Wild Walt: Secular Chaplain

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Chaplain Walt during the Civil War

As I explore the Edges of Chaplaincy (and Chaplains are good “edge-walkers”), I keep returning to the example set 150 years ago by Walt Whitman.  Yes, the poet, the gray and gay poet, the non-religious but very “spiritual” Long Islander, the same fellow shunned for his shameless verse.  And, the same writer who became one of America’s greatest, like him or not.

Whenever I want to be reminded of the highest examples of what I think makes a Good Chaplain a Great Chaplain, I turn to Walt in the Civil War.  When he wasn’t singing his “hymns” to Nature and Democracy and America, he was simply trying to help in a helpless situation.  As more and more wounded soldiers were brought to hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area, Whitman felt drawn to be there, to assist in any simple way he could.  Here’s how he described his volunteer work in Specimen Days published in 1882:

“In my visits to the hospitals I found it was in the simple matter of personal presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism, that I succeeded and helped more than by medical nursing, or delicacies, or gifts of money, or anything else.”

“On my regular daily and nightly rounds. . .dotting a ward here and there are always cases of poor fellows, long-suffering under obstinate wounds, or weak and disheartened from typhoid fever, or the like; marked cases, needing special and sympathetic nourishment..  These I sit down and either talk to, or silently cheer them up.  They always like it hugely (and so do I).  Each case has its peculiarities, and needs some new adaptation.  I have learned to thus conform–learned a good deal of hospital wisdom.  Some of the poor young chaps, away from home for the first time in their lives, hunger and thirst for affection; this is sometimes the only thing that willl reach their condition.  The men like to have a pencil, and something to write in.  I have given them cheap pocket diaries, and almanacs for 1864 [with] blank paper.  For reading I generally have some old [magazines].  Also the evening and morning papers.  The best books I do not give, but lend to read. . . .

In these wards, or on the field, as I thus continue to go round, I have come to adapt myself to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn, . . .not only visits and cheering talk and little gifts–not only washing and dressing wounds. . .

In camp and everywhere I was in the habit of reading or giving recitations to the men.  They were very fond of it.  We would gather in a large group by ourselves, after supper, and spend the time in such readings, or in talking, and occasionally by an amusing game called. . .twenty questions.”

Examples for Chaplains in Walt Whitman:

1) Personal presence

2) Regular rounds

3) Providing sympathetic nourishment

4) Sit down and talk, or be silent

5)  Adapting and conforming to the environment

6)  Gaining wisdom

7)  Giving writing and reading materials

8) Ability to adapt to emergencies

9) “Washing and dressing wounds” (in one way or another)

10) Reading together

11) Gathering in groups

12) Sharing a meal

13)  Playing

14)  Enjoying questions

These are some basic and essential principles I take from someone who never called himself a Chaplain, without seminary training or support from any religious group, who may never be accepted as a Chaplain anywhere today, but who practiced the most effective Secular Chaplaincy I have seen.

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