For Valentine’s Day: A Love Letter to My Friend

2014-05-10 20.08.47

Love leaf. (Oahu, Hawaii, May 2014)


My dear friend, colleague, and comrade,

I have been thinking about you. I was in a drugstore a few weeks ago and saw it festooned with Valentine’s Day items. When did that happen?!

Ever since our New Year’s move to the east coast, I have been feeling like I need a seasonal-holiday reboot. Like I have a sort of jet lag that put me off by months instead of hours. We all but missed Christmas and New Year’s entirely. We were so mired in lists of Things to Do, and pretty much just drowning in stress. (Did I tell you how I nearly lost all of the boys’ Christmas gifts?)

Now, suddenly, the drugstore aisles are chock full of red hearts and white doilies and the worst candies known to creation…

In short, the gods of the drugstore say it is time to think about love.

And I have been thinking of you.

It was a few months ago the last time we really talked. You confessed how deeply lonely you feel, how terribly you have been wishing for the presence of a partner. Someone to come home to. Someone to face all the craziness with. Someone to embrace you after a tolling day, horrible commute, or wondrous occurrence.

I felt the pain of your loneliness myself. That specific, empty ache, as if something essential were missing from inside my own chest.

You spoke of leaving your ministry path in hopes that a more reasonable setting might leave space for finding love. I doubt I gave you even half the friendship you needed at that moment. I admit I was a little paralyzed. All I could think is how much wonderful, world-healing work you do in your current ministry. How desperately I need you as a colleague, here in the spiritual trenches. The selfish part of me was locked in combat with the nurturer. At best, I probably mumbled something as useless as the Indigo Girls song promising how love would come when the time was right, and yada yada yada.

Now Valentine’s Day is upon us. And really, I have to wonder: whose miserable idea for a holiday was this? Don’t get me wrong—I am right there with you in loving love. I can be an absolute, love-struck sap. But A Day? For lovers to prove to themselves and the world how positively freaking love-besotted they are? For roses to double in price and suitors to compete tooth-and-claw for table reservations?

A day for all who are uncoupled to feel less than?

Did you know the Catholics have a patron saint of the lonely: St. Rita of Casica. Poor Rita wanted to be a nun from the time she was a little girl, but it being the 14th century and all, her family married her off to an abusive brute. Eventually he was killed in a fight, freeing her to live out her life as an Augustine sister and work wonders of healing and peace.


Rita of Cascia: saint of lost causes, widows, and lonely hearts.

Her day is May 22. Do you think we could market that?

In all earnestness, I have been thinking how helpless I feel when it comes to loneliness. Helpless to proffer advice, helpless to offer comfort that works. Mourning the death of a loved one is tough. Yet when I minister to someone grieving, I can directly look into their eyes and say with absolute certainty that time will ease their grief and make their losses easier to bear.

Not so with loneliness. Especially not the romantic sort. Who can say when that tall, dark stranger (or short, fair one) will stumble into one’s life? Time doesn’t heal when one is hoping for love. Often, time feels like the enemy.

I see this too even among married folks. Recently, another dear colleague/friend shared with me his loneliness in heart-breaking terms. His marriage is hollowed out; he and his spouse resigned themselves to a sort of relationship limbo. They forge on as a couple, as a family, but unable to reach one other anymore. In many ways, he is very much like you: intelligent, successful, kind, admired by all of us who know or have met him. Yet beneath his full, productive life, there is a constant, gnawing sense of being-all-alone that he fears will never end.

Not too long ago, I was where you are, feeling so alone that every night in bed it felt like I had to nurse my loneliness to sleep before I could drift off. The absence was so acute it seemed like a whole, demanding being of its own. During the day, I could send it off to forage for itself. At night, though, there was no way out: loneliness was my insistent partner.

During that period, a spiritual mentor asked me, “How is your prayer life?”

The hurting part of me resented her at that moment. I wanted to bonk her right on her caring, pastoral nose. Here I was, trapped in one of the most profoundly human dilemmas—a human aching for human comfort—and she was talking to me about God and prayer.

