"The eye of the hurricane" -- that's how Chaplain Karen Swiderski, manager of spiritual care and pastoral education for Edward and Linden Oaks hospitals in Naperville, describes a hospital chaplaincy.
"We are not just people who come and pray. Instead, we have the gifts, education and skill sets needed to de-escalate the life-altering medical events and bring comfort to the patients in this hospital setting," she said.
"No matter the trauma -- no matter what is going on, the chaplain is standing there calmly and making the connection, defusing fear and other concerns.
"I don't care what is going on outside that door," Swiderski often tells hospital patients. "I am here to listen to you, to empower and comfort you. This is your moment and this is your time. In this we share 100 percent confidentiality."
She defined these moments as "the holy ground that we are able to walk with people of all faiths, and even no faith tradition."
The importance of hospital chaplains is being recognized throughout the world. The twitter site @wechaplains now boasts more than 1,100 followers. Even though Swiderski works with the faith community to bring their Eucharist and prayer visits to their members in the hospital, as more and more people do not have a congregation to support them, the chaplain's role becomes even more critical.
It's likely that this increased recognition of the need for chaplains in hospitals is an outcome of the growing body of research that indicates spirituality, faith, and religiosity can have health benefits.
The variety of faith traditions today encountered by chaplains, as well as nurses, interns and MDs, is exciting to Swiderski.
"We learn from everyone. Their faith is what feeds them, gives them hope, helps them fight. What one believes gives him purpose and empowers him.
"But," she cautions, "no chaplain at Edward will ever proselytize; instead, they are fantastic journey companions. We offer our presence, reflective listening, comfort, counseling, even laughter and chocolates," Swiderski quipped.
And these qualities transcend mere human compassion, as important as that is. Behind each kindness is a life linked to the divine.
"Each day the chaplains are in prayer. We pray. We call upon a higher power, we call upon our faith. We ask for help to lead us to those who need our care. We are connecting with people where they breathe."
Although a chaplain often prays with those who are critically ill, and helps families deal with death, their mission is much broader. "Hospital chaplains are not angels of death," Swiderski emphasized. "They love!"
This love -- divine grace -- undergirds the chaplain's expression of patience, humility, compassion and kindness. It allows their visits to bring not only comfort, but also better health as a result of spiritual transformation to the lives of those they meet.
She likens these encounters to unpacking baggage: "Patients come to the hospital not just with illness, but also with all sorts of mental baggage -- fears, worries, frustrations etc. They come with their families and all those complicated relationships. Part of the chaplaincy is to unpack these bags and unwind the psychosocial baggage. We help them unpack by engaging with them.
"There are experiences, feelings and emotions that the patient needs to put on the shelf and things that need to be let go, and then repack what they need to go forward -- that which is healthful, loving and purposeful. So you see, we help people repack," she explains.
Swiderski continues, "We get countless thank-you notes from families that recognize this mental process."
Jim Breen, one of the two lead chaplains who works in the Edward Heart Center, brings the very essence of the divine to every encounter,
"Individuals need to appreciate each other. How we all respond to love. I offer respect, treating each individual I meet like family. We are all part of a spiritual family. Everyone responds in a healthful way to love and companionship, even laughter."
"Chaplains are individuals who are drawn into a ministry," Swiderski says. "They come with a great capacity for compassion. It is shared with so many people from diverse cultures, faith, practices and beliefs. This kindness comes from their faith, their belief in a loving God."
• Thomas (Tim) Mitchinson is a self-syndicated columnist writing on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field. He is also the media spokesman for Christian Science in Illinois. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.