What Is Brought to Light

I came to the hospital hoping it would change me. I didn’t tell anybody that, but I knew. On my application essays and to my parents, I recited my joint interest in psychology and theology as a tidy reason why I would be interested in such a thing as hospital chaplaincy. This was true, but more than anything else, I was there because I wanted to be pushed close enough to my limits to become someone new. Who, exactly, I’m not sure, but certainly a different kind of person—someone who believed in God more surely and maybe ate breakfast regularly. Someone who could handle trauma and would make more of my theology degree than a fanciful thought exercise. Someone whose work with people in pain made amends for the fact that I had never been through as much as they had. It was penance and prayer, all in one.

I started at the end of May. On my first overnight shift, I found out abruptly that most people coming to the hospital were being changed; unlike me, they hadn’t planned on it. The pager would not stop going off. I ran between the trauma bay and waiting rooms as new pages continued coming in. One man watched from the hallway as the rapid response team worked on his father. “Come on dad,” he whispered fiercely. I saw two women, each within years of my age. One died; one survived. I burst into tears abruptly in the middle of the night, lying alone in the office on the red pleather recliner we used on weekends.

The following Monday, my supervisor remarked, “You came back.” It hadn’t occurred to me not to. He asked if I remembered what I had said to him on the phone when I finished my shift. I didn’t. “Brutal,” he said gently, “you said it was brutal.”

I quickly realized my expectations were not going to be met, at least not in the way I’d imagined. I focused on getting through, and stopped aspiring to save money, have fun, or take up running again. I dutifully took to the routine of morning meeting, checking the consult list and the recently deceased list, and then heading to the floors. I knocked on doors to introduce myself and explain what pastoral care was. I started drinking two large coffees every morning and stopped being able to cry.

I visited all sorts of people, and had interactions ranging from boring to gut-wrenching with each of them. I sat with outpatients receiving chemotherapy. I talked with men who were having personal reckonings with prior years of alcoholism. Family members shooed me away, as if my entering the room would usher in death like a bad smell. I developed a soft spot for one older woman who would silently grasp for my hand whenever I visited her.

People responded in different ways to knowing I was a chaplain. Sometimes, they asked me to pray with them; other times, they took me to task for their frustrations with religion. I could sympathize. I was frustrated with it, too. I rounded; I gowned; I took meticulous notes. I felt helpless. They told me that would happen. I visited the chapel every day for a while, on the advice that it was a healthy, good practice for sustaining this sort of work. It felt empty.

I admitted to myself that I had come here chasing God. I had hoped that I would encounter God in a way I never had before if I went to the depths of suffering I had never seen before. God was at the margins, right? God was with the suffering, in the dying and in the rising. That was what I had heard, at least. Other grad students and ministers had always seemed to know something I didn’t; like they shared some confirming evidence which I could only pretend to have experienced. I had figured that if there was any place in this world where I could become convinced once-and-for-all of God’s existence, it would be here. I didn’t see God anywhere, though. I only saw death and pain and no way to make any sense of it all short of lying to myself outright.

I started to wonder if everyone who seemed to have faith was really just doing exactly that. Patients told me all the time that they trusted God had a plan for them and their illness. Lots of them prayed for miraculous healing. This was something which, while not fully endorsing, I could understand.  I could be compassionate about why someone might willfully bend around logic in the midst of an encounter with their own mortality. I felt no such gentleness toward God in my own demanding need to know if anyone was actually there.

I skirted around my doubts when leading the prayers that patients requested, sticking only to vague petitions that I thought a God I couldn’t picture or say much about might be able to accomplish. It wasn’t going to help someone to hear that I didn’t believe God was who they thought He was, that I thought their long-bearded genie was a child’s fantasy. I never prayed for miracles. I prayed aloud for people to know that they weren’t alone, and I prayed silently for that to become true by any means possible.

This was not a popular position among most of the other interns. They relied on prayers and a God who granted miracles. They loved worship music. They clucked and nodded about how an agnostic or atheist could never do this kind of work sufficiently. I wondered what they would say if I told them I was sold on God only a few days per week, and on Jesus even fewer. They speculated over lunch about the salvation of children who may or may not have been old enough to be judged as adults on their Christian faith. I desperately wanted to believe in God, but it terrified me to see that you could spend decades seeking Him and arrive only to a place that I still found so unsatisfying.

I felt less sure than ever about if there was anything necessarily all that spiritual about this work, or this world. Life seemed both darker and emptier than I had ever realized. On the subway one morning, I spent the whole forty minutes grieving the kids I had wanted to have someday. I had read an article the night before about the climate crisis, and steeled myself for a future in which it would be cruel to have even one child, let alone two. I had been daydreaming about composting, sunshine, and a baby boy someday. That morning I laid my head against the rattling wall and mourned the idea that I could even have those joys. There is nothing good in this world, I thought. Nothing good. There is death.

