The Power of Holy Listening

October 23, 2018 Length: 31:06

Chaplain Sarah Byrne-Martelli interviews St. Vladimir's Seminarian Dan Bein about his experience in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

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Ms. Sarah Byrne-Martelli: Christ is in our midst.

Mr. Dan Bein: He is and ever shall be.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Hello, and welcome to our podcast, The Wounded Healer: Visiting Christ, Visiting the Sick, Visiting Our Selves. My name is Sarah Byrne-Martelli, and I’m a chaplain at Mass General Hospital, and I am also a doctor of ministry student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. Today I have the privilege of speaking with Dan Bein, who is a seminarian at St. Vlad’s. I got to know him through our on-sites at the seminary. It’s been wonderful to get to know a lot of the seminarians when we’re there. Dan did CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) this past summer.

So starting a few years ago, especially with Fr. Adrian Budica’s help, all the seminarians in the M.Div. program are required to do one unit of clinical pastoral education. As we’ve talked about in previous podcasts, clinical pastoral education is kind of the building block to learn about chaplaincy, and in order to be board-certified as a chaplain, they require four units, which would sort of be a year full-time of clinical pastoral certification. We’ve talked about how, in a lot of ways, CPE can be a challenging experience, a joyful experience. Certainly you go in with ideas of what it might be about and with a heart for ministry, but I think God surprises us, and I think our patients surprise us.

Today I just wanted to talk with Dan about his experience. He has a few stories he wanted to share, and I think it kind of broadly reflects a theme of allowing the patient to speak to you, really allowing God to speak to you through the patient, and the power of listening in a holy way, in a peripheral way, that can facilitate real, beautiful ministry, that benefits the patient and I think benefits us, too, as we learn to live and practice and walk as ministers and as Christians.

So, Dan, if you just want to give us a brief intro about where you’re from and kind of your background, and what you thought you might experience in CPE. And thanks for being here.

Mr. Bein: Thanks for having me. I’m actually kind of from where you are. I’m from Boston originally, and I grew up living in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, but my family’s lived in Pittsburgh for about the last 12 years, so that’s where I’m from now, but at the moment I go to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, like you said, and I’m here in New York for about three years or so, and this is my second year. So I’m right in the middle of it.

I was pretty excited coming to St. Vlad’s and the seminary program with CPE. CPE is actually part of why I specifically chose St. Vlad’s. I really wanted to be able to do the prison unit that we did earlier, in our first year, and then I really wanted to do, again the hospital ministry that we did in the summer. So I really wanted to come here for that, and I really hoped that I would have some of the super-romantic—not romantic in the romance sense, but I was hoping I would have this kind of romantic experience in the hospital and everything would be all roses and sunshine, and I would come into every single room and I would know just what to say at just the right moment. Every patient would have a breakdown with me, and the nurses would be crying, too.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: And angels would sing.

Mr. Bein: Right. That’s what I assumed it would be like, and that’s basically exactly what it was. No, but it was obviously a lot tougher than I had imagined, tougher than I had hoped, but I think tougher in a good way, in a really beautiful way.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Remind me your jurisdiction—you’re in the Antiochian jurisdiction, right?

Mr. Bein: Yes, so I’m Coptic, but when I was in undergrad I went to the nearby Antiochian parish, which is where a lot of us, when we were in OCF, which is the college campus ministry, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a lot of us went to the same parish, of course at St. George. So I’m really familiar with the Antiochian Archdiocese from my time there.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Nice. So you kind of entered into this unit, and the make-up of the unit, there were people of different faith backgrounds with you, I assume, in your peer group?

Mr. Bein: Yeah, our group wasn’t that large, and we were joined by another group on some of our classroom days, but almost everyone came from a Christian background. There were a couple Roman Catholics, and then surprisingly, to me at least, in Dallas, a lot of the CPE, or the people involved in CPE, were from the United Methodist tradition. It was kind of different to see how some of the other groups approached things, as well as some Seventh Day Adventists and some people who were non-denominational and from a variety of different things, but most people seemed to be Christians.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: You mentioned some stories and times working with patients. You mentioned there was one time a patient was not particularly enthused to see a chaplain. Can you tell me about that?

Mr. Bein: Yeah, it was kind of in the afternoon, towards the end of my shift. On the one hand, you could just let the on-call chaplain in the evening go and visit her, but she was on my floor and previously we had had some discussions about making a real effort to visit our patients, because they’re humans not just numbers, that we need to visit.

