In the beginning…

In eleven days, my world is going to become very strange. 

From Sunday night to Tuesday afternoon/evening, for 30 weeks, a friend will be dog-sitting at my house while I travel to the hospital where I’ll be doing an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (from here on called CPE.)  On Thursdays and Fridays I’ll be doing the job I’ve been doing for 15 years in one place and 24 years total–rendering pathologic diagnoses on surgical specimens and being hospital laboratory medical director.  Oh, and did I mention I’m also taking an online class in Old Testament through the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP)?

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what is ingrained habit for me and how this will be completely turned on its head every day as a chaplain intern.  I have spent the bulk of my adult life knowing “my job” should I walk into a patient room is “Ask the questions that help figure out what’s wrong with that person,” or “Ask the questions that help figure out how they are doing after we did something to them in the hospital.”

“So tell me what brings you here…how long has that been happening?  Where is the pain?  What makes it better?  What makes it worse?  What have you tried before you came here?”  Questions like that.  I am not there on the person’s invitation.  I have always had the privilege to ask probing, even embarrassing questions in this process.  I have been able to say, “Take off (part of clothing) and let me examine you,” and expect it to happen.  As a physician I have had the expectation that I can ask, touch, poke, and even elicit pain, with a relatively small amount of patient buy-in.  Clearly, I’ve always asked permission for these things, and I’ve paid careful attention to human decency and autonomy, but the implication is, “I’m expected to do this and if you don’t assent, you are impeding the process.”

As a chaplain intern, I lose those privileges.

I am clearly only there on the patient’s invitation.  The patient is under no obligation to answer or assent to anything I ask.  The patient has the right to tell me to leave simply because he or she doesn’t like my looks, tone of voice, color of my socks, or for any other thing.  I am not there to fix anything but rather serve the patient’s spiritual needs, whatever that is.

This is going to be very different.

Additionally, even though one might think CPE is about “learning how to say and do and be the things hospital chaplains are supposed to do and be, so as to understand the nature of pastoral visits in the hospital,” the reality is that CPE is more about the person taking it than one might think.  CPE is a journey of self-understanding–learning our triggers, comfort spots, discomfort spots, how our lives and families of origin shape our reactions and responses.  It’s about taking on the mantle of non-judgmental listening in a diverse milleu of how individuals feel about their spiritual self.  It is very much a journey of understanding how our baggage affects the pastoral relationship.

Some friends have been puzzled as to why I need CPE when I’ve worked around a hospital almost all my adult life.  The reality is, I recognize I need it BECAUSE I’ve been around hospitals almost all my adult life.  Being as how it’s a requirement for ordination in my denomination, it’s not negotiable.  Yet I’m grateful I see it as an “I need this” type of thing rather than a “I have to do this to get from point A to B” thing.

My image lately is of Brendan the Navigator, out there on a boat with limited steering capability (a coracle), being in little to no control of this journey.

Prayer of Brendan the Navigator

Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.
Welcome aboard my little coracle!

3 thoughts on “In the beginning…

  1. To me, this is the “money” sentence: “It’s about taking on the mantle of non-judgmental listening in a diverse milleu of how individuals feel about their spiritual self.”

    I’ll be interested in seeing how you say this *after* CPE.

    Congrats on your blog and new adventure!


  2. Maria, I think I get this. It’s going to be a huge transition.
    You’ve spent your career taking care of what ails their bodies.
    This calls you to care for their souls. And while you have been a caretaker of souls for a long time, this is maybe the first time it’s your JOB to care for the soul primarily. This will be a different journey, and you’ll be in my prayers as you go there.


  3. Maria, you are in my prayers. This shows me you are a person who cares for the total being of a person, not just getting answers to the questions you can ask..the total person is now your concern. Those of whom you can ask questions will now feel your empowerment of the Holy Spirit more than ever and realize your total care. You are fine tuning what you have always had within. May God continue to bless and keep you and anoint you with His peace. Dennis


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