One of the most interesting things about my hospital chaplaincy is that I visit patients of all faiths and no faiths every day and try to figure out how to offer them what they need from a spiritual point of view while they are in the hospital. (Even simple companionship is a spiritual practice.) While many of the patients on my floors identify as Christian (and often Roman Catholic in this very Italian part of Connecticut), each floor usually has a few Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish patients as well as atheists, agnostics, Native American spiritual practitioners, and “spiritual but not religious” people.
One of the things I learned quite early is that what the medical chart says about the patient’s religion or denomination is not necessarily what they consider themselves. I might say to a patient after a few minutes of chatting, “So, I see that you are Catholic,” and they’ll push that comment away and say, “Nah. Not for forty years.” Or I might visit a Muslim couple that has just lost a baby and ask the same thing: “I see that you are listed as Muslim.” And they will shake their heads in embarrassment and say, “Not really.”
We don’t stop there, of course. If it seems appropriate, I might ask them if they have a prayer practice, or a sense of the divine or the spiritual in their lives. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. One thing I have learned is that family members often describe the religious or spiritual inclinations of their relatives inaccurately. I often visit family members of Cardio-Thoracic ICU patients in the family waiting room before visiting the patients, and sometimes I ask the family members if the patient has a religious background or a spiritual life. They’ll often scoff and say, “No. Don’t bother.”
But I do bother, and I am surprised at the number of those patients who say, “Why, yes, I do pray every day. I have a lot of questions about God, but I don’t like religion” (or church, or Catholicism, or their relatives’ religious practices, etc.). So then we have a fascinating discussion about their questions. And I realize how much of this spiritual life they have been hiding from their relatives. It’s always interesting when the family member who claims the relative is “not religious” listens to me asking the patient about his or her religious life and discovers that their relative is a deeply spiritual person.
One major challenge of interfaith chaplaincy, especially from a Christian chaplain’s point of view, is knowing how to approach people of different religions and minister to them in an appropriate way. We Christian chaplains sometimes have to work through a barrier put up by people who have been proselytized by Christians, or even “damned” by them, for not being Christian. Obviously, hospital chaplains aren’t there to convert anyone, but rather to support them in their current situation. Sometimes, Hindu or Muslim patients will shake their heads politely but hurriedly when I mention that I am a chaplain and ask if they would like to visit. Jewish patients frequently invite me in for a conversation and seem to welcome it.
However, sometimes I do get to enjoy a visit with people of other faiths. The other day, I sat with a Muslim heart patient and his sister, and at the end of the visit, I asked if he would like me to pray for him. He agreed, and then I suddenly was very self-conscious. So I started, “Allah, the all-Merciful, the all-Compassionate,” and prayed for healing for the gentleman and blessing for the sister tending to him. At the end, there was an awkward silence, and then I hastily ended with “Amen!”
He said to me very quietly, “____ Allahu _____.” I can’t remember the words, but they were the three Arabic words said at the end of Muslim prayers, the prayer equivalent to Christians ending prayer with, “and we ask this in the name of Jesus.” I asked him to repeat it, and then he got me to repeat the Arabic phrase a few times. He translated it, and then his sister explained to me that he teaches Arabic to fellow Muslims.
It was one of my high points in interfaith chaplaincy. Another one was, at last, a long conversation with the husband of a Hindu heart patient who has had many medical challenges. I have tried to visit a couple of times before to support him in his long vigil, but he has waved me away. Finally, we had a wonderful, secular chat about his life story, a visit that touched both of us. His wife is not able to speak much, so I clasp my hands in the Hindu prayer posture and bow my head to her, and she clasps her hands back at me. We know what we’re saying to one another. As Christian Scriptures say, “The Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”