A Chaplain Goes to India
This essay was published in July edition of Saathee Magazine. It is available in print at your local Indian/South Asian grocery stores.
Finding God in Unexpected Places
By J. Dana Trent, MDiv
India has an age-old system of monkey versus human. Monkeys perched on market street rooftops, poised to steal eyeglasses as ransom for snacks. Not far behind these thieves are angry shopkeepers, shooing away the rascals for fear their spectacle-wearing customers will neglect their purchases.
India’s other ancient tradition is Hinduism. Touted as one of the world’s oldest religions (circa 2500 BCE), India’s rich Hindu history is foundational to its daily life. Although monkeys are seemingly everywhere in India–God is even more so. Temples, shops, schools, and even cars are adorned with representations of the Divine. Men, women, and children wear outward signs of their inward faith preferences, carry japa (prayer) beads, and offer religious greetings to one another in the street.
Last January, when my husband and I returned back to the US from our two-week honeymoon in Vrindavan, India, I missed God. On most American days, I don’t see God. The divine is not obvious in my workplace, my car, on the street, in the grocery store, or at the mall.
There was a time when God felt more present. During my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency (2006-07), at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I saw God in most hospital moments. Someone was invariably having their worst day, and as patients and families asked, “Why?” God was ostensibly nowhere and everywhere—all at once. While patients and families felt that God’s comforting presence had been exchanged for disease, trauma, and bad news, the chaplain—focusing on being open and unassuming—was willing to hold their suffering for the moment, hour, or night.
India was not unlike this chaplain experience. In India, you relinquish control. Patience is a must; days are spent praying, waiting, and moving (slowly) through life’s chaos. Temples keep time and rituals mark the hours. Your minutes are not your own—they belong to God for worship, bhakti (devotion), and service. The country’s landscape is imbued with a constant hum of chanting Hindus.
The hospital felt similar. Patients’ time was not their own. They were at the mercy of their circumstances and caregivers. Endlessly waiting, they surrendered control and slipped into the institutional rhythm, and prayed.
In India, I struggled with God just as I did as a chaplain. Questions of suffering, purpose, war, evil, joy, and sadness bruised my time. I abided by schedules not of my own making, walked with suffering people, breathed stale smells, and washed off the despair at the end of the day. I adjusted, let go of control, and accepted India as a place for healing and surrender. It seemed familiar. While white coats save lives in one time-keeping house, saffron robes save souls in another.
I miss India. In my American life, I rush through my day, barely whispering a quick prayer before dinner and bed. I neglect Scripture study. I don’t carry prayer beads to work or to run errands. When I shop, there is no sweet smell of incense or an altar to remind me that God, too, looks over this place. I’m blissfully unaware of the depth of human suffering. I’m grumpy and I lose patience with others. I skip church, snarl at traffic, and indulge in far too many large meals.
I long for the closeness to God that I felt in India and in my work as a chaplain. I long for the fusion of surrender and spiritual in a community where it’s okay to have messy boundaries.
J. Dana Trent is a freelance writer and spiritual director. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Dana served as a hospital chaplain specializing in death and dying for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Healthcare System. She blogs at http://jdanatrent.wpengine.com/