WHEN I was a divinity-school student and had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital, a professor asked me about my job. I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.
“I talk to the patients,” I told him.
“You talk to patients? Tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?” he asked.
I hadn’t really thought about that before. I tried to quickly run through my memories of what the dozen or so people I’d met actually talked about. I was really intimidated by this professor, and didn’t want to look stupid, but all I could come up with was “Mostly we talk about their families.”
“Do you talk about God?”
“Umm, not usually.”
“Or their religion?”
“Not so much.”
“The meaning of their lives?”
“And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”
“Well”, I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”
I felt derision creeping into the professor’s voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”
“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”
“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair.
A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor’s crowded class, he started to tell a story about a student he’d once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.
“I asked her, ‘What exactly do you do as a chaplain?’ She replied, ‘Well, I talk to people about their families.’” He paused for effect. “And that was this student’s understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person’s spiritual life went! Talking about other people’s families!”
My classmates laughed at the shallow student. The professor was on a roll. “I thought to myself”, he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would want to see is some student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”
My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that, maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.
Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain, they would talk about God.
TODAY, more than 15 years later, if you were to ask me the same question — What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? — I would give you the same answer: Mostly, they talk about their families, their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.
They talk about the love they felt and the love they gave. Often they talk about the love they didn’t receive or the love they didn’t know how to offer, or about the love they withheld or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.
They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach out their hands to things I cannot see and they call their parents’ names: Mama, Daddy, Mother.
What I didn’t understand when I was a student, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.
We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.
Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it. It’s probably the first place where we’ve been hurt by someone we love, and, if we’re fortunate, it’s the place where we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection. This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately it’s where they end.
I have seen such expressions of love. A husband who gently washes his wife’s face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognised her for years. A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband’s no-longer-breathing body before she helps the undertaker lift him on to the waiting stretcher.
The meaning of our lives cannot be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues. It’s discovered through these acts of love. If God is love — and I believe that to be true — then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.
The remarkable thing about this crucible of love is that the love we experience in our families doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect, because none of us is perfect.
Sometimes, that love is not only imperfect: it seems to be missing entirely. Monstrous things happen in families. Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person they love beats them or rapes them. They tell me what it feels like to know that they’re utterly unwanted by their parents. They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone’s rage. They tell me what it feels like to know that they abandoned their children, or that their drinking destroyed their family, or that they failed to care for those who needed them.
Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul. Even the people who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved. They somehow know love by its absence. They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.
When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned: forgiveness. The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.
That work is the gift we give each other, for there is little in this world people long for more than to be loved and to be forgiven by their mothers and fathers, daughters and sons.
On Living: Dancing more, working less and other last thoughts by Kerry Egan is published by Penguin Life, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).