Chaplains and volunteers are constantly assessing the spiritual lives of their residents. Although the actual process is not always “front of mind” as they go about their daily work, nonetheless, assessment remains a focus for intentional chaplains and volunteers.
There are many excellent templates available which assist in this process. However, most of these templates view the “spiritual dimension” as one factor to be considered alongside other human factors such as the physical, emotional and social well-being. However, the truth is is that humans are intrinsically and fundamentally “spiritual.” Other factors of the human existence will shape spiritual convictions and beliefs.
To be human is to be fundamentally spiritual. We cannot NOT be spiritual. I have said to families and residents, “Not all people are religious, but all are spiritual” and I usually get a nod of agreement. To be spiritual is to ponder deep questions about human existence-questions that define us as spiritual. We inevitably reflect upon spiritual questions such as: “Where did I come from?”; “Why am I here?”; “How do I know right from wrong?”; and finally, “Where am I going?”
Wise chaplains provide opportunities to process these questions. Instead of viewing “spirituality” as a separate human feature running parallel to physical, emotional and social, we need to acknowledge that humans are intrinsically spiritual. However, all other factors ( eg physical, emotional etc.) of our humanness impact our spiritual convictions.
Let me illustrate using THE HAND. Your hand has four fingers and one thumb, five digits in total (usually!). Let’s consider the smallest finger as representing our physical life. Our physical health definitely impacts our spiritual life, either for good or for harm. One example: Even if you never went to church, you likely know about the Old Testament man Job. Deprived of health, family and friends, he landed on a garbage dump where, infested with sores and loneliness, he pondered deep spiritual questions about his existence, purpose and future. His physical plight led him to deeper spiritual understandings of God. The physical condition of a resident in a care home will definitely impacts their spiritual life and attitudes towards God. Two residents both experienced devastating strokes. For one, the physical loss brought her closer to God and for the other, her pain left her bitter and resisting any conversation with a chaplain. Their physical condition shaped their spiritual life.
Our second finger (we could say the “ring finger”) represents our emotional life, with its inevitable ups and downs. Undeniably, how we feel impacts our grasp of spiritual questions in our life. Over 20% of the Psalms are laments and mournful expressions as people poured out how they felt about God. Other psalms were joyful and celebratory. Seniors experience all the emotions of life and this array of feelings can …and will… affect their deep spiritual convictions about life and God.
The middle finger represents the cognitive domain (how we think). Our thought processes address our convictions about God. We ponder this through reading, singing hymns, sharing life experiences with others and simply reflecting upon God. Residents need a safe space to think and talk about what they believe … and why. I have known residents struggling with significant dementia who also retained a deep knowledge God’s grace in their life.
Another vital part of our spiritualness is shaped by the social, ( in our illustration: the “pointer finger”). This factor includes those with whom we share life’s journey whether family or friends. The Bible talks much about how we need “one another” and how true that is! We were not made to be isolated monks. This is especially true for residents of care homes. Their spiritual life is deepened as they share the journey with others: family, friends, volunteers and the chaplain.
Finally, the thumb- the fifth digit- represents the moral ( how we make decisions). As the thumb wraps around the other four fingers, so moral decisions are wrapped around the other four components of the spiritual life.
To one level or another, all of these five aspects of the “human hand” impact our spiritual life.
Finally, and most importantly, in this illustration the palm of our hand represents that central place in our soul where we address those foundational questions of life and our relationship to God. In fact, if we dare to use the image of our five toed foot, we can substitute the word “sole”- which sits in the centre of our foot- with the word “soul”. Sorry! The play on words is too good to pass up. We are essentially “soulish” where we ask and address our relationship to God and His creation.
Question: Use this simple image to reflect upon your own spiritual journey and how the other aspects of your life impacted your spiritual life. How have the physical, emotional, social, intellectual and moral aspects of your life shaped your view of God?