By Sr. Frances Smalkowski, CSFN
To become a sister, a nurse, and a chaplain was always a dream of mine. Also, I wanted to become an airline stewardess, secretary, and actress.
The sister and nurse parts came first. Later, I came to believe that the chaplain dream had potential when one of my own CSFN sisters became our first certified chaplain. I was in awe of her, especially since she seemed to move seamlessly from her teaching ministry to chaplaincy. This occurred when it was not usual for women to be certified chaplains.
As time progressed, I moved from basic nursing to psychiatric mental-health nursing, which helped open the door for my evolving dream. After I began CPE, during my chaplaincy student visits, I often questioned what the difference was from my psychiatric nursing visits. As a matter of fact, this was actually a struggle of mine.
I found a story from Fr. Anthony DeMello, SJ, to be very helpful as I learned how to separate those two realms. The short version is that something is better left unsaid unless it is true, helpful, or funny.
In both pastoral and psychiatric visits, I spoke the truth as I experienced it. However, a pastoral visit required more sensitivity for me and a deeper listening to how God and the patient were leading me to respond, rather than framing my time and goal-setting in structured ways.
Furthermore, during my pastoral visits, I could not count on being helpful. That was different from psychiatric settings, which were consensually goal-centered. If I was offering pastoral care, the only goal was total openness to the Spirit, as well as a mindful presence. Too, nursing visits usually were more formal, with mutual expectations. Suggestions for self-empowerment, resources, and outside referrals were common in the nursing sessions. In that setting, I intervened more; in chaplaincy, I listened more deeply and with more silences.
And what about funny? Admittedly, this is one of my natural tendencies that I have used in both kinds of visits as appropriate. I learned early on the value of humor in the healing of the total person. (This reminds me of a dying 100-year-old woman I had grown to know and love. Being quietly present with her, I was gently stroking her forehead. She opened her eyes wide and said: “You’re a sister. You should know better. Why aren’t you praying out loud with me or singing holy songs?” Of course, I then did my best to fulfill her wishes.)
With close to 55 years in nursing ministry and over 37 years of chaplaincy behind me, I feel so much gratitude for all of the people who touched my life.
Oh, and in a way, I did fulfill those other childhood dreams. I did quite a bit of flying over the years, including skydiving. I have written more than I ever expected I would, which sort of satisfies my secretarial dream. And does dancing the polka on stage (while taking a tour) at Radio City Music Hall count for my actress dream?
Sr. Frances Smalkowski, CSFN, is director of pastoral care at St. John Paul II Center in Danbury, CT.