By Nan Gregory (from a homily delivered February 8, 2015)
Each year the Lay Chaplains of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver are asked to conduct a service. For the 2015 service, I chose as the topic for my short homily one of the secondary purposes of the Lay Chaplaincy program: “To enhance the spiritual growth and development of Lay Chaplains.” This is what I wrote.
I’m no expert myself in spiritual matters, so I called up some retired Lay Chaplains I know and asked them to give me a hand. “What was your spiritual experience with Lay Chaplaincy?” I asked them.
I’ll share with you now some of what I heard.
It turns out that Lay Chaplaincy is a fine place to develop and practice your spirituality if you so wish.
All of us Lay Chaplains treat our work with reverence. So it’s not surprising that everyone I spoke to told me they prepared for services, and for interviews with clients, with a time of meditation. One spoke of making a connection with her Higher Self, focusing on how she could serve her clients best, asking (I quote her words) to be “immaculate” in her conversations with them. Others spoke of calling on the Mystery or connecting with the Mystery, or more prosaically, simply centering, or setting themselves aside.
Other than this one commonality, I was impressed by the range of different answers I got regarding Lay Chaplaincy’s experiences with spirituality.
One told me that he brought the spirituality he found in other places to his work as a Lay Chaplain, but that Lay Chaplaincy itself wasn’t a particular source of spiritual growth for him. At the other end of the scale, another Lay Chaplain experienced turning points that radically changed her whole understanding of the way the world, the universe, is put together—the persistence of spirit after death, that kind of thing. It was a private breaking through of personal understanding untranslatable to others.
Ritual is an integral part of our practice as Lay Chaplains and the work we do impresses upon us its power and importance. One Lay Chaplain put it this way: “Ritual completes who we truly are. It completes our wholeness for a moment, when we’re engaged together in the sacred space surrounding the highest and lowest moments of our lives”. She called it “making a connection with the holy”.
Another Lay Chaplain said he wished there was more opportunity for ritual in his life since he retired. He spoke of how much he values the simple rituals of greeting and leaving that have become an integral part of the micro-culture of his men’s group. Another said Lay Chaplaincy taught him how to create ritual, and since then he’s done unofficial rituals for his friends: house blessings and retirement ceremonies and mortgage burnings.
A couple of Lay Chaplains mentioned that the poetry and the works of great writers and philosophers which they encountered in the course of their research had deepened their own understanding of spiritual matters.
Other Lay Chaplains’ experiences of spirituality were more visceral. One spoke of experiences she had doing outdoor services, where nature itself seemed to resonate with the ritual she was conducting. Where, for example, during a wedding in a meadow a buck and doe approached each other from the flanking woods and stood nose to nose behind the young couple as they said their vows. Another time, at a ceremony in the woods, she was asked to call the four directions. When she turned, east, south, west, a grouse, a stellar’s jay, an eagle, settled in a tree before her and when she turned north a skein of Canada geese flew overhead. She did not claim to have called forth the animals and birds. She named these moments and others like them “sacred serendipity”. Happy accidents they may have been, but nonetheless, she said she came away from them with an “unfathomably deep heart connection” with the 7th Unitarian principle: the interdependent web of all existence. She said, “Lay Chaplaincy was the making of me.” She’s now studying for the ministry.
Another Lay Chaplain spoke of her connection with love. She talked about how memorials brought home to her what was really important in life. Not accomplishments, not wealth, nothing material, but how much a person loves, how much they are loved, how much love was generated around them during their passage here on earth, and the longing and pain for those left behind when that love was lacking. She spoke of the love of a community pledging its support for a couple at their wedding or pledging ongoing care for a child at its dedication. Her spiritual practice now consists of loving people for what they need. She said that Lay Chaplaincy gave her a deep embodied knowledge of the interdependence of all our lives and of her union with all of existence. A knowing, she said, beyond philosophy.
Service is the essence of Lay Chaplaincy. One Lay Chaplain I spoke to said that since she was little she’d had an urge toward service for others. Lay Chaplaincy brought it to full flower. She said each ceremony she celebrated as Lay Chaplain added to her life and enriched her. She remembers every family, every client. She spoke of her closeness to her minister – their mutual respect and admiration, learning from and teaching each other. She sorely misses being a Lay Chaplain for the opportunity it gave her to be in sacred service to others. She’s not alone in finding Lay Chaplaincy difficult to leave behind.
In our jobs as Lay Chaplains, we intersect with the spiritual journeys of our clients. This makes for a very resonant spiritual experience. I have three years to go before I retire. What my spiritual development will prove to have been looking back I can’t yet say. Putting this short homily together for you has deepened my appreciation for the possibilities of spiritual growth that I may so far have overlooked. It’s the same for all of us. The same as for you, as you go through your own lives, the more conscious I am of myself as a spiritual being, the more I’m going to get out of it. Thank you.