“Did you know that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married? And the church has been hiding it for 2000 years?” The patient threw her hands out to the side and shook her head, dumbfounded.
“Are you reading The Da Vinci Code?” I asked, nodding at the book open and face down on her bed. Hospice and hospital patients love to talk about the books they are reading or have read. I know this because I’m a health care chaplain. “Yes, and I’m so glad you’re here so we can talk about this. I don’t know what to make of this book. I need to figure out what it would mean if it’s true. Do you think it’s true?”
Although I spent a month as the writer in residence at Aspen Words in September, 2015, where I wrote almost the entire draft of my last book, On Living, I’ve never thought of myself primarily as a writer. I think of myself as a chaplain, because that’s what my education and training prepared me to be and because it’s the work that has made me happiest in life.
But being a chaplain and being a writer are two sides of one coin. A writer tells stories; a chaplain listens to them. A chaplain’s work is mostly listening to people as they do the work of making meaning out of the events of their lives.
Every person is walking around with what I think of as a spiritual toolbox. It’s all the different ways people make sense of the things they cannot make sense of. It’s the tools each of use to bring order to our world when it has descended into chaos. It’s the things we use to pull ourselves out of a spiritual crisis. It’s what a chaplain helps patients tap into, so they can find meaning and purpose in their life and death.
Some people have a bounty of ways to cope, to make meaning, to reconcile with loved ones. Some have very few. For many—maybe even most people—the most important tool is religion. Prayer, ritual, scripture, and hymns can all be powerful tools to make sense of the big traumas and small disappointments that mark a life.
It’s not the only tool, however. To make meaning, people also turn to family, friends, art, music, even the scientific method. I had a patient who was a mathematician. His world may have been falling apart, but the elegant and unwavering rules of mathematics meant that there was some order and even goodness in the world.
If religion is number one in many people’s toolbox, surely literature is second. Poems memorized in high school, novels read on the beach in middle age, storybooks from childhood, memoirs from the neighborhood book club, nursery rhymes sung to them when they were babies.
A patient once asked me to read him poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another recited poem after poem by Mary Oliver from heart. A mother found, in reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to her young child, a whole new understanding of her place in the world and her imminent death. Talking about Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower led a patient to a profound meditation on the difference between toughness and strength.
Sometimes it even surprises the patients themselves which snippet of verse or half-remembered book comes back to them. It might be arcane literary fiction or a potboiler, an epic poem or one of Aesop’s fables. You never know what piece of writing will be the tool a patient needs to find meaning. For some—perhaps more than a lay person might guess—it was The Da Vinci Code.
The chaplain in me knows that we are in need of literature more than ever to help us navigate this life. I also know it is stories that can heal—prose and verse stories, our stories and the stories of others.
To have a place and the time to write the poems and stories, fiction and nonfiction, that might someday become the spiritual tools for another person is an extraordinary gift. The Aspen Words writer in residence program was a gift to me as a writer. The other stories written there, by other writers, are gifts to me as a hospice chaplain and to my patients.