I walk into this room, and this 14-year-old girl is just sitting on the bed, just looking at the TV. Her family was there, too, and they were all chatting. She was from another country, and we were kind of connected about that, because one of my classmates is from the same city that she was from. She was just really, the whole visit, looking at this TV, because they had recently introduced this new system at the hospital where you could order your food through the TV. That’s really all she was focused on. She would kind of answer my questions with one- or two-word answers and was just not engaged in the conversation. She would kind of chuckle at some of the things I would say, and I would laugh at the things she would say, but neither of us was really present there, so to speak.

So I was getting ready to leave, and then she hit me with a standard question that I learned to have to expect a lot. “Wait, so you’re a chaplain? What does that mean? What do you do? Do you guys pray?” Since she didn’t seem to express any sort of religious feelings or discussions from before, I said, “Yeah, that’s something that we do.” “Is that something that you do?” It turned out, I guess, that that was something that she really liked doing, because for her, that was like a chance for her family to come together. I guess where she’s from there’s a lot of war and violence, and that, back home, that was a way for everybody to come together physically. While they were now living in Dallas, that was a way for them, back home in Dallas, to join with their own family back home, in more of a spiritual sense or a metaphysical sense. I don’t know, but they were kind of one with their hearts, their spirits, with their family back home, and they would join with them in prayer.

That was a really interesting encounter, because she was really friendly, but I was like, “Well, peace out.” Since we don’t have that religious dialogue…

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Right, there’s no: “Oh, I’m questioning my faith in God”; “I’ll help you as the chaplain.” Like you said in that sentence, “Um, I’ve got to go now.” But there she is. There is the patient; the patient actually having the space to initiate almost the conversation about prayer. How did you lead the prayer? How did you form the words? How did you get into that? What was that like?

Mr. Bein: Obviously as Orthodox, we approach prayer from a little bit of a different place than other groups do. Obviously, that’s something I really appreciate about our Church, but I think that something we talked about a lot over this summer is that people also are already reaching out to God. This is a children’s hospital, and we often have a tendency to write off children, because they’re not “spiritual enough yet.” They don’t know the “God language.” It’s kind of like you’re saying they don’t know those words to say, “Oh, I’m questioning such-and-such belief or such-and-such doctrine. Can you kind of walk me through this philosophical discussion of it?” But they do have a connection to God, because they are made in his image and in his likeness. Usually what I would do when I would start praying is to say, “I really just have two questions. One, is there anything specific that you’d like us to pray about?” And the second one is always, “Is there anybody else that you would like us to remember at this moment, who is maybe not here with us in the room right now?”

With her, she was really surprising, because she asked us to pray for everybody else. She asked us to pray about her parents and some of her siblings and some of her cousins. Then I said, “Well, what about you?” Obviously, her prayer was: I want to leave, but I want to be comfortable; I want to be okay. So that wasn’t a super in-depth discussion, necessarily, but I think that she was able to open up in that space, to almost have a smaller discussion about what she was really going through, deep down, because it wasn’t like she was opening up to me, necessarily, but we were both going to be opening up to God.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: That’s beautiful. That’s so important. I love that. Thank you. In other words, as you just said, let’s repeat that: Not opening up to you, because you are there as a witness, as the image of Christ among us, but you’re both praying to God. So when you gave her that space, you helped her articulate her prayer, the prayer of her heart that was already going on within her, to God. Even before the prayer starts, you’re already in a prayerful space with her, so that’s something that I think is really important. We don’t want to restrict our sense of what’s prayerful, of what can be a real prayer to God. Silence can be prayer. Structured prayer can be the most beautiful prayers, but even the most simple, plainly spoken something, as long as it’s from one’s heart, can be the prayer that God hears. I think that’s really beautiful.

Did you find— Sometimes I find that when you’re with a patient and you pray together, sometimes after the prayer it opens up dialogue even more; it changes the energy and the vibe of the room. People sort of feel more connected. Sometimes you end up having a better visit after the prayer. We always talk about this: Prayer is not an exit strategy. I don’t know if you’ve heard someone say that to you during CPE, but it’s like: You do the visit, and then you’re like: “Let’s pray. See you later.” That’s not how we do things. Give time for the prayer to kind of open up that space, and maybe you’ll have a ten-minute visit after where you actually talk about beautiful things. Maybe not, but I think you—not you, but we—don’t want to use prayer as a way to get out of the room, right?

