How does one capture the flames of a burning bush? Trying to describe what happens when God calls our name can be hard. I tried for years to explain to myself what changed inside me at midlife, turning an English professor into a hospital chaplain.
Then one morning, during a family conference on the pediatric ward, a physician unwittingly gave me the words. He spoke about life’s blood and movements of the heart.
“The blood has to flow backward,” the doctor explained. “The right side of the heart is strongest in the womb, but in the world the left side takes over. The circulation changes direction. Backward.”
The bereaved parents’ eyes were still—the mother’s cast toward her lap on something far away. Maybe on the baby who had nestled there, safe in her body, not so long ago.
The father’s eyes were bright with tears. The tears never slid down his cheeks, but every now and then he would blink quickly as if trying to force them back. He blew his nose. His eyes stayed bright.
Her eyes moved with life only once, when the doctor said, “There is no sign before birth of a problem like this. We don’t know why it happens. Something just doesn’t work right as the puzzle of the body is being put together. Some children escape it; some do not.”
Her eyes flew upward. A scathing glance at God? It looked almost as if she were rolling them, but not quite. Anger, or maybe grim irony, glowed there. Her baby had been the one whose lungs had been too small for the body they needed to support.
Her perfect, 39-week baby. He did not escape. But she expressed gratitude to the doctor and nurses for all they had done.
She hugged the doctor—or maybe he hugged her—as the meeting broke up. I had watched the obstetrician’s face as he talked to the couple; once or twice his personal anguish showed.
The baby’s father quietly followed his wife and the doctor out of the room. Corrine, my supervisor, would be taking the bereft parents to the medical records area so they could pick up a copy of the autopsy report.
I walked back to my office alone, thinking about the cruelty of it: to carry a baby to term—a baby who comes out looking just beautiful—and suddenly he cannot breathe, stays blue instead of warming to a healthy pink.
You cannot know until after the baby is born, the doctor said. More than once, he wanted to absolve the parents of any guilt that might come with foreknowledge. And probably he also wanted to absolve the medical team, who could not have known, not even with all their amazing technology.
A Sudden Change of Direction
The image that stayed with me after the family conference was that of the blood suddenly being asked to flow backward. A sudden—and permanent—change in direction on which life depends every single time a baby emerges from the womb and takes its first breath.
Blood flowing backward. Life energy somersaulting to adapt to new circumstances—within the space of a minute. Change direction or die.
Survival often demands that of us, especially in times of grief. Learn to go backward from everything you’ve ever known.
The metaphor is powerful.
But how do you unlove the lover who has left you forever; walk toward death with the cancer-sick child who tells you he can fight no more; turn your back on the vocation you had long embraced, so certain it was God’s call—only to find out it was not?
In such circumstances your heart must beat in a different rhythm, do an about-face, push and pump contrariwise.
Small wonder that in the process so many hearts break. And sometimes babies die.
For myself, sometime between the turn of the century and now, my blood began to run backward. Having earned a PhD in English, gained tenure at my first job, and secured a professorship at the same college where my husband worked—all career accomplishments that should have fueled contentment—I woke each morning feeling trapped.
My heart felt sluggish. I confided in a close friend—a Lutheran—who stunned me by suggesting, “Why don’t you go to seminary?”
Those are startling words for a married Catholic woman. My heart skipped a beat.
True, in youth I had seriously considered religious life, the Benedictine ideal of work and prayer resonating with the rhythm of my heart. Ultimately, I made different life choices. I found deep, abiding joy in the vocation of family with my husband and our three children. I loved teaching literature.
But some deep need was left unanswered. This uneasiness—was it God bidding my blood to turn?
Unlike our physical experience as newborns, when blood shifts direction with marvelous efficiency, spiritual change later in life can be slow. Though I felt my blood stir at God’s whisper, I was haunted by memories of my own failed compassion.
At the age of 27, early in my teaching career, I found that I could not voice my sympathy to a student whose brother had accidentally killed himself with a shotgun.
At 33, I was unable to face the bereaved neighbor whose 3-year-old had died suddenly of the flu—not even when she stood at our back fence sharing her grief with my husband.
And at age 37, I backed away in pity and horror from the volunteer work I had just begun at a local nursing home. I entered my name in the computer log after my first visit—and never returned.
From Professor to Hospital Chaplain
The year I turned 40, my husband accepted a university position near Chicago, a job that required resignation from my professorship and a 300-mile move for our family.
His enthusiasm and hope about his new position became for me a sign. I, who had so feared and avoided death, would take a deep breath and try again. I started volunteer work at the hospice in our new town—and stayed.
When our youngest son started school, I enrolled in the master of divinity program at Catholic Theological Union. Sitting in class with seminarians and laity, I sensed a deep, surging joy.
Then, while I fulfilled the practicum requirement at a regional hospital, my heart’s labor began in earnest—the blood not just turning, but sometimes rushing fearfully backward.
Skilled midwives of the soul, my mentors in spiritual care accompanied me—listening to my questions and fears, guiding me until I found a home among people seeking healing of body and spirit.
I finished my divinity degree, was hired as a chaplain, and became board-certified with the endorsement of my bishop.
Jesus said we must be born again. I feel great sympathy for Nicodemus, so puzzled by the thought of a man returning to his mother’s womb. A literal thinker, Nicodemus struggled to fit this strange demand into an understanding of the world he could recognize.
But Jesus calls us to a brave new world—a world that looks, smells, and sounds utterly different, and will never feel the same again.
The Pharisee Nicodemus, whom John tells us “first came to Jesus by night” out of fear (19:39), ends up boldly accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to bury his dead Lord.
Our blood runs counter to what came before—or it does not run at all.
On my 52nd birthday, my elderly father told me he was proud of what I had achieved in becoming a chaplain, something he had never said about my PhD. Observing that my work sometimes involves closing the eyes of the dead, he said, “That is a very touching thing.”
I was embarrassed. “I don’t know,” I said. “I am able to do it, so I do.” I am able to do it because God—patient and persistent—bid my blood run backward.
Yet my blood still runs cold when I watch young parents bury a child, their own childhood scarcely past. My blood boils at the injustice of babies suffering, old people being stripped of dignity, or good people enduring heartbreak.
I don’t know whether it hurts newborn babies when their circulation changes direction, but I know for sure that when my heart turned on me, it hurt.
Hope amid Heartbreak
I have not always embraced the change. I fought that differently coursing blood when, during my second year at Catholic Theological Union, the student shootings occurred at Northern Illinois University, where my husband teaches.
I fought it when, as a neophyte chaplain, I watched a sweet woman spit up fecal material as she died—so very slowly—of pancreatic cancer.
I fought it when, late in my first year of clinical training, children experienced sudden death in the emergency room.
Those battles hurt so much that I could almost have wished every drop of blood would be drained from my body. Better bloodless than broken.
Yet, almost as fast as I have run away from grief and death, I have been compelled to walk into its midst. And (the true miracle) there—in hospice and hospital—I have found experience that speaks hope just as strongly as despair, and profound love that runs deeper than the deepest heartbreak.
This doesn’t end the heartbreak, of course. How could it? Rebirth of spirit, like bodily birth, is ever bound to danger, pain, and risk. As Nicodemus learned, our blood turns to the fl owing of our tears.
I will never forget the baby boy who taught me this lesson. Peace to Nathan, whose name means “God’s gift.” Peace to the parents who still grieve and will always love him.
And peace to all whose blood God bids turn, and who answer by following their hearts.