The Portal of Pain- Where Spiritual Direction, Illness and Chaplaincy Meet
I currently work part-time as a chaplain for Silverado Hospice in Houston, Texas. I am thirty-six years old, spunky on most days, and often a surprising face for my clients. (I think most people expect an older, male minister for a hospice chaplain.) I regularly wear sparkly Keds and red lipstick which is not necessarily what a family expects to see when they hear the chaplain is coming by for her first visit. Often I am asked how I got “to be a chaplain” for hospice. I smile when a client or a family member asks me this question because below the surface I sense that they do not quite understand why I am doing this work or maybe they even think I am not qualified.
In 2003, I began having daily headaches. These headaches escalated into migraines. They still do. For fourteen years I have battled chronic pain that varies in severity and regularity. I went from being an avid athlete who regularly engaged in volleyball, spinning, hiking, swimming, and running to being incapacitated by my body. I have had days where I cannot even lean over to load the dishwasher. I have had weeks where I can barely move from my bed. Rarely do I have a day without a headache or pressure in my head. This change started when when I was twenty-two years old. I have tried, what feels like, every treatment and medicine possible. Currently my headaches are managed, and I have a team of both Western medical and holistic care practitioners that help me to function in life.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. In fact, the numbers are staggering. In 2015, the U.S. National Instititute of Health reported that 25 million Americans suffer from pain every day, while 40 million face intermittent severe pain. Another survey estimated the number of chronic pain sufferers at 1.5 billion worldwide.
The experience of living with chronic pain has many results. Those of us who struggle with our bodies every day have a difficult time performing many of the tasks that are common for most people. While this is challenging in itself, the emotional and spiritual effects have been the most difficult for me. I have felt very isolated because I must sometimes lie for hours by myself in a dark room doing absolutely nothing. I have had to learn not to think. My body simply cannot handle life sometimes. Living with continuous pain causes grief, frustration, and a loss of identity. I experience daily deaths because I cannot do all the things I want to do or be the person who I want to be in the world.
Through my journey of pain, however, God has formed me as a spiritual director and chaplain. Spiritual direction is a process of learning and unlearning. As spiritual directors we must walk our own path of faith as a way to learn to be a guide for others. My path includes chronic illness and all of its effects. While I would gladly give up my pain tomorrow, it has been an incredible teacher for me. I have surrendered many goals, desires, relationships, and jobs because of my limitations. My bodily struggles, however, have made me a better human being, a more capable spiritual director, and given me the capacity to be present with clients and families who are in the end stages of life. My pain is not my client’s pain, but I understand many of the spiritual and emotional struggles that are often a new reality for them. I encourage them to be open to the lessons, blessings, and joys that are possible in the experience of death. I do think sparkles and bright colors help to bring the message of hope to others. Any constructive tool we can use to move through pain and death is important and valid. As a Christian, I believe that bodily death is not the end – either our small daily deaths or the final moment that we pass from this earthly life to the next life.
So, I may not be quite what a client or a family first expects when they encounter their hospice chaplain, but I usually win them over. It is not because I understand everything about life and death; rather it is because I am living and dying with them. I am a friend and a helper in the process of dying. My spiritual direction training has been invaluable as I practice the power of presence, deep listening, and heart prayer for my clients. So for those called to the ministry of chaplaincy now or at some point in the future, I encourage all of us not to be afraid of the portal of pain. Pain can be our guide and teacher in whatever way it manifests itself. God is capable of using all parts of our lives even those we would otherwise wish to avoid.
Lauren Santerre is a hospice chaplain for Silverado Hospice and creator of her own company Sacred Spaces by Lauren that helps individuals and families to connect with God in their hearts and homes. Previously, Lauren served as the Director of Interfaith Relations for Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston and as the Executive Director for Brigid’s Place in Houston, TX. She received her B.A. in Religion from The Colorado College, her M.A. in Urban Ministry from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and her M.A. in Spiritual Direction from Houston Graduate School of Theology. Lauren is married to Randy Saad, and they live northeast of Houston. Lauren and Randy are members of Atascosita United Methodist Church.