Early on, a staff chaplain had tried to impress upon me the acuity of the cases that made it to this hospital, but I still hadn’t understood. The people I met were so sick. At first, I thought that empty rooms meant people were recovering. I eventually realized that many of the patients who had disappeared from my floors had likely not gone home healthy, but to hospice care. A lot of them would die after they left, and I would never know. Some died at the hospital, and I did know.

A part of me felt like it was dying, too. For one, I felt like I knew too much to ever comfortably believe in God again. Beyond that was the fact that I felt deeply alone. I spent nearly all of my time outside the hospital either by myself or with a man I insisted I was not actually dating. All the people I loved lived far away, dealing with all manner of their own crises. They didn’t need to hear this, and I didn’t know quite how to explain to them what was happening to me anyway.

On one of my saddest days, I left the apartment of the man who was not my boyfriend to go home, and stumbled my way to the bookstore instead. I hadn’t told him how sad I was when I woke up that morning, and so he didn’t know. I hadn’t seen anybody else yet that day, so no one else knew, either. I went to the third floor poetry section, pulled a Rilke book off the shelf, and promptly began crying at a line which promised God is still growing. I wedged myself between shelves of foreign language dictionaries and sat there with tears rolling off my face. I ended up spending seventeen dollars I didn’t really have on a book of Mary Oliver poems. Here is a story to break your heart, she began. Are you willing?

My heart was already so broken that I could barely feel it anymore. I wondered if I would die young, and if the future that so worried me might end up not mattering. I calculated that, if the many catastrophes I had witnessed could befall any of the people in the city of Philadelphia, that one could easily someday befall me as well. I walked down the back stairs one day at the end of my shift and wondered idly about what would happen if the concrete tower all just came crashing down with me inside. I had started lying awake at night staring at a list of reasons to stay alive. I was starting to not want to.

It wasn’t just that I was burning out, that I was drenched in other people’s pain, or that I had all the genetic ingredients of a good depressive episode, though all three of those were true. All summer, I had been confronted with the harsh reality that there was no sense to suffering, at least not that I could see. People died young, or lonely, or without things being made right. I didn’t know until then how much I had relied on there being some sort of order to life, and I had no idea what to do with the fact that, up close to living and dying, I could find no order at all. I was desperate for answers. If, as it seemed, there were none to be had, I struggled to put words to why anyone should continue living.

My musings on the meaning of life were inextricably intertwined with the ones about God. If either order or God could have emerged, I would have been able to believe in the other. I had come here hoping it could turn me into a more steadfast believer. I had hoped this experience would make me into a good minister, a good Catholic, and someone who could feel close to God. Instead, I felt further away than ever.

The tipping point came, not with patients, but with my fellow interns. Instead of discussing the assigned book in our class time one week, we watched a documentary about Christians with children who had come out as LGBTQ[1]. For the most part, the families had reacted in one of two ways: they either accepted their children’s sexualities or disowned them with often-tragic consequences. Children had taken their own lives. Parents had regretted their rejections and become activists. I was not the only one changed by death, it seemed. The narration dismantled the interpretations of the Bible verses most frequently used to sanction homophobia, and illuminated the saving grace of a parent’s love and acceptance. I thought it was great.

After the film ended, the condemnation was almost immediate. After all, someone insisted, the Bible was still the word of God and it still said being gay was a sin. More of my classmates furtively glanced away from each other, and I knew they agreed, too. I folded my arms around me, stunned at their admission and shocked that I felt so devastated by it. I almost told them that just because I had finally admitted to myself that I had a boyfriend didn’t keep me from still liking girls. I shut down instead, and was reluctant to even go near my classmates afterward. Their God, their beloved biblical tenets, their love of neighbor and their professed love for me–none of them were things I could believe in.

The pain and loneliness of that afternoon hung over me for days. This summer had not been the first time I had felt little desire to continue living, but it was the first time I had felt it so intensely and for such a sustained amount of time. Such despair had only become more frequent and intense when I entered graduate school — always, it came in the midst of enormous and unanswerable questions about God, awash in other people’s trauma, and in long stretches of isolation from people with whom I felt safe to be myself. I recognized that, this time, the despair was telling me something that I had never been willing to hear before. I didn’t have to do this. I am not called to something if it makes me want to die a few times a year, I thought exultantly in the dark of my bedroom.

Chaplaincy had been another place I realized I had been hoping to find my home among believers. Most of the friends with whom I had shared the early stages of faith and doubt had since given up on religion. I had gone to graduate school instead. I had been terribly lonely there. I had waged academic and rhetorical war on every doctrine and person who said that being on the Pill and not being all that sure about transubstantiation meant I couldn’t be as Catholic as they were. Maybe I can’t, I admitted to myself. Maybe I don’t need to be.