Mr. Bein: I definitely think that was something that we did in Sunday school, actually. We would often pray at the beginning, because we have to pray because we’re Orthodox and we have to pray so we can get to the “fun thing” or we can get to the lesson or we can get to whatever it is that we’re really here for. So we pray really quickly, and then we have our lesson, which is sometimes boring; sometimes exciting, but oftentimes boring. Then after that, we would: “Oh, we have to pray! We’ll have a closing prayer.” I remember distinctly that in third grade each student had to pray. We each had to say our own prayer, and we would say that out loud. The reason why each one of us had to do that was because—and this is kind of quoting—“Oh, well in the older classes when you’re in high school, they just call on people to pray, and you can’t say no.” In that way, prayer was not just like an exit strategy, but it was like a punishment. It was a thing that you had to do in order for you to leave.

Definitely the beginning few weeks of my visits, they were all—closing prayer. But like you said, sometimes after we would pray, it’s like: “Oh, I just want to sit here,” because we’d just opened up to each other, and we’d opened up to Someone who’s beyond us, Someone who is beyond and in us, Someone who is greater than us. This space would emerge, and then I would exit immediately. So about halfway through, I would try to either pray immediately at the beginning, or often in the middle. We would talk for a while, and then we would pray. Or we would talk about something, and then I would say, “That was just powerful, what you just said. That was really interesting when you were saying that. I thought you might ask us to pray for your daughter’s health, and you’re really asking for her psychological well-being,” or something. And we might have another conversation about that, or a different conversation.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Yeah, just being open to the many ways of prayer. Also, I just want to circle back to one of the things you said about, for her, prayer was not just about asking for her own personal wants, things that she needs or things that she wants, but it was a way for her to connect with her family back home and a way for her to connect with her family in the room, her family that was beyond the room. I think that’s something that really would resonate with any Orthodox Christian. When we pray, we pray with the world. The nuns that are praying in Greece are praying for us, and the nuns… When we pray, it connects to this constant current of prayer, and, frankly, the prayers of the angels that are going on in heaven.

I think as a great reminder that prayer is not just something that we do to be nice so someone can say what they want, but it’s a way for them to articulate their spiritual needs to God, and also to connect with the prayer that is also going on in the world, in the universe. That prayer is… The Holy Spirit infuses the world, infuses the created world and all those who are in it. I think that’s a really beautiful reminder, and humbling, too, I think, because it’s not just about us doing some awesome prayers. It’s about letting God’s voice speak and hearing it.

Mr. Bein: Yeah, that was something that we would talk about every so often in the summer, because a lot of us, myself included, we kind of started with this idea that I’m going to walk in and I’m going to bring God into this room. I’m going to bring God into the situation. I’m going to shine the light in the dark place. And I think something that I really appreciate about Orthodoxy even more as I’ve gone through CPE is that, especially as we read in Advent that “a light has shone to a people who are sitting in darkness,” it’s not like I’m not also sitting in darkness. I’m sitting in my own darkness here. Maybe I’ve glimpsed the light once or twice before, but I think it turns out that maybe this other person in the room has, too.

There’s definitely an element when a chaplain walks into a room that you’re probably going to have some sort of discussion that may be a little different from what the patient might have with their nurse or with their social worker or with their doctor. It’s definitely true that the chaplain is going to bring some sort of awareness of the spiritual condition, but it wasn’t so much that I’m bringing God in this room, but that we’re both sitting in darkness, and if we both can connect that way, then we can both look at the light, and we might both see something of beauty. That element of the prayer that’s already going on, sometimes I would pray that God would open both of our eyes, both of our hearts, so that we might see the work that he’s already doing, or the work that he’s been doing through the doctors this whole time.

I think for me that was really important, and sometimes for the patients that was important, when they might develop this antagonistic or passive role with the staff, but then express some sort of really spiritual perspective. Sometimes they would comment on that after, and sometimes they wouldn’t, but for me at least it was important that I see God working through, sure, me, but also through the nurses, through the staff, through the doctors, so that I myself wouldn’t develop this kind of antagonistic role with “ugh, these nurses, they never understand what me, the chaplain, this holy person sent from God, is doing.”

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: [Laughter] It’s definitely possible to come in with that mindset, kind of an “us and them” kind of thing. We have this holistic perspective, but the hospice aides that I’ve worked with, who are caring for the dying every day and cleaning them and washing their hair and holding them, they are doing God’s work. Every day, day in, day out, no one sees it except God sometimes and maybe the patient, but half the time the patient is incapacitated. So it’s so important, like you said, to keep a sense of that, the perspective of the team and really trying to be part of the team and understand that we’re one piece of the puzzle that’s caring for this person. I love that.

You also shared one other story about working with a patient, another patient who was closed off, who I guess was into video games, sci-fi, and stuff. I wonder if you could share that vignette, too. I liked that.

