Holding Secrets, Holding Sacred
People tell me things, deep, painful, secret things. It’s part of the work of chaplains, why we exist. We are the conduit of their unburdening. This is a beautiful function of the human connection. Can you imagine it: healing a little just by sharing? How marvelous! We do it all the time, every day. When we tell our boyfriend how our day was, or complain to our best friend about our boss, we are healing through sharing through connection. We need each other to witness our lives and we witness for others. But because this is such a powerful need, we are sometimes afraid to share and afraid to witness the deep, hard, suffering parts. We don’t want to risk the connection. These are the burdens we keep and carry as secrets. We bottle them up inside. Or we bring them to chaplains and healers.
I didn’t understand sacred until this. Places were beautiful, even glorious, but not sacred. Objects were important, treasured, but not sacred. Ideas certainly were always worth arguing over, never sacred. But this, the connection, the healing, the unburdening, and sharing in the secret sufferings of others – this is sacred. To enter into and be with someone in their suffering, to see their burden, share their stories, and accept as a sacred blessing the deep, painful, secret moments of their lives, it is a holy thing. With all the suffering and darkness, also comes the light. Our greatest pains come wrapped in layers of hope. We hoped for love, but found rejection. We hoped for life, but found death. We hoped for success, but found failure. The flame dims to a flickering candle, but does not die. As we spin meaning from the story, the hope rekindles in a new way. To share in this is sacred beyond words.
My teachers tried to prepare me. They gave me knowledge and skills and modeled the practice. They may even have tried to convey this in words, but I did not know it until now. How can you tell a person who holds so little sacred that someday she would find her holy grail? How can you tell a person who has so often felt disconnected from others that someday she would honor connection above all things? How can you tell a person that her hope will come from stories of suffering? How can you tell a person who believes only in what she can see, touch, and reason for herself that the meaning others make from their own experiences will become more precious than all her hard-won knowledge? And that all these things she would value above the most holy temple, sacred relic, or profound scripture?
Secrets have a burden. Someone leaves my office lighter, but I go home a little heavier. Their secret is now my secret, their darkness is my darkness, their suffering is my suffering. This is the key to the trust and empathy necessary for unburdening. No one will share something if it will be used as a weapon against them. It is a burden I accept willingly because it does not end with me. My secret becomes the secret of another chaplain. They honor the trust of all my shared stories just as they honor my story, because they have become one and the same. I walk away lighter. With every link in the chain, the burden becomes lighter until it is no burden at all. Through this connection, humanity can share any load. We don’t always believe it, which is why our pains become our secrets, even though our secrets bring us pain. When we share that secret, it becomes sacred, transforming from pain into hope.