“I found my way through the Eucharist. It anchored me. It gave me strength. I thought of my father’s words: ‘Remember to pray!'”
-Frater Henry Nguyen, SCJ
SCJ seminarian Frater Henry Nguyen reflects on his summer CPE experience, working as a chaplain-intern at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System in San Antonio:
“Con có cầu nguyện chưa” (Have you prayed yet?) and “Con nhớ cầu nguyện” (Remember to pray!)” were words which I often heard from my dad when I was growing up. The phrases continue to echo through my head, but no more so than they did during this past summer in the midst of my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) experience.
Another reminder that stayed with me during CPE: “Be in the moment.” Just before CPE, I listened to a TED Talk by Nora McInemy, who spoke about grief and how an individual doesn’t necessarily move on but instead, moves forward. Our past is interrelated with our present. The idea further defined my understanding of the theology of pain and suffering.
I did my CPE at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System in San Antonio. Santa Rosa’s stated mission is to “Extend the Healing Ministry of Jesus Christ.” I came to see how similar this mission is to that of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology’s vision: “To conform our world to the Heart of Christ.” Both the mission and vision speak to me as an SCJ, a Dehonian, who has chosen to live a life available with an open heart and an open mind to be a prophet of love and servant of reconciliation. [SCJ Mission Statement]
Before I was three years old, I had come to know death. I lost my mother due to complications from Lupus. Although I had experienced the loss, it took years for me to experience what grief actually is, to process it.
Was this experience of grief enough to help me accompany others in their pain, suffering and loss? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that as an SCJ, I would be able to live my call to be present, available, and always to have an open ear. I simply needed to let the Spirit to work in me and through me.
My first chaplain-intern shift was on a Saturday. I was asked to go and visit patients; until then, I had little interaction with patients on my own. I looked at my list, headed to the first floor, and then started pacing back and forth by the nurses’ station. I ran patient scenarios through my mind and tried to think of appropriate responses. But then it started to feel unauthentic. I was trying to write a script instead of simply opening my heart to another’s story.
With that list of patients, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and into the patients’ rooms.
After about two weeks I realized that I was in the midst of one of the most emotionally, physically and mentally draining weeks of my life.
But it was so worthwhile. I became more grateful and appreciative of what I had in my life and looked forward to the many opportunities that I would have in the future. I continued to think of my father’s reminders to me about the importance of prayer. But as I prayed, I realized that it wasn’t the only thing. Silence – something that initially seemed so awkward to me – was also important in my time with the patients. In the midst of chaos, a simple, silent presence is sometimes the best response, even an awkward silence.
Each day I met with patients and their families; I attempted to provide both emotional and spiritual support. Every day when I knocked on a door, I wasn’t sure what I would find on the other side. Would it be a patient or family member who welcomed my presence, or would there be rejection, and perhaps even anger?
About halfway through CPE, I found that I had become distant mentally and socially, but also physically. I had trouble processing things. Burnout. It seemed that there was no way out. I felt the workload increasing; I had more patients to see. I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to really reach out to anyone. And the list continued to get longer and longer. I started to isolate myself; others said that I was becoming withdrawn.
But eventually, I found my way through the Eucharist. It anchored me. It gave me strength. I thought of my father’s words: “Remember to pray!”
Life is precious and grief is unique. You can never be too old or too young to die or to experience the loss of another. During CPE I kept hearing the words, “pace yourself, pace yourself,” but it was hard to do. I knew that the losses of others were not mine, and I couldn’t possibly grieve them all. But it was hard not to become invested in the lives of those to whom I ministered, such as the man who went to ICU breathing his last breath with family at his side, watching him die. Or, the mother who came with her dying daughter, seeing her pass after caring for her for so long.
As I finished my last eight-hour shift as a chaplain-intern I realized that I was also completing one of the most challenging chapters of my formation as an SCJ, and perhaps, of my life. Accompanying the dying and their families changed my understanding of pain and suffering, it brought me a first-hand knowledge of the theology of grief.
In my car I had traveled over 1,400 miles from Milwaukee to San Antonio. In CPE, I traveled even further.
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