In our bones we have a sense of the sacred, of a relationship to a power greater than ourselves that is archetypal and prehistorical. Jean S. Bolen, M.D.
Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, went out onto the plain of Enna one sunny morning innocently gathering wildflowers. Hades, the god of the underworld, who coveted Persephone as his bride, chose this moment of unprotected innocence to rise up through a huge gap in the earth. Riding in his chariot he abducted Persephone back into the murky depths of the underworld. Demeter, the goddess of fertility and growth withdrew in mourning for the loss of her daughter causing the earth to turn barren and cold. As famine spread across the land, Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to rescue his daughter. Hades agreed to let her go but for only part of the year during the seasons of growth and harvest. During the winter, Persephone must return to the underworld to live.
Unlike Persephone, the Sumerian goddess of the outer world, Inanna, chose to enter into the underworld of her own accord to visit her sister Ereshkigal. Descending through a series of gateways into the dark unknown, she surrendered pieces of clothing and jewelry at each threshold. Finally, bowed and naked, she entered the final gates of the underworld alone, frightened and without any of the trappings of her outer world existence.
The underworld motif found in myth and religion is an apt metaphor for the world the patient enters when undergoing treatment for a life-threatening illness or emergency trauma. Whether snatched like Persephone against her will into the confusing turmoil of the emergency room due to a sudden accidental trauma or, like Inanna, deciding with purpose to descend into the complexities of a treatment program for a serious disease or condition, patients enter the dark underworld often accompanied only by fear and pain. In myth, the underworld was not only considered a place where mortals entered after they died, but also a place for the living as well, whose souls were doomed to wander in the shadows of a surreal existence outside of the norm.
Like Persephone and Inanna, bewildered and stripped of their outer world personae and attachments, patients descend through the various gateways of medical tests, operations, and treatments into the underworld of a trauma one hospital. Faced with the dark unknown, patients often experience pain, fear, and anger at the loss of control that comes with the new frightening and unfamiliar surroundings. This is usually the point at which the chaplain enters a patient’s life as a presence of compassion but also as a symbol of the sacred journey towards healing and wholeness. Chaplains are companions of brief duration in this frightening environment offering a willing ear and open heart. Some patients do not return from this journey but those who do are, like Persephone and Inanna, forever changed by the experience.
As a trauma one hospital chaplain, I saw the gamut of accidents and diseases that brought patients in for emergency care. During the progression and treatment of a life-threatening illness or sudden life-altering accident, a patient’s psychological defenses start to crumble revealing inner truths which have long been ignored. Sometimes these truths are too painful to fully acknowledge. A mother who has always put the needs of family members first now feels empty when they fail to respond in like manner. A successful businessman fights to maintain the mask of control amid bouts of panic and fear. A cancer patient, experiencing the shock of a terminal diagnosis after recently returning from the cruise vacation of a lifetime where all was right with the world, is numb to any words of consolation.