First day of school
Seeking the Beloved


Twelve people sit in a circle in a wood-paneled room balancing notebooks and styrofoam cups of hospital coffee. We range in age from thirty to sixty-five or so. We are ten men and two women. We are Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist, Jewish, and a few other things besides. At least half of us are ordained clergy, or are somewhere on what one student called the "long and winding road to ordination." At least three of us are lay leaders in our congregations. At least two of us regularly offer pastoral care to prison inmates. At least two of us are juggling two jobs. At least two of us have driven more than an hour to be here. Three of us have been here before; the other nine are new. And at least one of us feels jazzed, eager, and overwhelmed, and will have vaguely anxious dreams about the hospital tonight...


Yesterday was my first day of CPE at Albany Medical Center, and I came away feeling both awed by the responsibility I've taken on and elated at the prospect of the learning ahead of me. Elation may take a backseat to fear when I spend my first night on call at the hospital late next week; everyone says the first overnight is incredibly tough. I suspect there's no way to really ready oneself for the experience of offering pastoral care to trauma victims in the emergency room, or helping the parents of a dying baby through the night. But aside from the abject terror such prospects induce in me, I feel really excited about pastoral care, about the work I'm about to learn how to do, and about the community of people I'll be doing it with.

The morning began with pastries and coffee and introductions. Harlan, who runs the program, spoke about The Wizard of Oz as a parable of transformation. Of course, the Tin Man had plenty of heart, and the Scarecrow was plenty wise, and the Cowardly Lion had courage when he really needed it; but they never would have known it if they hadn't journeyed together.

We talked about what we all share, despite denominational differences: awe, the capacity for I-Thou relationships, community, vocation, faith structures which enable us to face death and loss and to make sense of the world. CPE looks like an amazing opportunity to put my desire for dialogue into action, both because I'll be learning pastoral care alongside people from many traditions and because in the hospital I'll be ministering to people of many traditions. This should be a great match for the Deep Ecumenism course I'm starting on Thursday.

Over time we'll be learning about different faiths from the chaplaincy staff. Yesterday we spent a while with Father Ken, one of the Catholic priests on call in the chaplaincy department, learning about what to do when someone requests the sacrament of anointing (e.g. when to call the priest in, and when not). I learned a lot about baptism, including the startling revelation that according to Catholic theology anyone can baptize. It's not limited to priests, nor even to Catholics -- what's required is the water and the words. (Apparently that's true in non-Catholic contexts, too.) At Albany Medical, baptism is only considered when a baby is in danger of imminent death, and, obviously, only on the parents' request. One returning student, whose tradition forbids infant baptism, talked about how he made the decision to baptize a baby anyway because he realized the parents' needs transcended his doctrinal objections.

After lunch we had our first "didactic," a discussion which sought to help us answer some questions about the road we're fixing to walk. When asked "what is a chaplain?" my first answer was "listener." It's our job, I think, to be present with people, to bear witness to their suffering or their fear, and by so doing, to make manifest the ultimate Listener. Our toolbox includes prayer, blessing, and ritual, but our listening presence may do the most good. Pastoral care is about answering calls: the literal ones that come on the pager or the cellphone, and the larger one that underlies them. It requires a kind of ongoing "Hineni/here I am."

It seems only appropriate to begin this work during the month of Elul, a time that Jewish tradition sets aside for teshuvah, turning and re/turning ourselves toward God. During this month we're meant to consider our actions and our interactions with others -- a process integral to CPE, too, near as I can tell. With every interaction, be it with a patient, a family member, or someone on the hospital staff, I can aim to reorient myself toward (in Tillich's terms) the "ground of being" manifest in every person I encounter.

May the certainty and the energy I'm feeling now carry me forward into the work that needs to be done, and help me be the person who can do it.

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