Mah spiritual needz!

Since this came up in comments on my previous post, I thought I’d regale readers with the tale of that one time I had a so-called nondenominational cleric and self-proclaimed “spiritual counselor” approach me during chemo.

Yes, some pasty-faced white d00d in a somber black suit and white collar straight out of central casting came by my station, introduced himself as a “spiritual counselor” and handed me his business card:

Yes that’s right: an official Staff Chaplain was here to help me with aaaaall mah spiritual counseling needz! Whoo-hoo!

Now, contrary to my fearsome reputation as a raging, fire-breathing, anti-theist terrorist*, I do not generally begrudge my free fellow Americans their own personal supernatural fantasies and frivolities, except for when I do absolutely and unequivocally begrudge them. For instance, when they see fit to inflict said fantasies and frivolities upon myself or others by force of law or otherwise. And I have a particularly dismal opinion of clergy, whom I hold in the very lowest esteem for many reasons, including the fact that they are either primary vectors for spreading all manner of hellish evils and deadly nonsense here in the US and around the world, or at best apologists therefor. Also, in my experience clergy are, without exception, all. flaming. narcissists.

And yet, believe it or not, I was SUPER NICE to the Staff Chaplain! We had a looong chat wherein I pretended to be interested in his theological education and its flavor of supernaturalism: some kind of Protestant Christian (*omg yawn*). Then I asked him about his chaplaining philosophy and experience: “oh, it’s non-denominational,” he answered. Why, he could provide me with Buddhist spiritual counseling, even! He said so when I pressed, and I pretended to be impressed.

This “conversation,” if we can call it that, went on and on AND ON, more or less in the form of a monologue, with just a few little prompts and prods here and there from me: his utterly captive audience, attached at the chest to slowly draining IV bags via a one-inch needle recently pierced into a surgically implanted port.

But this part was expected. Just ask any run-of-the-mill narcissist to talk about themselves, then sit back and behold the MEEEEEE that pours forth without end.

Once I was sure he was enjoying himself thoroughly, I pounced. I asked him ever so sweetly about, you know, his actual counseling qualifications. Any certifications? None. Academic degrees in psychology? None. Clinical social work? None. Perhaps institutional internships or residencies as a counselor? None. Any actual license to practice counseling in New York State? None.


“Huh,” I said cooly, and pretended to be disappointed. Hurt, even.

By this point his hackles were visibly rising, but yet he looked torn. I mean, I had only moments ago been such a delightful, rapt and eager listener, so generous with my encouraging wide eyes, “uh-huhs” and a few tactical “wows.”

I waited a beat – and yes, I admit I enjoyed watching him squirm – then casually dropped the “Well, I’m atheist” bomb. “But I am sooo interested in discussing religion and spirituality with you! I’ve got nothing but time to kill here!”

The Staff Chaplain seemed taken aback for a second, maybe two. Then he very quickly offered up some banal farewell pleasantries, and oh man, this d00d was out the door of the chemo suite in a streaky black blur. Oh well. I guess nobody else locked up to hideous poisons drip drip dripping into their fragile veins was in need of spiritual counseling that day?**

Listen, as far as I’m concerned, amusing myself by toying with a clergyperson while I’m quite literally stuck getting chemo? Now that is addressing mah spiritual needz!

I never once saw him again at the hospital, despite being a frequent flyer. Or maybe he just saw me first.

*Okay, so maybe I am a hopeless raging, fire-breathing, anti-theist terrorist. But I prefer to think of myself, at least in this instance, as a raging, fire-breathing, anti-theist Cheshire Cat.

Sir John Tenniel's hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat in the Tree Above Alice for The Nursery "Alice"

**Yes I know, there were religious/spiritual/nondenominational/whatever patients lining the long wall of the chemo suite right along with me. But Iris, don’t they deserve access to an official Staff Chaplain to comfort them if they so desire? HOW COULD YOU BE SO AWFUL?!!! Indeed, I myself have said before, not coincidentally to my therapist, and also to my much-missed dear friend and FtB colleague Caine, cancer treatments are trauma. Full stop.

But no. No, my fellow patients most certainly do not deserve this. And I’ll tell you why in my next post.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    It’s also a bit sadistic to pull this shit on someone who can’t just get up and leave.

  2. DonDueed says

    I have mixed feelings about this post, Iris. My late father (a mainstream protestant minister) spent a good chunk of his working life as a hospital chaplain. Unlike your buddy, though, he had quite a bit of training and certification (the field is known as Clinical Pastoral Education). I very much doubt that Dad would have behaved as this clown did, but it’s hard to be sure since from your post it sounds like you were initially receptive to his approach. If you didn’t want to be bothered, you could have just said so and, if the chaplain had been trained at all, he would have fucked off.

