by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: You are a chaplain at a hospice facility. Could you describe the process of becoming a chaplain?
Adam: Chaplains generally have advanced degrees in theology and credits in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE is the primary training for chaplaincy and is broken down into classroom and praxis work. A regular component of the classroom are personal case studies. This is an opportunity to reflect on a particularly challenging or curious interaction with a patient and receive feedback from the instructor and other students. A major concept of CPE is understanding who you are before you minister to others.
It is too easy to project our own experiences onto others and this is a barrier to providing unbiased care.
My most significant personal and professional formation has come from my CPE experience.
Dr. Knight: You are the chaplain covering the issues of hospice. What does that entail? In other words what does being a chaplain entail? How would you encourage another to become a chaplain?
Adam: I serve at a hospice facility. A hospice patient is someone who has a terminal diagnosis of 6 months or less. My specific area of ministry is in the areas of spiritual and grief counseling. The primary spiritual and grief issues that arise from patients and families are: Why hasn’t God taken me yet? I just want my loved one to die comfortably. Should I give comfort medications to my loved one? If so, how much? How do I resolve the guilt that my loved one wanted to die at home and now is at the facility? How will I cope with a life without my spouse, parent, sibling, child? The role of the chaplain is to provide a space for a person to process these issues. Many times they need a third party to lay out their concerns. Chaplains apply the strengths, principles and values of the person to ground them in their current issue. Chaplains also provide education on hospice issues such as the ethics surrounding comfort medications, what to look for when a person is near the end of life, and rituals to honor a person’s life. I would encourage others to be a chaplain if they feel a call to support a person within that person’s own spiritual beliefs.
Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a chaplain?
Adam: My first personal experience with a chaplain happened when I was in the hospital. I was admitted in a mental health unit after a series of undiagnosed bipolar episodes. I was discerning my life as a Jesuit priest. I felt utterly defeated, full of shame and doubt. The hospital chaplain provided space where I could feel God’s clear presence. I do not remember a single word he uttered but he provided what later proved to be a model during my challenging times as a chaplain. I vividly remember that he was there to weather my personal storm with me. He also provided me with a book that I cherish, The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen which is a story about how our personal wounds, like the wounds of Christ are not to be feared or ones we should hide. Our wounds are beautiful and have much to offer.
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how your Catholic faith plays into being a chaplain? What significance does that have for you?
Adam: It is natural for me to take on the mindset of being a “Catholic chaplain” instead of the necessity of being a chaplain who happens to be Catholic. A chaplain does not promote any religion or beliefs. The primary role is to serve the specific spiritual needs asked by the hospice patient. So the question is, who am I for this person who might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other? My Catholic faith has revealed to me the gift of God’s infinite love. That is a universal love which goes by many names. A hospice chaplain invites a person to share their story. Afterwards, the chaplain reverently lifts up the evidence of being deeply beloved. There is nothing better for me than being reminded that God is madly in love with us.
Dr. Knight: This question has to do with taking care of yourself as both our physical and spiritual life dictates. So what is your favorite book at this time?
Adam: In all honesty,, my favorite book right now is written by my brother, Marcus Mescher
The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity . It is an experience of Lectio Divina . I often will read just a few pages and come across a sentence or phrase that I spend the next half an hour praying with. One example is when he writes, “Duties to our neighbors are rooted in a reverence for God present in every person.” That causes me to move into a place of awe of God. That awe is available with every encounter with my wife, daughter, patients and every other person I will meet that day. Finally, Marcus holds me accountable and reminds me that I have a responsibility to that awe experience by caring for my neighbor.
Dr. Knight: As a chaplain you are able to educate and spiritually form many people in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?
Adam: I think of those who can benefit from spiritual care for those who believe they are no longer spiritual because as they have gotten older, they have grown more isolated from their church. I think of our hospice staff who deserve the best spiritual food for their daily labors. Finally I think of the Anointing of the Sick Sacrament and how it is greatly misunderstood by older Catholics, non-Catholic children advocating for their Catholic parents, and hospice staff trying to honor patients’ wishes. I enjoy sharing the fullness of this beautiful ritual that can unfold with the whole family at the bedside of a person being healed in mind, body and soul.
Dr. Knight: Do you think that Art and Music assist people in getting to a more successful position in their illness? What are some of your favorite pieces that help people in their recovery?
Adam: I have worked with professionally trained Music Therapists who provide evidence daily of the improvement of one’s position in their illness through music. In one of my most recent experiences, I was visiting a patient who was in her final week(s) of life. All it took was picking up some CD cases she had on her nightstand and by naming Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin. Immediately she began to wake up and open up more than usual without the common anxious ticks she had of picking at her hair.
The most effective way to assist people in finding peace through music is by finding the pieces that are most personal to them and playing it back to them. A musical resource I use is “Spiritual Eldercare,” which is a YouTube subscription I use when I am working with patients who have dementia care needs.
Dr. Knight: Thank you for doing this interview to help all of us understand your work better and to live a life in Communion with Christ.