How Hospital Chaplains Pray in a Crisis

Four chaplains on how they are praying for patients during these stressful times.

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Posted in , Apr 20, 2020

Prayer in a hospital

In the past few days, I have spoken to four hospital chaplains in the New York area, representing a wide spectrum of beliefs: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist. In the best of times, these chaplains are dedicated to addressing the spiritual needs of patients. They pray, they support the staff; most importantly, they listen. But in these stressful times they are the front lines of a crisis. How could we help them and learn from them?

Remote Prayer
Like so many others, the chaplains can’t see patients face-to-face right now. They can only make calls to a bedside or speak to family members. One described the scene of self-isolating in her office, seeing the ambulances arrive and offering her prayers from a distance.

Like the chaplains in this current situation, our prayers can only be remote. But then, does prayer really hold any bounds? As another chaplain pointed out, “God is already in that patient’s room. It’s not just because I walk in there.”

Alone But Not Alone
In life or death situations like this, families can normally be present at a hospital bedside. Not now. The risks are too great. One chaplain found himself unexpectedly a patient in the E.R., his spouse unable to join him. “I’d never felt so alone,” he said. Even at a hospital where he knew so many of the staff.

Listening to him, I thought of how Jesus often went off by Himself to pray. Alone but not alone. Would that every patient in such a situation know that divine Presence.

Butterflies for Covid-19 patients.
     Sample of a butterfly wall for patients at
     White Plains Hospital in Westchester County,
     New York

The Indwelling Presence of God
That was how Chaplain Mary described her prayers. Patients can come from all kinds of faith traditions. She helps them look for the divine that’s in all of us. “That universal goodness of energy and hope.”

As she says, no matter what their faith background, they’re all appreciative of prayer. Aren’t we all? At night before I go to sleep, I close my eyes and picture the hospital that is only 15 blocks away and all the workers there and the patients. May they know God’s goodness.

Present in the Suffering
Chaplain Ruth described how important she found it to be present to the person’s suffering. Even if that means finding the glass “only half-full.” Sometimes a family member will want to paint a rosier picture. Other times they need the opportunity to voice their worst fears.

I was struck by how these chaplains, spiritual healers, are such good listeners. A reminder of how God is always the Listener, present in our suffering, ready to hear of our pains.

Spontaneous Prayer
This struck me as the profound lesson for all of us, whether we know someone who is a patient in this crisis, whether we can reach them or not. Now is not a moment to censor our prayers. May they be heartfelt. Honest, unadorned and shared.

Never Giving Up Hope
At White Plains Hospital in New York, whenever a COVID-19 patient is discharged, he or she is celebrated with a round of applause from the staff and the image of a butterfly goes up on the wall, one for every discharged patient.

The lobby wall has hundreds of butterflies now, a sign of hope for the staff and all who enter. A reminder to all of us in our prayers, never ever give up hope. 

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