This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
I worked as a hospice chaplain for four months. I would divide my days between our fifteen-bed inpatient unit and visiting the dying and their families in their homes. I worked with a small team of nurses and a couple of social workers—compassionate people who had deliberately choosen to work with the dying.
One day I came into work and found our small team rocked by a suicide that had occurred the night before. Our manager called us into the conference room, shared what was known about the situation, and gave us space to share whatever was on our minds and hearts. Most of the team was still in shock. I was heartbroken by the tragedy and overwhelmed by the grief I felt in the room. I listened as others spoke, tears filling their eyes. As our time drew to a close, the manager turned to me and asked, “Maybe we could close with a prayer?”
I looked around the room cramped with red-eyed staff. I had only been there a few months, yet they were all looking to me for words to bring some solace in the tragedy. As much as I wanted to comfort them, I also wanted to nod my head no and refuse to offer a prayer. I felt like my words had already been spent praying for the dying and their families. All the images of hope and faith and love I had to offer had already been sent along with patients to the grave. Everything I had left was weak and thin and would only come out strained. Fortunately, I found the words to pray, words that seemed honest and spoke some light into the darkness of the tragedy. I walked out of the room spiritually exhausted. It wasn’t even 9am.
When I was interviewing for the job as a hospice chaplain, I wasn’t expecting how hard it would be to be surrounded by death and dying forty hours a week. I had worked as a chaplain in several hospitals and had become comfortable being with patients and families at the end of life. It was sad, yes, but I developed resilience and could go on. Hospice was different. Every patient I met and came to care about would eventually die. Every family I sat with for hours would eventually leave at the height of their grief, following their loved one out of the building to watch as their bodies were loaded into the funeral home van. The social worker on my team would simply say, “that’s what they came here for,” and move on. I couldn’t. The grief piled on and I found myself growing more melancholy. When called on to pray at the time of death, my words became stale and repetitive. My ability to find hope and joy in suffering had fatigued. My sense of God being present in the grief had dulled. I just didn’t have anything to say anymore.
A few days later I asked my priest if I could come in for a visit. I needed to talk. I knew, walking down the hall of our church to her office, that I would end up crying within the first few minutes of our conversation. The pain and the hopelessness were all right there, under the surface, ready to burst forth. She did for me what I do for others—listened with compassion and openness, undeterred by my tears and suffering. But then she asked about my own spiritual life. What did I do outside of work to stay connected to God? To find renewal? To engage hope? I told her the truth. After a day of spiritual heavy lifting at work, the last thing I wanted to do was engage in spiritual disciplines at home. It would be like coming home from a day of flipping burgers in a fast food kitchen only to be asked by your spouse to put some meat on the grill for dinner. It was the last thing I wanted to do.
She told me about one of her own spiritual practices—praying the Divine Office with a breviary. She pulled out a beautifully bound book, The Saint Helena Breviary, and showed me the pages filled with written prayers and passages of scripture. The Divine Office, also known as the Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours, is the ancient spiritual practice of saying a fixed set of prayers several times a day, often morning, noon, evening, and night. The prayers change throughout the day and throughout the liturgical calendar of the church and are often guided by a breviary, the book that contains all the prayers and texts.
There are a lot of great resources for praying the Divine Office, including The Divine Hours by Phyllis Trickle, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, The Missio Dei Breviary by Mark Van Steenwyk, and Celtic Daily Prayer from the Nothumbria Community. Many liturgical traditions have also developed their own form of the Daily Office. In my tradition, many use the Office contained in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for their daily prayers and scripture reading.
Praying daily with a breviary did something for me that I was struggling to do on my own: It gave me words. On the days when grief and sorrow overwhelmed me, it spoke truth into my life through written prayers and passages of scripture. When I felt alone in my work, it connected me to a broader community of prayer, scattered around the country praying the same prayers with me each morning and evening. And on the days when my words ran dry, it connected me to God through poetic language, beautiful imagery, and hopeful theology that I could not create myself.
Maria is now working as a chaplain at a large university hospital and children’s hospital. When she’s not working or praying the Daily Office, she enjoys biking, yoga, backpacking, photography, and listening to podasts.