Beyond Words: Providing Spiritual Care Without Speaking
When I first heard about spiritual direction many years ago, I was intrigued but a tad skeptical (I don’t need anyone to direct MY spirituality).
When I learned that Columbia Theological Seminary was going to begin a spiritual direction certificate program, I had been a hospice chaplain for 8 years.
I thought perhaps the training could help me be a better chaplain.
But I also thought, “I already know how to listen and pray. How could it possibly help me?”
I decided to enter the program anyway, and I’m ever glad I did.
I began the program simply hoping to become a better chaplain, but spiritually, the experience took me far deeper than that.
Most of my hospice patients have dementia, so I spend a good bit of my ministry unable to converse as I provide spiritual care.
I provide a lot of pastoral presence, music, and prayer—but not conversation as we normally think about it. How could spiritual direction training possibly help with that situation?
Throughout the certificate program, we talked about ways to listen more deeply and compassionately, to be truly present, and as I continued through the program, I found my pastoral presence becoming more meaningful and heartfelt.
We learned the value of sacred space, listening to our bodies, and trying not to “fix” anyone.
That last point especially registered with me because I definitely could not “fix” someone with dementia.
But, even beyond that, I also could not “fix” the families of my patients.
Those families are in an unenviable position: waiting for their loved one’s life to end while trying to discern how to be a caregiver to someone who may not be able to respond to them—and may no longer even recognize them.
In the program, by learning from our teachers, by sharing with each other, and by practicing spiritual direction with wise mentors, we became increasingly aware of how the Holy Spirit guides and undergirds each moment we spend providing pastoral presence and spiritual direction.
So I learned more clearly how to pray for those families and how to support them.
By knowing I can’t fix them, I saw how I can be a compassionate presence for them.
I realized that my best ministry to them is not to tell them what to do but be present with their anxieties, their frustration at what the disease of dementia has brought them, and with their (often) long, slow journey through the haze and maze of being a dementia caregiver.
When I visit a patient with dementia, I’m not listening very much to someone talking, but, through spiritual direction training, I realized that when I am present—really present—with someone, I am, in fact, deeply listening.
With my whole self.
With my body, heart, and soul.
That presence can be healing as the Holy Spirit surrounds and fills us.
During one practice session at Columbia, I listened as another student in our cohort described her frustrations with a religious organization she was a part of.
I asked a few questions, listened compassionately, and avoided giving advice.
At the end of our time together, we didn’t really “solve the problem,” but she found some clarity regarding how she felt, and she began thinking of ways she could participate in the organization in a positive, prayerful way.
Spiritual direction training added depth to my listening and to my praying.
I became even more clear than I had been before how the Holy Spirit surrounds and infuses every conversation with a directee, with a hospice patient, or with hospice families.
To seek out your own spiritual direction experience, enroll in the Spiritual Direction Certificate program by clicking here!
Jerry Gentry is a Chaplain at Crossroads Hospice Atlanta GA and CLL Spiritual Direction Program graduate.