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My death and resurrection as a chaplain

During his days interning as a hospital chaplain, Eric Nolin found a new understanding of life in Christ, even though it felt like death to get there.

Woman mourns her husband, who died in a hospital.

Photo by sudok1.

During the early days, I cried a lot. I cried as I pulled into the parking lot. I cried when I drove home. Half the time I didn’t even know why I was crying. All I knew was that the pain had to get out.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started interning as a hospital chaplain in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I knew there would be tears. I just didn’t expect that many.

For six months, my peers and I, guided under the gentle tutelage of our supervisor, practiced the sacred art of hospital ministry. We learned how to care for the sick and the lonely. We learned how to listen to the frightened and the angry. We learned how to guard the dignity of the dead and dying.

But bearing witness to suffering is never easy. It wasn’t for me.

I remember my first patient who died. I saw him early in the morning, one of my first visits as I did my rounds. The lights were dimmed low in his room. He was lying down. I was startled to find restraints on his wrists, binding him to the hospital bed.

When I spoke, I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. He gazed off into the distance, to somewhere far away. Eventually, he looked toward me, but it felt like he looked through me, not really seeing me. He whispered, his voice weak, “Help me.” He tried to reach for my hands, but the restraints kept his hands from going too far. I froze.

This was the time of COVID when the rules of physical contact were strict, and as a new chaplain, I was still too timid to cross that boundary and risk the intimacy of physical touch.

I tried to speak to him again, but he looked away, his gaze returning to that faraway place. “Help me,” he whispered. Nervous and afraid, I spoke a little prayer. I don’t even know if he heard me. In the silence that followed, I bowed my head and slipped away.

Around midday, just after lunch, a call came over the intercom. It was a code — a patient was dying. A patient was dying on my floor. Dread settled in the pit of my stomach: There was only one person it could be.

When I arrived on the floor, my fears were confirmed. Nurses and technicians huddled around the door to the room of my patient. I joined them, looking on, helpless, as the team tried to save him. Later, I sat with his wife, holding her tissues as she wept. I went to get his son when he got off the elevator. I held space while they grieved together. That afternoon passed in a haze. It was only later that my pain finally came to the surface.

I felt shame and fear as I remembered and analyzed every painful second of that experience. Had I somehow failed this man and his family? What more could I have done? Had I somehow let God down by being so timid?

Questions like these haunted me, but the beauty of chaplaincy is that I did not have to confront these demons alone. In the tender care of community, my supervisor and peers drew my eyes back to the image of Christ.

I found that suffering has a ripple effect. It echoes outward and nothing is safe from its touch. Buffeted by the waves of suffering, my soul was shaken, and in the shaking much came loose.

Being close to suffering revealed years of scar tissue buried in my heart. Our supervisor knew this would happen, and she prepared us accordingly. One of the first tasks we were given as chaplains was deep introspection — rooting around inside the dark parts of our souls to see what demons lingered there.

I found that suffering has a ripple effect. It echoes outward and nothing is safe from its touch. Buffeted by the waves of suffering, my soul was shaken, and in the shaking much came loose.

Walking down the hall of the hospital on the way to see a patient one day, I began to hyperventilate. My heart rate sky rocked. Why?

Moments like this turned into opportunities for me to question what was happening inside. In the introspection that followed, I confronted fears that had dogged me all my life — fears of failure, of inadequacy, of helplessness. Fears of mortality and fears of suffering.

Like lead weights, these fears clung to my soul, stimulating my insecurity. They functioned like barriers between me and others. They led to jealousy toward my fellow chaplains. They led me to feel intimidated by the nursing staff.  They led me to fear my patients. I feared being found out and known as a fraud.

Suffering was frightening because it reminded me of my helpless mortality. Yet it was my moments of greatest weakness, that something began to happen.

I can’t really describe how or when the healing started to take place. Somehow, like squeezing dirty water from a sponge, the Spirit was squeezing the woundedness out of my soul. The pain, my pain, needed to get out — all the rage, anger, hurt, fear, and desperation flowing upward toward heaven. As this happened, something started to shift within. What had once been a knot of personal pain and suffering became a space of peace. And in this new space, I found I had the capacity to hold the pain, fear, rage, hurt and desperation of others.

What had once been a knot of personal pain and suffering became a space of peace.

It was difficult to stand in the room with the family as their loved one died, even as the ventilator pumped breath through his lungs. Everything in my body wanted to turn away, to look away, to not witness this terrible suffering — their tears, his lifeless form, the helplessness of the nurses trying so hard to save him. How could I hold all this pain? In that new space of peace that had formed within my soul.

A part of me had to die during chaplaincy, a chunk of that old, wounded self, to make space for this new capacity. There was death in those tears that I shed. And this wasn’t death as in repressing or forgetting. It was an intense turning towards — turning towards the wounded me inside — and it was healing marked by self-forgiveness and self-love. Christ held my hand the whole time and took the weight of my scars. And I was free. Ultimately, I was made new, even though it felt like death to get there.

I wish I could say it got easier, but suffering is never easy. What changed was my capacity to hold it.  This is something in the death-resurrection process that thickens the tensile strength of the soul. Empowered in new ways by the Spirit, I could look at suffering, knowing that I was not alone. Christ was there.

In this union, I was finally able to love without restraint. I became more fearless with my touch, holding every hand that was offered to me. I could finally see past my fear and pain to see the person in front of me.

What is so profound about the whole experience is that Christ is the healer. The healing, when it happened, was empowered by something outside of me. There was always a third person in the room, and it was Jesus.

Ultimately, I was made new, even though it felt like death to get there.

Moreover, I could finally see the suffering Christ in my patients. It is the same suffering that Jesus experienced on the cross. There is no pain he does not know. He bled and cried and died for each person who bleeds and cries and dies. He wants no one to be alone. When he said, “What you did for the least of these, you did also for me,” he meant it precisely because he is with those who are pained by terrible suffering. It is for these that his mercy is greatest. We cannot ever conjoin with those who suffer in the same way that Christ does, but we can offer the humble gift of compassionate mercy so that no one must walk the path of suffering alone.