I lacked a book of formal rites and a heavy, dangling cross.
Because of this, I envied the Catholic chaplain (a priest) who strolled the hospital halls with confidence, the concrete symbols of his authority displayed for all to see.
I was young, female, wearing a small collection of casual-professional attire. Later, I was visibly pregnant, wearing an even smaller, less formal wardrobe.
I carried a notebook with a few prayers inside and wore a bright blue tag that said simply, “Chaplain Kelly.”
I wanted something to fall back on, some symbol to carry with me as I waited and prayed with the family of the latest Code Blue or visited with the parents of a preterm baby.
That was early in my residency as a Chaplain at a Level One Trauma hospital.
It was before I learned how to argue well and calmly with a surgeon, before I held family members back from rooms they could not enter. Over time my hands stopped shaking when dialing the numbers of loved ones and I prayed calmly and clearly around the bodies of the recently deceased.
By the end of the year – when I left to give birth to our first child, a daughter – I’d incorporated a new mantra into my thinking, “I’m not powerless, I have authority.”
Somewhere along the way I realized that authority isn’t held or conveyed in symbols, but is instead endowed by nature in who we are – in who God made us to be. It’s our presence that carries authority, our ability to rest sure and certain in the truth of our own flawed and gifted being. The closer we live to this center of God’s making within us, the clearer we ring with the fullness of our own humanity.
I offered myself to the families and individuals I met and they welcomed me. With time I saw how, in certain contexts, the very symbols I envied could also be barriers to intimacy.
Toward the end of my pregnancy I was called to pray with a family whose loved one was preparing for major surgery. I met the large, extended family in a waiting area and the patient’s wife, clearly surprised by the extremely pregnant young woman before her, exclaimed, “I’ve never seen a PREGNANT CHAPLAIN before!”
After an awkward pause I smiled and laughed and one of the grown children kindly explained that the wife was “more used to priests.”
“Well,” I replied, “we come in all shapes and sizes these days.”
With that we moved into prayer, our eyes closed and my voice rising with its own song, its own authority.