“Not very good at this time.” I said. “Sun-up to sun-down is so busy, most days I just make it through.”

“Then,” she said, “this is a time you need others to pray for you.”


I don’t know if you know this about me, but back in divinity school, I wrote my thesis on the healing power of prayer—in particular, praying for others. Might sound like a wacky choice for a Unitarian Universalist, who at that point in my life, hesitated even to use the word “God” in my ministry, let alone arrange for intercessory prayer. Many of us UUs, to whatever extent we do believe in a higher power, believe in some sort of force or Spirit. Nothing like a man with a beard and an omniscient brain. (I have since evolved, or more accurately, revolved, and fully embrace traditional theistic language and call that “force” God.)

Many of us UUs also are firmly rooted in science and, as you probably well know in your own ministry practice, the science of prayer is intriguing. There is evidence that patients heal more quickly when others pray for their wellbeing. In some studies this holds true, even when the prayer is remote and patients have no idea whether or not they are in the “prayed-for” group. Other studies suggest that even remotely prayed-for plants more readily flourish.

Despite the skeptics of such studies, I wondered, “What could make this so?” I didn’t then and don’t now believe in the kind of God that helps football teams win games. I imagine prayer’s efficacy has something to do with the essential ways we are all, cosmically, connected. After all, the presence of others is healing, even for creatures as small and blissfully unphilosophical as mice. (Researchers found that mice experience pain more readily when they see their mouse friends in pain—and they experience pain less acutely when surrounded by healthy, happy mice!)

Perhaps this same kind of empathy and connection flows along quantum, quizzical routes. I am fully willing to believe there are levels of reality that connect us across vast distances, through love and thought. And maybe in the end this is what I most mean when I speak of God.

Which is not to say to you, with an obligatory pastoral head-tile, “My friend, I’m praying for you!” (Though I genuinely do lift you up in my prayers at times.)

It is to say that the mysteries of love are manifold, as are the forms it comes in.

I know friends cannot fill the role a lover does. And as for God? My aunt used to say, “Sometimes you just need God with skin on it.” I love that description. Sometimes we need that mystical reassurance that comes from being so close and quiet with another human being, we can listen to their beating heart and feel time slow down around us.

As for your career discernment, I support you fully, whatever life choices you make. Remaining here in the spiritual trenches or getting out to find other forms of fulfillment and joy. Whatever your choices, whatever your path, please know—if not remember—that you are, already, well and truly loved, by friends near and far. We see you for who you are: an extraordinarily beautiful and gifted person. We may not be able to fill completely that aching, empty space you talk about…but please do take our love to heart.

You need not feel more alone than you are.

It seemed that is what my spiritual mentor addressed in her own canny way, by suggesting she would have strangers pray for me.

I think she was telling me, really: “Let your heart feel every beautiful strand of love and care that travels to it, even from odd or far off destinations.”

Maybe, in a better world, that is what Valentine’s Day would be about? Not celebrating romantic love with awful candies, but remembering love in all its forms—remembering to send and share it in ever wider and widening circles.

Because, with all due respect to the vocal stylings of Whitney H., I am not one bit sure that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. I am still stuck on the idea that learning to love one another is. And learning to hold our hearts open, to really feel and collect all the love and Spirit that travel our way.

So whether we are looking at our own face in the mirror—or into the face of our One True Beloved—we see reflected there all the strength and love and care that fill us from so many different quarters.

Yours lovingly, at Valentine’s Day,




My first born, then 6 months, naturally understands. (Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV, April 2011)


Veteran’s Day 2014

Q&A with Harvard Divinity School (unedited)

Thursday 06 November 2014

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran's widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [June 2004]

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran’s widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [Arlington, VA, June 2004]

HDS:  First, a quick logistical item: Have you been serving as a Navy Chaplain since graduating in 1996?