I had been fighting and fighting to be loved, worthy, and accepted–sexuality, skepticism, irreverence for doctrine and all–into the fold. I had been trying to force myself into encountering God. I felt that if I stopped in either pursuit, I would be admitting and endorsing my own unworthiness. I would be resigning myself to live the rest of my life believing God wasn’t there. For the first time, I could see that I was allowed to back away from this fight if it risked my being, and that in backing away, life could maybe be something other than what I had told myself it must.

It felt like a rush of air, bursting above water, or light flooding in. My first certainty in a season of only darkness was this: that no matter what I was born for, no matter what God there was or was not, I was not meant to do something, anything, that made me want to die this badly. I felt like I had slammed into a joyous, relief-stricken no. There was God again, finally. Somehow, He was wrapped right up in the moment I gave myself permission to stop looking quite so hard for Him.

I hungrily embraced the newfound idea that I did not have to be able to conquer my pain around religion to live a worthwhile life, or even a spiritual one; the hope that I need not be accepted by all believers to have meaningful community. I allowed that perhaps the impulse to prove an entire tradition wrong was not actually the same as a vocation.

With only weeks left at the hospital, I held on. I stopped hoping to be able to share my whole self with my classmates, and found that they did love me quite a lot in the ways they were able to. I rested more in the ritual of meeting a college friend for drinks every week. I started taking my antidepressants again. Eventually, I told my closest friends one by one that, due to a strong cocktail of death, loneliness, and religion, I had been wanting to die.

These confessions began to bring me back to the surface of my own life. I allowed myself to be comforted by those who loved me. I told my supervisor the next week that I was probably bisexual and that I had felt horrible after the documentary. He looked at me across his desk and enunciated each word with a grieved but fierce protectiveness: You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I remember the last few weeks of my time at the hospital as ones in which the beautiful began peeking out from the gloomy. I imagine it is more likely that I had found it so all along, and I simply began allowing myself to record it as such. A patient who had been on my floor for weeks had a vivacious visitor one day. She introduced herself as his ex-wife, and explained that she driven all night to be there when she had heard he was in the hospital. I sat alone in a stiff chair across from the elevator afterwards, just breathing and looking down at my lap and notebook as if the answer to all this laid there. I marveled at the depth of her love for him, at forgiveness, and at how much sacredness I had gotten to see all summer just by showing up.

In my last few days at the hospital, it was my turn again to carry the emergency pager. I raced out of morning meeting when I got a rapid response page, fearing the worst. But it was a baby. A woman had a baby, and was coming in as I arrived in the Emergency Department. Her husband walked, shocked, alongside the gurney where she sat clutching a fuzzy-headed little boy. Standing in the same hallway where I usually ran to trauma cases, I breathed in the rarity of relief. I wondered at new life in a world in which I had only been seeing darkness. I thought of my premature grief on the train that morning, and of the fact that babies are born even amidst all that is now dying or someday will.

I went back to school mere days after I finished my internship. After a summer of consistent early rising, I soon returned to crawling out of bed barely in time for class, and definitely not in time for breakfast. My work felt different now. While my body had left the hospital, my mind had not. I took questions and desperation about patients into classrooms where no one knew them. I found no satisfactory answers. I slowly adjusted back to a kind of normal where death was a rarity, and could be given space to feel more singularly tragic. My friend’s brother died in September, and I locked myself in a bathroom stall to weep.

I thought I knew in my middle-of-the-night epiphany that I was done with theology, with church, and with ministry. No more of this for me, I thought. I have found that it is not so simple as that. I have wondered if the call of that moment was not so much to abandon faith, but to abandon the temptation to get caught up contesting death instead of embracing life. One is a losing battle, and the other is preciously limited.

I think of my patients and my time at the hospital nearly every day. It changes how I see the world, how I speak, what I say, and what I don’t. Months later, this shaped the words to the only blessing I felt I could pronounce upon a nineteen-year-old who came to tell me she wasn’t sure if she believed in God anymore: I said it was okay if she didn’t. I said it might not be permanent, but that even if it were, it was okay if she let her questions come and found that was where they led her. That she was good, that she was loved, that belief is not as easy as some would have us believe, that questions are important and healthy.

Even as this girl sat before me, in a pain I knew so well, I found in myself a shockingly steady conviction that she would ultimately be held by God. I still couldn’t picture that God or really say too much about it. I couldn’t guarantee I would still believe this was grace tomorrow, or that I would stake my hopes on knowing its presence after I die. What I did feel confident in was that this mysterious and graced light was true, that it would follow this girl in her searching, and that it would never let either of us go.

Our Dark Knowing: A Personal History of Sleep
Acts of Disobedience