- GRIEF SUPPORT
- EVENTS & RESOURCES
- PHYSICIAN REFERRALS
When I was just starting as a Hospice Chaplain, I used to ask people I visited whether they had any forgiveness issues. Surprisingly, many people answered this intrusive question.
My Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor, Rev. Doug Lubbers, warned us new residents at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco that we carried a weight of authority into the room when we visited people. He said that we walk into the room, whether we intend to or not, representing God’s presence. People gave us that weight, no matter what their beliefs or lack of beliefs. Doug warned us to be careful about that authority.
So, in my earliest Chaplain job, as I was learning how to be a Chaplain, people were giving me that authority. Now, more than a dozen years later, I am much more subtle. I try to play that authority down, because it does lend weight to my words, which I would prefer to lighten. I work to be a friend and companion on the journey, and sacredness comes in, but not as an authority I represent. It is more of a background of safety and support in the room and in our conversation. I listen, and people talk, and eventually things come out in a natural way as people start to trust me and even to like me.
When I left CPE and began my work as a chaplain at Hospice of Napa Valley, I continued to ask people about forgiveness. I received some surprising answers. One man said to me, “I will never forgive President Clinton for the lies and the infidelity! He was a terrible president, and Hilary should have left him!” He repeated these words many times in the course of our journey together.
Another man said, with equal vehemence and in the very same week, “I will never forgive President Nixon! He was a crook! He was a liar! Look at what he did in Watergate!” This man also repeated these same words several times over the months I visited him.
Two hospice patients with the very same issue dealing with spiritual pain and forgiveness were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both were Christians. I was still very inexperienced as a Chaplain, so I was surprised, but I believed this was a special lesson for me. I felt God’s hand on me; I was meant to visit both of these men.
They held closely an ideal they felt was violated. Tied in with that were their political beliefs and prejudices, which supported their lack of forgiveness. I did not discover a magic key that opened up their hearts. Instead, I visited these men over the course of many months. We prayed together. And I listened to them talk about their lives, their feelings, and their beliefs.
I told them that forgiveness was important for their own peace of mind. Over time, one of them decided he needed to forgive and let it go. “It was a long time ago. We have all made mistakes,” he said. He had a very peaceful death.
The other man remained unforgiving and angry all the way to the end. He was less peaceful. He grimaced and moaned, and the nurses had to increase his medication. I was there at the very end, when he could no longer speak. I whispered in his ear that God loved him. I held his hand. I asked him to let go of his anger, and to ask for forgiveness in his mind. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, with the line “Please forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I asked God to open this man’s heart and let him know he was loved, and to forgive him his anger if he still held it. I do not know if he did let his anger go or if it was the medication finally working, but he relaxed and died soon after, looking peaceful.
I believe in God. But I am a Hospice Chaplain, so I work with many people of differing beliefs. As a Chaplain, I respect the beliefs people hold, and I work to support them in their beliefs without inserting my own. I try to discover where they do connect with the beauty and mystery of the universe, in what unique and wonderful way their spirits are fed. I believe God’s light shines in many ways; after all, is not God capable of anything? So for an Atheist, God’s light comes in a way he can accept it. I do not have to share that this is my belief. I just listen for it in the stories people tell me.
A man who said he was an Atheist told me he “felt something” when B.B. King played live in the Grace Cathedral and this man was there to hear it. Then he opened up to talk of the death of his young son. He wanted to be buried in the same grave “to be together.” He later claimed it was to save money, but I knew that his first statement, when his heart was feeling tender in the memory of B.B. King’s music, was the truth.
Another man, a Muslim who did not want to talk about religion with a woman who was not Muslim, told me about his love of poetry, so we recited poetry together. The spirit moved in the poetry as we talked.
A Hindu man, who was also a scientist, talked to me about energy healing, about the presence of starlight in the universe, about the nature of love and forgiveness, and told me “I am content to rest in the Mystery.”
We do not have to preach to find God. God is there; God finds us whether He is named or not.
A few months ago, my little dog was killed by another dog, one who was vicious and had attacked other dogs in the past. I saw the attack and later my dog died in my arms. I did not feel very forgiving of the owner of that dog. I complained to animal control and there was a hearing. Many people came to witness on both sides. Eventually there was a determination that the dog was to be given a second chance, wearing a muzzle and not allowed in common areas.