I was scheduled to attend Naval Chaplaincy School in June 1996, directly upon graduating HDS. Those plans were scuttled by a scene straight from an ABC Movie of the Week: me—an eager 28 year old soon to embark upon her career—waiting for the results of tests done on what appeared to be a cyst, then sitting frozen as my doctor pronounced the words, “non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” So after graduation, instead of reporting to Chaplain School, I directly reported for chemo and radiation for two years.

After being cleared, I continued pursuing Naval Chaplaincy. Finally, in August 2001, I was commissioned and I attended Chaplain School in January 2002. As of 2014, I am 18 years cancer-free—and 13 years into a career that I wouldn’t change for anything.

HDS:  Where have your Naval travels taken you?

My first assignment (2002-2004) was in metropolitan Washington, DC. I served a Naval Base in Indian Head, MD, and the Marine Chemical Biological Incident Response Force unit stationed there. I also performed services at Arlington National Cemetery. Afterward (2004-2006), I served aboard the USS John C Stennis, an aircraft carrier. Travel-wise this was less exotic than you might expect, since the carrier was in dry dock at her homeport in Washington State. During that time (2005-2006), I was sent on an Individual Augmentation to the Joint Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—an assignment equally challenging and rewarding.

Following the ship, I was stationed in San Diego, CA (2006-2009), where I led programs and retreats on marriage enrichment, spiritual growth, and personal resilience. From there, I moved to Portland, ME (2009-2012), where I served as the Chaplain for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. I was then selected for Funded Graduate Education and attended the University of San Diego (2012-2013), where I received an MA in Peace and Justice Studies.

Most recently, I came here, Kaneohe, HI, where I now serve a Marine Combat Logistic Battalion. Every morning, my meditation walk on the beach reminds me what a blessing Naval service is. (I promise that’s the only bragging I’ll do about the spectacular view that comes with my current assignment. Actually, I love New England and miss it. Especially this time of year!)

HDS:  Back when you were on campus in 2008, you described yourself as a peace-loving pacifist. So, why did you choose to enter the military? Was there an experience you had while a student at HDS that influenced that decision?

I first experienced the call to ministry when I was eight years old (1975), in a moment that felt like a flash of recognition. It was an image that occurred to me while I was in sitting in the pews during a Sunday morning worship service—I saw myself on chancel, behind the pulpit, staring out at the congregation. Despite the utter illogic of it all (it seemed inconceivable that this skateboarding Tomboy who played drums would ever end up as a minister), I felt that someday, in fact, I would be that person on the chancel. Those moments of calling repeated themselves and matured.

In college (1985), my then boyfriend and I were driving from New Orleans, LA (where we were in school), to Panama City, FL, where he lived, and we stopped at the Naval Base in Pensacola, FL, to visit a classmate who also was in Tulane’s ROTC program. As soon as I stepped on base—which was my first time ever on a military installation—I had another powerful moment of recognition: this is where I am supposed to be. And this was unmistakably the military.

It wasn’t, however, as simple as that—just joining the Navy and being a chaplain. (There is nothing simple about being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist who finds herself called to military ministry!) But when I have felt a call, I know to follow it, and just surrender myself to where it leads.

After the Pensacola trip, I contacted a recruiter who gently pointed me toward Divinity School. After college, I attended HDS. And at HDS, I found my way to Unitarian Universalism, where I realized that this was the faith tradition from which I was meant to minister. But military ministry had been in the picture for a while.

HDS:  As a Navy chaplain, how did you wind up working with Marines in Hawaii? Further to that, what does a day in the life of a military chaplain look like? What does your ministry entail?

I’m in the front row (as usual) on the far left. (Not an intended metaphor.) [Kaneohe Bay, HI, June 2014]

Navy Chaplains serve all the sea services: Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. This is my second Marine tour. Like most Navy chaplains, I love serving the Marines! (Then again, I love being with the Coast Guard and the Navy.)

The job of a Navy chaplain is four-fold. First, we provide, which means we minister directly to service members of our own faith. (There are relatively few servicemembers who identify as UU, though I consider the “nones,” humanists, atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” to be mine.)