    What really disturbs me is that your hospital/clinic allowed untrained people to serve in counseling roles with official imprimatur.

  3. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply Don. I have, or had, mixed feelings about it too, until I thought more about this context. Are you discussing the U.S. specifically? Because [Okay I was gonna write about this in another post so SPOILER ALERT FOR ONE THING!] the U.S. healthcare non-system is a notorious for-profit enterprise, and this gentleman’s card says Staff Chaplain – not Volunteer Chaplain.* This arrangement means payment. And given his hours, it’s a full-time gig. I admittedly know nothing about “Clinical Pastoral Education,” but in this system it strikes me as deeply immoral to fund a full-time position for explicitly religious “education” or “counseling” in lieu of a licensed, appropriately (i.e. science-based) academically credentialed trauma specialist. Or in lieu of no one at all, given that we already have much higher healthcare costs per capita and worse outcomes than other developed nations.

    *Yes I also have problems with a Volunteer Chaplain too. But I’m saving that for my post. If I can…

  4. DonDueed says

    Iris, I know where you’re coming from. As I said above, I don’t think anyone should be providing counseling in a hospital setting without training, paid or volunteer. As you point out, any such counselor has to deal with some of the most traumatic circumstances in the lives of patients and their families. It’s no place for even well-meaning amateurs. And while you or I might not feel the need of comfort or a sympathetic ear when we’re ill, there are plenty of people who do welcome it. Many hospitals (religious or secular) consider it part of the care plan.

    In my Dad’s case, he was a parish minister for many years and in that milieu was also a counselor, and with minimal training at that. Parishes have congregations, and congregations are made up of people who have both good times (weddings, births, …) and bad (illness, aging, death). A good minister handles all those situations, visits shut-ins and folks in the hospital, helps people through grief. And yet, when he changed career to become a full-time hospital chaplain, he went through a lot more training before he was considered qualified.

    He was a veteran (WWII and Korea) and chose to serve his fellow veterans as a VA hospital chaplain for the last 15 or 20 years of his working life. For what it’s worth, it annoyed him to no end when he encountered a bloody fool like your buddy — the type who would proselytize to the patients or their families, ignore their wishes to be left alone, and the like. He recognized that for the abuse it is when it’s imposed on someone at one of the lowest points in their life.

  5. DonDueed says

    Oh, and to clarify: Clinical Pastoral Education is the training the CHAPLAIN receives to become qualified to serve in a hospital (or similar) setting. I see that you may have thought that the chaplain was doing the educating. My bad for a poorly worded comment.

  6. Jazzlet says

    Ambusher ambushed, HAH!

    MrJ wasn’t even approached by the chaplain when he was in hospital although the man approached all the other patients that were awake and Mr J’s ability to move at any speed was constrained by a catheter and associated bag. Mr J was very smug “I didn’t know I radiated ‘fuck off minister!’ so clearly”. Mind if the chaplain had behaved the way we are deploring he would have had a hard time, Mr J had a pal at school who was a Jehovah’s Witness and they used to have many discussions on the JW’s claims; later the JW would bring round almost fully trained trainee door knockers, because if they survived Mr J they’d survive anyone else they were likely to encounter.

  7. says

    DonDueed 5: I can see you have a deep love for your father and respect for his career choice(s), so I will say this kindly, once.

    I am 100% opposed to explicitly religious counselors (“trained” or otherwise) operating officially in healthcare settings.

    This is where we agree to disagree, at least until I get my post on this subject up. Fair enough?

    But also, a word of warning: thanks for ‘splaining how ministers, congregations and milestone life events work. But you know I already understand all of that. Deign to ‘splain to me again here at your own peril.

    Jazzlet 7: Ooooh Mr J sure sounds like my kinda man. If only I could radiate ‘fuck off minister!’ so clearly! Alas, it’s a gift I obviously do not possess. *sigh*

  8. secmilchap says

    Being a Humanist Chaplain is lots more fun. I visit homebound disabled veterans and we tell Sea Stories, play checkers, work on crafts (last project with one was building some windchimes), &c. Seems to take care of all those Speerchul Needz.

  9. DonDueed says

    I apologize for the ‘splaining. My point (perhaps poorly framed) was that even people who have backgrounds like my father’s are not considered to be properly trained for counseling in clinical settings.

    I do understand your objection to religious counselors in those settings. I won’t say any more until I can read your promised post.

  10. flexilis says

    The late Stephanie Savage ( began her blog at Patheos Nonreligious with her stories about a pastor/chaplain while she was in and recovering from a coma. Her writing was delightful and she is greatly missed.

    Hint: the term Miracle Girl is ironic.

    Iris, Hope you are doing well. Love your blog.