By Dan Olivieri
I was asked recently by a patient how I could visit people of different faiths. I think that for this patient, it seemed like an impossible task. After all, there are so many differences and mindsets.
Although I am Catholic, I consider myself to be an interfaith minister. In the hospital, the chaplain is one of many disciplines. The aim of the interdisciplinary care team is to be patient-centered, such that the medical expertise offered to the patient is shaped by the patient’s own faith, beliefs, and values. The chaplain’s role is to support patients in accessing their own wisdom in the healing process.
I answered the inquiring patient by saying, “You just try to connect with what is in a person’s heart and be willing to listen. The heart holds universal themes that are common to every religion. What you love. What moves you. What gives you joy. What causes you sorrow. What gives your life meaning. What charges your battery. What inspires you.”
When I get out of my own way, when I drop my own judgments and allow myself to be centered in my own heart, then I can relate to anyone’s heart — if they wish to share it. And if they don’t wish to share it, then more power to them, and I wish them well.
The heart holds universal themes common to every religion, but even more so, there are universal themes common to every human being. One does not have to be religious. Some years ago, I entered the room of an older male patient who had a cancer diagnosis. The man’s wife was sitting on her own cot in her husband’s room. She was a practicing Buddhist. The man immediately said to me, “You have nothing to offer me because I am an atheist!” He proceeded to list all the reasons why. I listened, but it seemed to me that this gentleman was sharing a lot of head-centered information — not really much different from how a religious person talks about their dogma or their belief system.
After he spoke for a couple of minutes, I thanked him for sharing what was important to him and said, “Let me ask you two questions. What inspires you? How are you able to be present to your own vulnerability?”
The patient responded. “Beauty inspires me.”
“Beauty? How do you experience beauty?”
“Oh, what kind of music?”
The man’s face began to light up as he waxed eloquent about the mastery of Mozart. He looked to me like a saint talking about divine rapture. After he finished, I looked at his wife and said, “Wow, that sounds like quite a spirituality!” He then talked about the vulnerability of his illness and how being in nature supported him as well as the support of others who care about him. This man who initially had rejected me due to a preconceived idea now invited me into his heart, into his sacredness, and I have never forgotten it. It didn’t matter to me that he identified himself as atheist. What mattered to me was what gave his life meaning and purpose. As he shared, the room took on an air of companionship for the mere act of open listening.
There is such an incredible difference in quality of life when coming from the head and coming from the heart. The head and the heart need to come together, but the head without the heart is cold, and the heart without the head is aimless.
We humans have our experiences of truth, of conviction; moments of realization and revelation. Religions are based on experiences of Truth. But when the head takes control, there is a tendency to want to protect that truth by doing what Richard Rohr used to call “circling the wagons.” Coming from the head, we circle our wagons and form clear boundaries between the insiders and the outsiders, the righteous and the infidels, the right and the wrong. But there is another way, a heart-centered way. Many of us remember the poem by Rumi that says,
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field, I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too big to talk about.
Rumi was speaking about orthodoxy and the trap that orthodoxy can fall into when it is ruled by the head. There is a grand silence that contains all Truth. That silence is located in the center of each of us, and when we find that center, there is a capacity to be all things to all people, as St. Paul wrote.
It is in this spirit that I aim to practice an interfaith approach to ministry and to life. I feel blessed to hang out at many different campfires and speak different theological and religious languages. — although in order to do this, I’ve had to work and suffer through an awful lot of my own fears that I have been conditioned to believe.
I remember a sign on the wall at the entrance of my Redemptorist Novitiate in Oconomowoc, WI, where I spent a year of informal study in 1979. It said: “Nothing in this world is to be feared, only understood.”
May the field of our hearts be centered in the grand silence that unites us all in the one truth of existence.
Dan Olivieri, BCC, is a chaplain at Dignity Health, Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, CA.