Second, we facilitate faith-based resources for those to whom we cannot directly minister. So, for instance, when one of my Catholic Marines who was going through a divorce and needed confession, I arranged for a priest to meet with him.

Third, we care for all service members, no matter their faith tradition. Another example, one of my Marines recently received an AMCROSS message (a message from the American Red Cross notifying him of his mother’s death). I delivered the news to him, held him while he cried, and accompanied him along his next steps. That kind of care is non-denominational at its root. That is pure love and compassion.

Finally, we advise. Up and down the Chain of Command. As a military chaplain, I enjoy 100% confidentiality in my pastoral relationships, which is a powerful thing. Even if a service member confesses intent to do harm to self or others, I cannot violate that pastoral bond, and all servicemembers know it. That means they come to me with some of the most searing and difficult issues imaginable, and it means that I often have more access to the “real story” of what’s happening on base than many Commanding Officers, investigators, lawyers, and counselors do.

So, how this relates to advisement then? Another example, one day a Marine comes to my office and describes a hazing incident. Later that week, a second Marine—from a different section—comes to see me and describes a similar story. Then a third. After the third, I thought these three incidents might be the tip of an iceberg, so I immediately brought it to my Commanding Officer (CO).

When I went to my CO, all I had to say was: “I think there might be a problem with hazing in the Battalion.” That was it. No examples of the incidents. No details that might compromise identities. Nothing. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, he was on the phone, coordinating with his subordinates, ensuring that anti-hazing policies are reinforced and Company Commanders and Senior Enlisted monitor their Marines more closely on this issue.

As for a typical workday, there is no typical workday. Usually it depends on the assignment. At present, I start my day before sunrise with a half-hour to hour meditation and prayer. At work, I’ll spend about 4-5 hours a day in counseling, an hour in physical training, and an hour on administrative tasks. Most important, I’ll spend 1-2 hours each day devoted to what’s called “deckplate” or “WAB” (Walking around the Battalion).

Deckplate/WAB is really the key. That’s when I get a sense of dynamics in the unit, and it’s how I get to know my Marines and sailors. Forging connections before crises happen is vital to any institutional ministry. It’s particularly vital in the military, where we are working with a young adult population with strong codes of masculinity in place. For them to reach out to me, they have to be comfortable. Getting to know them before the crises strike—that’s the heart of my job.

HDS:  You had mentioned that when it was announced during your HDS Commencement that you were going to pursue chaplaincy in the U.S. Navy, there was a collective gasp from the audience. You’ve even stated that your desire to serve as a military chaplain was “this odd calling that we don’t hear in the hallowed halls of Harvard.” Why do you think that was at the time, and do you have any sense that it’s shifted in the last couple years, especially as more campuses, including Harvard, welcome back certain ROTC programs due to the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law?

It was a challenge for many Unitarian Universalists to understand my call to military ministry. Some would aver that the only role for a spiritual guide in the midst of war is to call on combatants to lay down their arms and seek peace.

Yet, it’s important to consider what it means for the United States to have an all-volunteer service. The majority of enlisted are young adults who find that most roads to the “American Dream” are closed to them. For many who join the military, college is out of reach—and work available to high school graduates is a dirt path that doesn’t necessarily merge onto that American Dream road. Many of my Marines and sailors come from chaotic families, neighborhoods, and/or schools; they’re seeking a safe, orderly environment, a place where the rules are clear, and a place where they can really do their part with honor. Keeping this background in sight is important to understanding our current military.

I love academia, and I have boundless respect for the HDS community. Yet, for me, my big question is not really how prestigious campuses such as my fair Harvard view the military, or even how HDS colleagues view my call and the work I do. My question is, why would anyone want to restrict the kinds and types of ministerial presence available to a “congregation” such as this?

