Lessons from Chaplaincy by Mia Benjamin

“Everyone has a home to go to, except me.” The patient whose hospital bed I’m sitting beside suddenly speaks without looking at me. She’s been silent for the past half hour of my chaplain visit, refusing to speak but also shaking her head each time I offer to leave. I take a deep breath and let myself feel the full weight of her words. I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 8:20. But the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. “Tell me more,” I say, and we look into each other’s eyes.

The curious thing about serving as a hospital chaplain, especially as a summer intern during Clinical Pastoral Education, is that the majority of one’s patient visits are pretty much uneventful. Yet oftentimes just when I would be feeling most useless, I’d stumble across a patient in desperate need of a reminder of the presence of God, simply a hand to hold, and an ear to listen. Then there were the patients whose words and stories still echo around in my heart, all these months later. For most of the summer, I felt at loss for what to do with those heavy sentences, other than carrying them around with me. It wasn’t until reflecting on my internship with my former Emmaus housemate, Liz Marshall, that I thought about what it might be like to pray over the words that had stuck with me and to listen, Life Together Lectio Divina-style, to what God might be saying to me through my patients. Drawing from my memories of mornings spent cross-legged on the floor of the meditation room at 40 Prescott, I constructed a devotional service for my chaplain colleagues in August. We wove together the sentences and phrases our patients had spoken to us and to God, praying their stories alongside Jesus’ story and our own.

Life Together did not turn me into a daily meditator or a Christian mystic. But the consistent practice of contemplative prayer did shape me in a profound, irreversible way. Contemplative prayer practices I learned through Life Together became skills I carried with me to seminary and still carry wherever I go—a tool in my back pocket and a shoulder to lean on when nothing else seems to connect. Most of all, Life Together gave me the gift of listening for God’s words in unexpected places and the courage to be creative about honoring their holiness with others.