When the television show, ER, added the character of a chaplain to the cast, I was delighted. Finally, I thought, more people are going to see what it is that a chaplain does, before they are faced with their own health crisis, or the crisis of a loved one, and meet a chaplain for the first time.
At first I liked this new character and could relate to her somewhat offbeat and irreverent approach to the job, noting that she made that important distinction between spirituality and religion. Not everyone gets that, so I thought the writers had really done their homework before writing this character.
That confidence faltered a bit when the story line shifted to being more about her relationship with the doctor than her job. I was disappointed at this focus shift, but the little bits in story lines about her job still rang true for the most part, so I continued to cheer for her.
The cheering faded during a recent episode when the chaplain fled from a patient who was asking her for forgiveness. The patient, who was a doctor, had worked in a prison as an executioner. In his later years, he came to regret what he had done and set out to seek forgiveness, believing that his deeds were so terrible there was no way God could forgive him unless he somehow made restitution first.
Driven by the need to assuage his guilt, this doctor spent a number of years seeking out the families of the people he executed to offer a gesture of restitution. Sometimes it was through a gift of money, and other times offering some other kind of assistance. Still his guilt overwhelmed him, and now he was on his deathbed, terrified that he had no hope of salvation.
The chaplain was called in to help this man find peace, but she couldn’t do it. Instead of entering the place where he was and giving him the assurance that God could forgive him and would accept his atonement, she tried to counter the man’s need for forgiveness. He finally screamed at her to get out, and she fled.
Of course, this conflict added to the drama of the show, but in real life, the chaplain would need to put aside her personal theology and give the patient what he or she needs to be at peace. If that means going against a personal belief, so be it.
I learned early on in my training that it isn’t about me and what I believe. It is about the patient and what he or she believes. I can share my theology, and have done so at times, but more often I am working within the bounds of a patient’s theology. And I firmly believe that is the way it should be.
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