I minister to people, I don’t minister to military policy. I minister to individual servicemembers who are doing what they believe is right for themselves, their families, and their nation. Increasing numbers of servicemembers identify as “nones” or NRPs (“no religious preference”). (Many are even NPRs—National Public Radio-heads.) Increasing numbers are out as gay and lesbian. Increasing numbers are women. Why not have their choices of chaplains include those of us who are not conservative representatives of the Abrahamic faith traditions whose views (we assume) align more easily with military culture?

More often than not, I am the chaplain Marines, sailors, and their dependants come to discuss incidences of sexual assault. I also am the only one on island whose religious tradition allows me to counsel same-sex couples and perform same-sex marriages. And no matter who someone is or what their concerns are, my job is reminding my Marines, sailors, and family members that ours is a benevolent universe, that we belong to it and it belongs to us.

I make things more human for my Marines and sailors, and they make things more human for me: that is what we call fellowship; that’s what we call communion. Why not here? Why not exactly here of all places? Unitarian Universalists should be the first to understand that Spirit is everywhere.

HDS:  What is the single biggest challenge you face as a military chaplain?

For me, that’s not hard to answer: Being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist. I try to honor the complexity of my role and my position. I think of it as being a peace “mole”—a sort of turner of fresh earth, more than a spy.

I focus on the fellowship, companionship, and important ministry work I get to do with amazing young adults. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. There are times that I feel like a cog in the military industrial complex. There are times I feel misunderstood by both the military community and the UU community. But it is possible to build bridges. It’s all about relationships and small steps, there is just no way around that.

One professionally gratifying moment happened very early in my chaplain corps career. My primary instructor at the Naval Chaplain School—a rather intimidating senior ranking Navy chaplain who was a really conservative Southern Baptist and drove a pickup truck with a gun rack back home—said to me at graduation: “Chaplain Kane, I do know you’re a tree hugger and I don’t know what a UU is, but I think we oughta keep you.”

20110327_Cynthia Kane001

With my child, while serving the Coast Guard. [Portland, ME, March 2011]

Other challenges become apparent as I get older. There’s a certain way age makes me look at mortality more squarely than even cancer did. And I’m a mom now. That changes things. CACO calls, for example. (That’s when I as a chaplain accompany a uniformed Navy representative to inform a family member or next-of-kin—in person—about the casualty of their loved one.) This is one of my most sacred duties, and I would never want to opt out of it. Being there is so important. But with parenthood and age, the loss of young lives becomes increasingly intolerable. I get nauseous every time I approach the front door.

HDS: As a chaplain in the armed services, you kind of serve double. (You serve the people who serve.) What is most rewarding aspect of your work? 

Your question relates well to aging—because the older I get, the more I realize serving others defines the quality of our lives. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy yourself, practice compassion.” That could just as easily be: “If you want others to be happy, serve others; if you want to be happy yourself, serve others.”

Right now I’m serving with Marines—and what a crowd they are! Eleanor Roosevelt has this famous line about Marines: “The Marines I have seen around this world have the cleanest bodies, filthiest minds, the highest morale…” The quote goes on from there in a way I don’t particularly agree with, but there is a hilarious truth to that first part. I’m surrounded by fit young adults, clean-shaven, well-groomed, as fond of filthy humor as one might expect a bunch of young adults (mostly male) who are living on their own for the first time to be. And they’re also some of the kindest, most thoughtful, best mannered young men and women anywhere. These Marines and sailors are utterly devoted to completing their missions and bringing each other home safe, whether from a war zone, or a zone of devastation following a natural disaster.

I value my peacenik, hippieish heritage. Though in the world of intellectual endeavor and political protest, there’s a tendency toward terminal uniqueness: defining ourselves in the singularity of our thoughts, opinions, and tastes. In military culture, we define ourselves by our ability to be the same to some extent: to pull together and act as one.

Thanks to the remarkable men and women I serve, I know, on a daily basis, what that feels like to be part of something bigger than myself. So do my Marines and sailors, and our Guardians, soldiers, and airmen and women. No matter one’s goal or mission, this is the essence of service: allowing the quest for uniqueness to cede to the uniquely beautiful quest for a common good.


Offical, edited HDS article appears here.