“Ignorance is bliss” couldn’t have been truer. It was the late 1980s and my first day on the job as a chaplain for a residential substance abuse treatment program. No training or direction given, I was told to check my ignorance of the field at the door and simply jump in. Task at hand: listen to a 5th Step. I had the forethought to ask what that meant, and was told that all I had to do was sit and listen.
Listen I did, paralyzed by an accounting of rape, murder and dismembering. If it hadn’t been for the patient’s tearful sincerity, I easily could have believed I had been set up. I don’t remember other details about that 5th Step, but I recall praying fervently for it to end. What ended was my naïveté about human behavior. What began was a journey to now.
Twenty-five years later, “now” finds me at CeDAR (Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation), a residential addiction treatment program that is part of the University of Colorado Hospital at the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora, Colo. I have come full circle, so to speak, having been born on this medical campus after World War II.
It is no coincidence that I am here. It is no coincidence that I work as a chaplain, tending to the spiritual health of the patients and staff at CeDAR. Once again I am doing what I did so long ago—minus the naïveté but blessed with a fruitful and enlightening journey.
What I want to share with you is some of what I have learned about spirituality, recovery and being a chaplain in a treatment program. No academics, no theory and no speculation here—simply experience.
Focusing on the spiritual
Before going further, let me differentiate spirituality and religion. Religion is an external belief system and spirituality is an internal belief system. Both form perception that defines, colors and integrates life experience. In this article, my focus is on the spiritual.
Spirituality is the key ingredient to a contented and meaningful life. For the recovering person, spirituality is no different. Without a solid spiritual foundation, even good-intentioned recovery eventually will fall prey to the baffling and cunning power of the disease of addiction.
“Spiritual bankruptcy” is a well-known phrase in the recovery community. It is the darkness called home by addicts and alcoholics. It is the sense of hopelessness, peppered with shame and guilt. It is the reality of a cold and shivering heart that longs for the warmth found only in acceptance and love.
Fear, anger and resentment fuel choices and behavior. Alienation from self is a well-honed survival skill. With the high of using comes the bliss of disconnectedness. With the freedom of sobriety comes the bluntness of reality (“Oh no, now I’m going to have to learn to accept myself”). Enter the chaplain and the realm of the spiritual.
When interviewing for CeDAR’s chaplain position, I asked my future employer what he wanted in a chaplain. His answer was simple and direct: “I want someone to love my people.” Loving people was the easy part, something that came naturally—something I knew I could do. How to love in a way that was an effective relational treatment intervention that was conducive to recovery via a spiritual experience posed another challenge altogether.
Three main ingredients
I’ve come to understand the process as something involving three things: respect, acceptance, and presence. Addiction diligently thrives to bury the need for these common human yearnings, yet they persevere deep within the wounded spirit.
A safe environment, a supportive community and a staff that works from a heart of understanding and compassion create the foundation for the spiritual experience to become real. Subsequently, the chaplain is able to enter into the sacredness of relationship through honoring the divine that exists within each broken individual. There is no need to pussyfoot around. The “heart of the matter” is fair game; no subject is off limits.
Respect is fundamental to building a relationship. I have tremendous respect for anyone who wants to grow as a human being, who accepts the need to change if he/she wants to have a life that is different—a life filled with gratitude rather than resentment, honesty with self and others instead of deceit and manipulation, and beneficial living that replaces destructive chaos. Broaching the forbidden to challenge the monsters that hide within us all is admirable work.
As an addictions chaplain, watching humility bloom into acceptance of imperfection and, hence, self is a privilege. Each patient is a precious human being who has been living in a world of emotional, psychological, spiritual and often physical pain. Even if the motivation for treatment/recovery is external, it is critical to honor the preciousness without judgment. Doing so invites the patient to risk being less defended and more open. Interacting with genuine respect for the person sitting with you is love in action.
Acceptance naturally flows from treating someone respectfully, because the essential lack of judgment comes into play. Harbored beliefs of right, wrong, moral and immoral mitigate acceptance of another human being. Acceptance of the individual is critical, even in light of unacceptable behaviors. When dealing with the fundamental value and worth of a human being, there is no room for anything but acceptance. It is imperfection meeting imperfection in the context of the gift of grace.
Presence, or being present with another person, is perhaps the most exigent task of a chaplain. Being present demands leaving agenda at the door. If your goal is to “experience” the person you are with, to understand the essence of who the person is, that person must lead you by inviting you into her/his experience. If your mind is busy with tracking data to be checked off, the opportunity is missed.