I complained to the animal control department. I complained to the administration at our apartment building, and to our community through the newsletter. Frequently, I saw the man and his dog on their walks. I could see he loved his dog, and he told me that he felt remorse over the death of mine. I started to feel sorry for the man when I heard that the administration from our apartment complex was going to make him give up his dog or make him leave. I imagined the man homeless if he refused to give up his dog. My heart softened. I forgave them.
I wrote a letter asking administration to let the man and his dog stay, as long as he kept on the muzzle so as not to endanger other dogs. So they are still here. It was hard to forgive. I had nightmares for a long time about that attack. I miss my little dog. I feel sad thinking about the walks we went on, the place he stayed at by my chair, his little ways of staring instead of barking when he needed to go out, twirling around on his hind feet for a treat. He was really a good little guy. I have a hard time seeing the other dog. But I know the man loves his dog as I loved mine. And the dog is wearing a muzzle, so he is safe to be here. Maybe all my forgiveness is not working in my heart all the time. But I am trying.
None of us is perfect. We just do the best we can. Just as I struggle with forgiveness, so do you—so does everyone. So do the people I visit who are at the end of life. Forgiveness is a necessary step in our journey. The hardest ones to forgive are our very own selves.
I went on a silent retreat with others led by the Sufi teacher Aziza Scott. This involved a morning teaching by her about the day’s focus and suggested prayers. The day and meals were all held in silence, with a chanting prayer time twice a day. We were camped in cabins and tents at the side of a nearly dry creek, in the forest, for four days. Our task was forgiveness.
We started with general prayers in preparation, teachings by and private time with Aziza. On the second day, we moved on to confession in our solitary and silent rambles through the grounds. During this time, we searched our hearts for shameful, secret sins. I discovered I had many to confess. I’ve made many mistakes in my life and have, at times, been selfish, and I’ve hurt people.
The third day, on the day of atonement, I tired to discover how I might atone for these sins. I prayed with many tears for help to open my heart, to hear God’s voice, and to find ways I could help those I had harmed to find healing. There is no way to fix the pain I caused; there are only ways to move toward healing.
On the last day, we asked for forgiveness. I was at the side of a creek when I prayed for forgiveness. I did not feel worthy. I thought I was unforgivable. With my eyes shut, I cried and prayed. Finally, emotionally exhausted, I opened my eyes. There, on the ground in front of my feet, was a heart-shaped river rock. I picked it up, marveling at the beauty of this river-hewn heart. I rose and started to walk, wondering if this was an answer from God.
As I walked, to my wonder, I found another and another of these perfectly shaped heart rocks. I picked up some but there were many more that I left in the creek. This was God’s answer to me. I knew that I was not only forgiven, but I was also beloved. I have one of those rocks in my altar now to remind me of this small miracle proving God loves me.
It is several years since my CPE, and I move much more softly when I listen for forgiveness issues. I no longer ask. I wait; I listen. Recently I visited several times with a very sweet woman. She told me she sent her husband away when he was sick. Her family was young then, but they are taking care of her now. She said, at every visit, “I sent him away.” We talked and prayed over the next visits. I didn’t tell her to forgive herself. But recently she said, “I could not take care of him.” She smiled. “I think God will understand.”
Yes, I think God understands.
One line of my favorite Sufi prayer is, “Open my heart, so I might hear thy voice, which constantly comes from within.” God created this universe. God created all us who live within it. Of course God loves us. Of course God forgives us our human failings. We then forgive each other, forgive ourselves, and even forgive God, sometimes.
Here is the Sufi prayer Khatum, as related by Hazrat Inayat Khan:
O thou, who art the perfection of love, harmony, and beauty, the Lord of heaven and earth, open our hearts, that we may hear thy voice, which constantly cometh from within. Disclose to us thy divine light, which is hidden in our souls, that we may know and understand life better. Most merciful and compassionate God, give us thy great goodness; teach us thy loving forgiveness; raise us above the distinctions and differences which divide us; send us the peace of thy divine spirit, and unite us all in thy perfect being.