Rev. Shawn Mai: Religious Stories as a Framework for Healing

Reverend Shawn Mai

Reverend Shawn Mai, a Lutheran chaplain and manager of chaplains and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at United Hospital in St. Paul.

Reverend Shawn Mai is a Lutheran chaplain at United Hospital in St. Paul, where he is also the Spiritual Care Manager and Director of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). His office is part of the Spiritual and Pastoral Care Department in the Doctor's Professional Building at the hospital. The department, in addition to a small kitchen and several offices, had a large bookcase with a plethora of texts such as On Health and Dying, Beyond Sympathy, Reaching Out, and The Christian Theology Reader. In Rev. Mai's office, he had drawn the week's schedule for all of the chaplains at the hospital, laying out their assignments to units and groups or individuals that needed to be seen, such as the hospital's brain tumor support group. Rev. Mai explained his career journey through college and seminary and how he came to be interested in the work of a hospital chaplain.

I went through college; I got a religion degree and a sociology degree and had some draw to going to seminary that made some sense for me . . . I didn't know that chaplaincy existed. I worked for two years in a parish and the thing I liked to do the most were [the hospital calls]. I did hospital calls three times a week, and after my first year of seminary I did my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in a trauma hospital and I just felt like I had arrived home. I guess, fundamentally, I have such a strong belief in this trajectory towards wholeness that we're all on, like growing in awareness and acceptance of ourselves. Working with people in a time [when] everybody that walks through the door in one way shape or form is in crisis . . . I would imagine there is a little anxiety about how this is going to be, it comes into your life and affects your life and how you see yourself. I think I have a fascination and attention to my own process, so it grows out of a personal work that I do and have done, a fascination with how we operate emotionally. Theology is something that I’ve always liked and it sort of all intersects in a hospital.
—Rev. Shawn Mai

At United Hospital, Rev. Mai has been routinely exposed to people in crisis. He emphasized his role in chaplaincy as an active listener and a supporter of well-being and growth in both the physical and spiritual realms. Rev. Mai said these components are fundamentally linked to each other, an observation that underlies both CPE and holistic medical care.

As human beings we're meaning-making creatures, we're always putting our stories together about what is going on. So I see my role as presence, listening, reflecting, and what I believe is that our health and our arena, in terms of our spirit, that actually my spirit's health has a physiological impact on the rest of my body; to promote healing, to be able to manage anxiety and stress about what's going on. Part of how we make meaning as human beings is through our belief systems. So that's the other role I see the chaplains taking and that is to help people connect to what is meaningful in their belief system and what are meaningful parts of that belief system that I can help facilitate their connection to. Like for example as a Roman Catholic, the sacraments are important, so facilitating sacraments for you if that's something that was meaningful for you.
—Rev. Shawn Mai

Thus, according to Rev. Mai, a patient's theology and religious background can help them to make meaning and to "manage [the] anxiety and stress about what’s going on." He also noted that religious stories and metaphors can serve as beneficial allegories for a patient or a family going through crisis. Rev. Mai explained how sacred stories can help religious or spiritual patients normalize their feelings and find a source of hope and comfort. He discussed the value of such stories in the hospital setting and in the larger healing process.

[When patients are] feeling forsaken, stories and metaphors and those sorts of things then become huge in terms of resources like drawing on the Old Testament stories of the Israelites in the wilderness. When somebody feels lost, yeah, the Israelites felt a lot of fear out in the wilderness and, 'Am I going to die out here?' 'Has God abandoned me?' And somebody who has begun to move on to something that they don't know what it looks like. It's like, 'Oh I want to go back,' taking that same story the Israelites wanted to go back into Egypt but they would be slaves so that's not a great alternative so there's maybe some courage in moving forward because the story is a sense of, 'Okay so I can step into the wilderness and trust and somehow, some way God's going to provide and I'm going to be cared for.'
—Rev. Shawn Mai

However, not all patients are religious and some have religious texts that the chaplains might be unfamiliar with. In those instances, poems and other stories serve the same function as the Old Testament stories Rev. Mai described above. Poetry can provide a "piece to read to someone who needs something to hang on to."