While completing an undergraduate degree in religion from Haverford College, Sarah Byrne-Martelli participated in College Year in Athens. She came into personal contact with a professor of religious studies, and at her prodding she visited an all women’s monastery, the Monastery of the Annunciation, at the foothills of Chalkydiki under the shadow of the Holy Mountain. “It was my first liturgy and I was completely amazed and spellbound. So beautiful, to see and hear 100 nuns chanting vespers in the dark stillness of the chapel with beeswax candles flickering–it planted the seed of my interest in Orthodoxy,” she recounts. Years later when she was completing a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, the journey for her conversion to Orthodoxy ended and a new journey began, taking Clinical Pastoral Education, which is the training to become a health care chaplain. She knew her calling had to spring first from the foundation in her faith. As she explains, “It was more important for me to become Orthodox because it was my spiritual home. I knew I had to convert and then I would figure out how to seek a vocation in chaplaincy once I was there.” Along the journey she had a stream of professors, also committed Orthodox, who acted as her mentors in her studies and in her newly found faith. A year later she was to have a meeting with the metropolitan of the OCA at that time, His Holiness Metropolitan Herman, during which she explained her intentions of serving as a chaplain to help care the sick and the dying in hospitals.
In an unprecedented move, she received his blessing and became one of the first female health care chaplains to be endorsed within the Orthodox Church. At the time she made this step, there was no formal process in place in any Orthodox denomination to endorse lay chaplains. Since then other churches have joined the ranks, most recently GOARCH which since last year has institutionalized a similar process for endorsing women (and lay men) for chaplaincy. Currently there are five women and one lay man (in addition to several priests) who are endorsed chaplains in the OCA. And while Sarah’s endorsement was an blessing in a church office, now there is a commissioning ceremony openly in the church that offers a formal blessing and recognition of this vocation. The OCA is especially active in appointing women chaplains.
Since the start of this calling, Sarah has served full time as a chaplain at NYU Langone Medical Center, Sutter Hospice in California, and more recently at a hospice on the North Shore of Boston. As a chaplain she is part of the health care team that includes physicians, primary care providers, nurses, therapists, psychologists and social workers. She recalls how at her first job she was the only young woman in a team that included three Catholic priests and three Orthodox rabbis, “They didn’t quite know what to make of me.” Her patients, on the other hand, are either very intrigued or very happy that she is Orthodox, because “we can pray in a way with which they are familiar.” She attributes their acceptance of her to the unassuming way she builds a connection to them. She does not preach or proselytize; she just comes to be with them and address their spiritual needs. “Even if I know I cannot fix anything,” she explains, “I just have to be there for them. The most you can do is bring some peace by addressing their needs or just sitting with them and being present.” For the patients with dementia who sometimes cannot be reached in normal conversation, she sings familiar old songs and hymns. Music is a powerful medium. She prays for her patients and provides grief support too.
She returns again and again to this theme–the simple act of being present, to care in the most loving way possible and be able to trust the process. As she says, “You put them in God’s hands.” When I remarked that this sounds a lot like what a midwife does for the birth process, she confessed that she was also a certified birth doula. The beginning and the end of life paradoxically require a similar touch it seems.
Such was her experience with Mary, an elderly matriarch. As it was the occasion of her 100-year birthday party, many extended family members were on their way to her house, as Sarah her chaplain provided a visit. She remembers Mary’s close family and relatives present in her bedroom along with her dog. While they were in the midst of praying for her, she passed away. Her passing was so peaceful, the family almost didn’t notice it. So peaceful, calm, and quiet was her passing that once they had finished saying Amen they looked down at her and realized she had gone. When the rest of her relatives arrived, some from many miles away, bearing gifts and good wishes, they came to celebrate with her a different sort of birthday. The beginning and end of her life came full circle and marked the passage into a new one.
This Sarah cited as an example of a good death, the kind we pray for in the liturgy. Doesn’t she get depressed or overwhelmed when dealing with the emotional and spiritual needs of so many ill and dying? On the contrary, she reminds us that mindfulness of death is an Orthodox spiritual practice. She quotes from step 6 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus. While death is shunned and stuffed under the carpet in American society, for the Orthodox it should be in constant remembrance; something her job allows her to do every day. “It is a blessing to encounter people who have peaceful deaths as it gives us courage, helps us be mindful of our relationship with God and to love our neighbor,” she retorts.
In essence her whole job is a practice in Orthodox ascetics. “Women and lay people of the Orthodox Church have been ministering to the sick and dying for centuries,” she asserts. “Caring for the sick, visiting those in nursing homes, those who are bedridden is fundamental to our life as Christians. This is what we are all called to do. This is both the most simple and most profound way we know God. This is what is referenced in Matthew 25 in the parable of the sheep and the goats. “
Even so, however, serving as a chaplain in a health care environment is different from ministry within the church, as she ministers to people of all faiths or no faith. For these patients, she defines her role as “to identify sources of spiritual comfort and strength and to facilitate spiritual wholeness.” It is about facilitating peace and dignity at end of life, and helping patients and families process their feelings, hopes, and fears about death. She cannot have an agenda, she says, but instead meets the patient where he/she is to develop a trusting pastoral relationship.
“Essentially we are the hands of God for each other,” she maintains.
For more information about health care chaplaincy and how to get involved as a woman, visit http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/affiliates/chaplains