I AM HERE, OPEN MY HEART.
It’s Not About Me
Hineini. “I am here”, or maybe more precisely “I am completely present”. P’tach libi. “Open my heart”. It’s not about me.
On Sundays, for a few hours, I am the chaplain (technically, the “SSV” or Spiritual Support Volunteer) at Enloe Medical Center. As I make my way through the hospital visiting patients, of any faith or none, the clipboard in the bag slung over my right shoulder has a cover sheet with these three prayers/thoughts/kavannot. As I sanitize my hands before entering a room, I try to keep these reminders in mind. I am completely present, open my heart, it is not about me.
I take a deep breath, knock lightly on the door, enter, and introduce myself. What happens next? It all depends. Sometimes the person I have come to visit is sleeping, or is busy. Or there are too many visitors for me to want to intrude. Or the person I have come to visit hears the words “spiritual support” or “chaplain” and waves me away (usually politely). Or the person I have come to visit takes one look at me and asks “Why are you here? Am I dying?” Or the person I have come to visit immediately responds “Thank God you are here. I was just praying that a chaplain would come.” And before you ask, that last one has happened to me. Two different times.
Then what happens? It all depends. I begin with a simple introductory question like “How has your day been going?” or by admiring a vase of flowers or a photo of family members. I listen, and if the response is slow or the person has nothing to say at first, I hold space and wait a bit. Sometimes the person is lonely and just wants to talk, so we talk about whatever they want to talk about. Sometimes the person has just received bad news and asks searching questions about life and death and what happens then. Sometimes the person is in pain or is feeling lost or is seeing for the first time the reality of damaged relationships and responds in anger or with tears. Sometimes the person is close to death and I just sit with them or with them and their loved ones. It is not about me.
Often, but not always, the person I have come to visit will want to pray. I always ask “What would you like to pray for or pray about right now?” Healing is nearly always an answer. But rarely is healing all that is on someone’s mind and heart when I ask about prayer. Often, the person wants to pray for loved ones, or for the healing of someone else they know who is suffering. Not infrequently, the person wants to express thanks and ask blessings for the hospital staff. Requests for prayer about the state of the larger world are common. If the person is Jewish (this does not happen often), I may begin with a MiShebeirach formula of prayer for healing and end with the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. If the person is Catholic and a Spanish speaker, I might lead them in Padre Nuestro, the Lord’s Prayer, in Spanish (I keep a copy on my clipboard). But most often, because most often the person is an English-speaking Christian of one denomination or another, or no denomination in particular, I begin “God of mercy, God of compassion, God of blessings” (intentionally an echo of the Trinity) and then incorporate whatever thanks and requests the person suggested. Because I am not a Christian, I do not end by invoking God in the person of Jesus, but if the people with whom I am praying add that on when I am done I always respond “Amen”.
How did I get myself into this? The simple answer is that a requirement of my smicha, my ordination, is that I have completed a “unit” of CPE, clinical pastoral education. The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education defines CPE this way:
Clinical Pastoral Education is interfaith professional education for ministry. It brings theological students and ministers of all faiths (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and others) into supervised encounter with persons in crisis. Out of an intense involvement with persons in need, and the feedback from peers and teachers, students develop new awareness of themselves as persons and of the needs of those to whom they minister. From theological reflection on specific human situations, they gain a new understanding of ministry. Within the interdisciplinary team process of helping persons, they develop skills in interpersonal and interprofessional relationships.
A unit of CPE includes 100 hours of classroom instruction, individual supervision and group supervision in a class taught by an instructor certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, plus 300 hours of clinical experience. I completed the 100 hours in a CPE unit offered online by University of California San Diego Health Services. Enloe provided me with the opportunity and training to complete the 300 hours there working as a chaplain intern about sixteen hours a week. I did not have time to do that before I was ordained eighteen months ago; I did my unit from November, 2021, through this past March. In gratitude for the people at Enloe who made this possible, especially the generous and exceptional spiritual support volunteers who trained and supervised me as I learned the ropes, I agreed to take one spiritual support shift each week. My colleague Roger Cutler, who usually has the Saturday shift, tells people that he is at Enloe on my Sabbath so I do not have to be, and I am at Enloe on his Sabbath so he does not have to be.
My CPE training and my pre-ordination study of pastoral counseling prepared me for hospital chaplaincy, but also for pastoral care for members of our CBI community outside the hospital context. Reb Lisa is available to anyone in our community in need of pastoral care and counseling, and so am I. If you need me, give me a call or send me an email. Hineini, p’tach libi, it’s not about me.
With blessings for a healthy and happy week,
Spiritual Support Volunteers (left to right): Nancy Smith, Alan Rellaford, Bill Bruening, Carolyn Ayers, Garrett Starmer, Roger Cutler, Helene Ginsberg, Maureen Hopson, Loretta Steinke (retired), Steve Margolin, Jamie Holmes, Mike Coen