he said to heart but I honestly am not sure I’ve made much progress in that direction in the year since he said it. Another chaplain friend made the profound observation that my struggle comes largely from, for the first time, having to make my privately held beliefs around prayer and God and healing public. She nailed it.
I believe in prayer, that we are spiritual beings, and that many of us are in need of spiritual healing in addition to whatever physical and psychic wounds we may have. By spiritual healing I do not mean that I can lay hands on my paralyzed friend and suddenly she will walk (although I have wished for that gift many times). I believe that there are many of us in this world who have been spiritually traumatized and it is the source of many of our problems. And so I seek to be a part of healing those wounds.
And yet . . . Believing all of that in the privacy of my room is very different than taking it out into the world of the trauma bay and making sense of just what I’m doing there. God has made clear that I am there to pray and I believe this includes presence and witness. But I still don’t know what’s happening when I pray. And in the context of the idea of “praying without ceasing” as Paul exhorts us to do, I’m not sure what that looks like as we go about our daily lives. As a result, standing in the trauma bay, I feel like my prayers, my presence, and my witness are simply not enough because I don’t really feel like I’m doing anything. And yet, I still feel called to be there as a chaplain.
Truth be told, I have a fantasy of being a holy person. I would love to be brave like the early martyrs and the saints. I always thought it was weird when Thomas Merton said that he wanted to be a saint. I even named my blog No Saint Jennifer partly because I was taking a stand against the shame I’d felt much of my life that I wasn’t perfect. I’m realizing that is not what being a Saint is about. I’ve felt this itch my whole life and fought against it. Partly because I didn’t understand it, and partly because it’s not a comfortable place to buck what my culture and world tells me is important and safe. Nonetheless, I’m taking this next little step to try to make some sense of my prayers – if that is even possible. Hoping to get closer to God and get some answers. Even if not perfect answers.
My “immersion” involves daily prayer and journaling following the Ignatian First Spiritual Exercises as adapted by Michael Hansen, S.J., plus reading what others have to say about prayer.
This first week of my immersion was a challenge. Not so much the sitting down to pray because I’ve been doing that even before this extra level of intentionality, but as is almost always the case for me, what I actually experienced was not what I had expected or hoped. I realized at the end of the week that I had hoped to be magically transformed into a person who is super connected to God, good at prayer, able to stay present in the moment, more patient, and, eminently comfortable in the trauma bay. That did not happen.
These disappointed expectations and hopes kept me from being present and enjoying the gifts of the prayer. The first week of the Spiritual Exercises focused on experiencing love. Each day asked me to conjure a memory of a time I felt loved. I imagined myself with my niece and nephew when they would sleep at my house and be flopped on top of me. I imagined my 50th birthday dinner as eight of my closest friends celebrated me and shared stories of their fondest memories of me. I remembered my brother Chris sending me flowers on past birthdays and being a grounding presence when I panicked while scuba diving. And I remembered my best friend and soul sister Deb flying to DC to be with me when Chris died.
While these memories were beautiful and reminders of how much love I have, I found it difficult to sit in them without being distracted by the intrusion of other memories and thoughts: 1) missing my niece and nephew as they’ve moved to Puerto Rico, 2) feeling sorry for myself that I have never been successful with romantic relationships and jealous of all but one of my friends at that dinner, 3) how much I blame myself for Chris’s suicide, and 4) all the ways I’ve failed Deb as a friend.
The beautiful thing about blogging though is I get to see myself doing this and recognize how ridiculous it is. It’s almost like a do-over. I can recognize all that love that I have in my life. Those joyful special moments aren’t going to be all the time, but they are reminders of how God’s love is manifested in each of those people in my life. I am not alone. I never have been. What a gift to receive that reminder. Now, to be able to hold on to it . . . This is, I suppose what I really want from prayer. The ability to be present to every moment and every person as they come to me and experience God’s presence in them.