Mr. Bein: Another young boy, about 13 or 14 years old. I visited him a couple of times. He was a really interesting patient for me, because he wasn’t Christian. His family was from India, but they kind of expressed that they didn’t really have any sort of deep religious beliefs. So, like you said earlier, silence can become a prayer, sitting with him in quiet sometimes, because I was one of the few people, I guess, in the hospital, who didn’t kind of come in and demand something from him, it was okay to just sit and watch TV. But eventually we kind of connected over our love for sci-fi and fantasy. I used to read a whole lot of science fiction and a whole lot of fantasy, and I used to be really big into playing Dungeons and Dragons, which I haven’t gotten to do in a long time, but I loved that kind of exploration.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: That’s so old-school of you!

Mr. Bein: Well, that’s what happens when you live in New Hampshire. But later on, I found out the next couple of times that I visited him—because for the first few visits he was always in his bed—I visited him a later time, and he was actually in a wheelchair, so he was paralyzed from the waist down, which I hadn’t realized. I would read through my patient charts, but my understanding of medical terminology and of exact medical details is always expanding and growing, so I hadn’t really realized that, going into the room. It was kind of interesting because that day I brought an activity that we called “holy listening stones.”

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Was that something that they had at the hospital or something that you had used before, or what was that? How did you get that idea?

Mr. Bein: We had a bereavement counselor who worked part-time at the hospital. She was doing some research, and she came across this technique. It’s actually a technique developed for counseling, but it’s a really cool system, where there are about 30 stones, like physical rocks. There are these stones, and they have these symbols drawn on them. The symbols are kind of just, so to speak, squiggly shapes and arrows and hearts and things like thunderstorms or trees, or I should say lightning-bolts. Children kind of don’t always know that pictures are supposed to only be one thing; it can be many different things. So they could ascribe meaning to many different symbols.

We would lay out the stones, and I would invite the kids—and this was generally a one-on-one scenario, but it happened a few times with multiple kids—we would go through these statements of “I wonder which stone is your favorite, I wonder which stone you feel like right now, I wonder which stone is most important to you, I wonder if there is a stone that you would like to feel like but you don’t right now, I wonder if there’s a stone that you don’t feel like at all,” questions like that. They would kind of pull up these stones, and it’s obviously a pretty quiet activity, and it’s kind of a one-on-one, very intimate activity. By the end we would have anywhere from four to ten stones, and then I might say, “I wonder what this story is telling us” or “I wonder what story these stones are telling us.”

It was really interesting. Usually what would happen with most kids when they would do this is they might say, “Well, I was feeling sad, but now I’m in the hospital and I want feel like sunshine, but I feel like a thunderstorm.” But this kid, because he was really kind of imaginative, he actually told me a whole different story, and it kind of started with, “There’s a galaxy, and in that galaxy there is a world. There’s good people and bad people, and the good people are really generous, but the bad people never like to share, and they never listen. But it could be better, because there’s sunshine and grass and flowers.” That was his story. It wasn’t necessarily some type of prescription, but it was a story about how he felt, and I only saw him on his way out after that, but he was one of the few patients on his way out who kind of smiled, he waved, he said bye.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: How do you feel that provided spiritual support to him? What surprised you about that, or what gave you some wisdom that you’re going to take with you?

Mr. Bein: I think for me, the first thing about him was kind of like, actually like the girl from before, a common theme that we can tell is that I think I’m a lot better at this than I am. So I had kind of written him off, because for a while we just watched TV, sometimes we played video games, but we didn’t have too many interactions. We didn’t really have any sort of deep prayers. But for me, the first thing was, just as this kid told a story about a galaxy and there’s a world, and in that world there’s trees and sunshine and flowers. Well, inside this kid there’s a whole world that’s unexplored. What I’m seeing, just on the surface, that’s not all there is to him; there’s a lot more going on there, and there’s a lot more than “uh, he’s in the hospital; he doesn’t want to be there.”

I think, though—and I had a lot of struggle with: should I psychoanalyze this kid? or what should I do with all this data? For a while, I just let that story be that story, but it was also a story about himself. I think for him it was a way to explore what he was feeling in a little bit of a different way. Due to the fact that he can’t always move around as easily as he would like to, his interaction with the physical world isn’t as maybe explored, so to speak, as ours might be. He can’t just run and walk. A lot of my prayers for my patients would be that we would dance and walk and love and laugh in God’s light. For him, that’s maybe not something I could have asked for, and so that was kind of a way for him to explore how he was feeling, not just in the same derivative mental downward spin or spiral that he was used to.

