As I began my morning routine, I reflected on the daily e-mail that appeared in my in-box from Richard Rohr’s website. Rohr, a Franciscan priest, is an internationally known speaker and author who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. The message was “Hope: What word of hope do we have to offer to the millions of people in the world who see no meaning in their lives?”

Rohr continued: “For most people in the world the question is not, ‘Is there a life on the other side of death?’  It is, rather, ‘Is there life on this side of death?’  Until we Christians give evidence that there is life on this side of death, the world has no reason to believe our dogmas or our giant churches. It doesn’t need our words of hell. It needs some evidence of heaven.”

Those powerful words took me back to my days as a chaplain in a West Coast hospital. As a student in clinical pastoral education, I requested two patient populations to serve, those suffering with cancer and with substance abuse. My supervisor gave me a look that would later become quite familiar in our relationship — and asked me to reflect further on whether this might be a rather ambitious journey for a first-assignment chaplain.

I recalled my response: “No further reflection needed, this is my reason for being here.” My call and my journey had been strongly influenced by a friend who died of cancer, and by my dad, who died from complications of alcoholism. The staff in the hospital oncology unit welcomed me with open arms.

However, the approval process for a chaplain providing services in the substance abuse residential rehabilitation unit proved to be quite rigorous. My first in a series of interviews began with the executive director of the program, a former Marine. He had a military posture and presence. I felt very small as I sat in a chair across from his desk.

His comfort level increased as we continued to meet and he understood my reason for requesting the assignment. He agreed to accept my services with the stipulation that I facilitate a weekly group spirituality session in addition to the one-on-one services I had offered.

The thought of weekly group sessions terrified me, but I found myself answering quickly in the affirmative, nodding my head with a firm “yes.”

The group sessions proved to be the real essence of my pastoral care training, more than the academic reading and writing in my pastoral care masters program. I had some affirmative moments being present with people who sought meaning and purpose. I had an “aha” moment when the majority of people in a group session walked out of the room, unable to sit quietly for a 20-minute guided meditation. A post-reflection caused me to wonder: “What was I thinking?”

As I continued in the chaplaincy program, I found my experiences with each population provided nourishment to one another and a sacred integration. Many of my experiences and learnings with people at end-of-life in the oncology unit translated to my ministry and work in the weekly group sessions. I found people in the group sessions interested in my work with patients at end-of-life, and patients at end-of-life were curious about my group work.

During the next few months, a number of people from the weekly group sessions signed up for one-on-one sessions. On a Friday afternoon during Lent, a man in his late 60s joined me for a one-on-one session. He shared his story of a lifelong battle with drugs and alcohol that began at a young age. He gazed out the window at intervals as if expecting someone or something to appear.

After finishing his story, he reached for my hand and placed it gently in his large weathered hand. He referenced my work with patients at end-of-life in the oncology unit, posing a question that was in the form of a statement: “You worked with people with cancer, who are afraid to die?” After nodding my head to affirm, he said, “We’re not afraid to die, we’re afraid to live.”

He was referring to himself and others in the rehabilitation unit suffering from substance abuse and related illnesses.

It was a life-changing moment to hear the wisdom and pain shared by Henry. Everything I learned in that moment and the moments that followed could not be summed up easily into words, but it became part of the sacred integration of my ministry in the months to follow. Whenever I am present with someone who is near death and who is afraid, I feel Henry’s presence.

I look back on Richard Rohr’s reading “is there a life on the other side of death?” or “is there life on this side of death?” Both are questions we pose as we search for meaning and purpose in our lives, and while at times it may not appear so, there is life on this side of death. 

Teresa Schulz is a spiritual director, lay theologian, retreat facilitator, lecturer, volunteer chaplain and co-founder of mainespiritus and Tools for Intentional Living.