For him, I think there was an element that he was able to explore himself, but also that he was able to be listened to. Any situation, or any time that I went and visited him, his dad was there the whole time, which is a real testament to his father’s love for him, because there were some patients—and it’s really sad, because these were children—whose parents didn’t necessarily visit them. But any time I was there, it was very much like, “Well, the chaplain’s talking to him; I’m going to go back to doing my own reading,” and he would kind of do his own work.

Sometimes the patient would look back at his dad and kind of try to catch his eye, I think trying to say, “Hey, this is about us,” but his dad never really got the chance to do that. As a chaplain, part of what we do is write things in the patient’s notes. So I was able to contribute both that story and maybe something I had read into it a little bit, but I think it was also just an opportunity for him to explore himself and maybe also have a little bit of fun, because that was—I don’t know. The way that we did it was both really deep and intimate, but it was also kind of imaginative and self-exploratory. I don’t know if that’s a word, but maybe it can be.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Also I think he started to trust you. Look, part of ministry is just showing up. After a few visits, you established pastoral trust with him, so for him to even share with you even on a level that… Metaphors and stories are very powerful. Jesus knew that; that was pretty much his M.O. It’s really beautiful. I really love that. I’m going to look into some holy listening stones. I think frankly it’s nice to use them when you’re an adult. Symbols are powerful and open-ended; that’s what I love about it.

It makes me think about our iconography. I remember when I was first learning about the Church. There was an icon of the Theotokos and Jesus, and I remember someone said to me, “If you look at it and you feel joy, it feels like the Theotokos’ eyes are joyful; but if you’re grieving and you’re crying and you look at her, when you look in her eyes it feels like she’s crying with you.” I feel like that’s so true, and I always remember that when I look at the iconography and I look at the images of God in our chapels, in our spaces of worship. Those symbols are very powerful and allow us to connect with what’s going on without forcing anything onto us, not forcing us to feel a certain way or to pray a certain way, but to always hold that… God can hear us in our joys and in our sorrows, and I think you did some good work there, really being guided by what your patients needed.

Any final words as we wrap this up? What did God show you through CPE?

Mr. Bein: I think that probably some of my biggest takeaways, those questions are drawn from something called… It’s a religious education curriculum called Godly Play, and it uses statements of “I wonder.” Specifically when we tell the Bible stories through that, we use the questions: I wonder what you liked most about the story, I wonder what you thought was most important about the story, and that might not be what you liked the most; I wonder what you would change or take out so that we would have all that we need. And the fourth question is: I wonder where you are in this story. Depending on the story, if it’s a parable, for example, we might ask: I wonder where this story might be, and things like that.

One of the really driving points behind both Godly Play and also kind of behind the way that we did things at Children’s Hospital is that children are people who will grow up to be adults, and adults are people who were children who grew up to be adults. Both will experience God. Both will experience God in ways particular to them, whether as children or as adults. They’ll also experience God as they themselves, as their own individual people and persons. We all experience God in different ways, and ways that might be different for me. I learn more about God, I learn more about myself, I learn more about other people, when, as you said, I’m open to what they have to say. A lot of it for me was like: Don’t write off kids. Don’t ask a question that you already know the answer to, which is often why we would use those “I wonder” statements. “I wonder why X is happening,” as opposed to “Why is this happening?” or “How come you’re not doing that?”

For me, those were two of the largest guiding principles now behind a lot of what I do. Don’t ask questions that I already know the answer to, and assume—not just assume, but know—that someone is already communing with God in their heart somehow. I don’t know, maybe it’s totally incorrect; maybe they’re doing it totally wrong, but God is still speaking to them, and they’re still somehow responding. Like you said, I don’t have to be the one to fix everything. I don’t have to necessarily be the one that solves this patient’s problems. I don’t have to be this great interlocutor that asks all these thought-provoking questions all the time. Sometimes, it’s prayer to just go in and play video games. Sometimes it’s prayer to just go in and watch TV with the patient. But to show up, because that’s what God did for us. He showed up.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: The ultimate showing up. I love that. I really appreciate your taking the time. I hope your story encourages other people to think about CPE. I’m so heartened—Fr. Adrian and I talk about this a lot, but we’re just so heartened at the growth of spiritual care and chaplaincy within the Orthodox world in all different jurisdictions. Your story’s a great example, whether you go into chaplaincy or you go into the priesthood, diaconate, no matter what you learned from this experience, your faith grew, and you were really able to offer the presence of God to some people who were hurting and who really needed it.

So I thank you for your ministry, and thank you for being on our podcast.

Mr. Bein: Thanks for having me.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Christ is in our midst.

Mr. Bein: He is and ever shall be.

Ms. Byrne-Martelli: Always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.