Advent : Notes

•December 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This afternoon I was going through paperwork that I need to file (and resisting the almost constant temptation to file everything under “Miscellaneous” when I came across some notes from CPE last year.
These were my personal notes about people I took care of, middle-of-the-night calls I wanted to be sure to put in the log, etc. With them I found two handwritten laments. At one point last year I went to a workshop on Lamentations. The facilitator encouraged us to write our own laments.
And write I did. Two laments, raging at God. One begging, pleading for help in dealing with the experience of caring for the family of a murdered child. Asking if, after pouring myself out in service to the grieving for 2 1/2 hours on a frosty cold Saturday morning, God had simply abandoned me. That’s what it felt like at the time.
The second lament was about cancer and AIDS. I accused God of tricking me, of leading me to believe that everything was okay, that in 2009, 2010 in a major US city medicine knew how to “deal” with both of these. But that wasn’t what I was seeing every day as a chaplain. On the paper I screamed at God, so angry, so tired of the AIDS/lymphoma combination I could barely stand it, so tired of getting to know patients and then watching them die, of knowing all along that they would die, but liking them anyway…
And with the notes I found a scrap of paper I’d used to write a note to the young man from the MacBook story… he died last month, I always knew he had less than a year to live, but it hit me like a kick in the stomach anyway.
And then another note, scribbled in the middle of the night on the phone with a nurse in Labor and Delivery… a 41 year old woman who had struggled to get pregnant for years was in the process of losing her baby at 21 weeks, would I come be with her? I remember that patient well, her tears, her sense of guilt, her kindness towards me, the sense that under other circumstances we could have been friends, my internal hard work to avoid admitting, even to myself, how much I identified with her. I thought about her, wondered how she’s doing, how she’s feeling about facing this Christmas, whether she’s trying to conceive again.
And then another scribbled note, a conversation with the medical ICU unit clerk on a weekend afternoon, a request to come see a woman whose mother was dying. I remember her, sitting there keeping vigil all alone, and I wondered if she wouldn’t get sick herself from the toll it was taking. We prayed her mother out of this world and into God’s hands. I wonder how she is this Christmas season too.

I love Advent but I struggled to connect with it this year. I just couldn’t make it happen. I wanted so badly to feel Advent (I ALWAYS want so badly to feel, really feel everything – until the moment when the emotion just becomes too much) but I couldn’t force it to happen. And then, going through dusty paperwork in the giant “to be filed pile” and reading through my notes and my laments, sitting in my desk chair sobbing, I knew I had finally touched the meaning of Advent. I have reached out and touched the darkness and despair, felt the cold, sat with the death. Let the waiting be over. O come, o come Emanuel, and bring with you the return of the light, the warmth, the hope, the life.


darkness and tall trees

•December 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Not that long ago, sitting at a dining room table in a brownstone in Brooklyn

I finally told the story. Our story. The story of a July long ago.

When for four weeks, I felt… understood. Like I belonged. Like I wasn’t an outcast.

All of which was dismissed by those who thought they knew better

(Or that was their excuse at least; I know now that the extent of their inability to handle what life throws our way)

The reality was actually a profound, emotional connection. You changed my life. You changed how I saw the world.

You weren’t what anyone expected. Oh, you were bright enough. Astonishingly so, actually. And courageous – or is it stupid? courageous enough that you were well acquainted with the ER.

But you were also wild, reckless as if you had nothing to lose, unafraid of everything that terrified me.

Regardless, we found each other. That is, until others decided we weren’t okay. That you weren’t okay.

The shame forced on me from without was so great that sometimes, when I count the most meaningful relationships of my life, I almost forget to include you.

I always wonder if you knew why I walked away. Did you believe my excuses, conjured up to protect you, or did you know that it wasn’t my choice? I don’t know, but I do know that being forced to stop talking to you broke something inside of me. I lost part of my innocence, part of my trust, part of my belief that those closest to me had my best interests in mind.

I became acquainted with the depths of the experience of shame (well, more than I already was), even though I had nothing to be ashamed of.

I am only just now assessing the fallout.

I recently figured out that someone in my life reminds me of you. In them I see a similar mix of tragedy and courage, wildness and depth. Sometimes in our deepest conversations I hear echoes of you.

And I am reminded of humid darkness and tall trees. Of unseen but talked about stars. Of chess games and songs and snaffle bits and barbells and running, running, running breathlessly through the night, having no idea what’s ahead but not caring.

CPE Unit 4

•September 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been in the midst of my 4th unit of CPE since the second week in September. For this unit I stepped out on a bit of a limb. I left the hospital where I did 2 units last year (although I remain on staff as a per diem chaplain) and was accepted into a unit at a city hospital. This was a difficult choice. I left a place I knew and loved, a place where I had good relationships with staff, policies and procedures I knew like the back of my hand, patients whose names I often recognized when they came back for one more chemo treatment or the latest HIV complication. It was gut-wrenching to make the decision to do my last unit somewhere else.
In some ways there were financial considerations; the tuition at my new CPE location is cheaper, and they cover some commuting expenses. However, it was more about challenging myself in new ways. Could I get through a unit with a legendary “old school” supervisor, working in one of the most intense hospitals in the city? Could I add psychiatry and trauma ICU to my growing list of units where I have experience providing pastoral care? Could I work with an entire hospital of the poorest, most desperate patients in the city, most of whom would have no visitors but the chaplain? Could I finally learn to compartmentalize enough to have a life outside of the hospital? Could I survive a full time CPE, and therefore, full time work as a chaplain? Would switching hospitals help me with my struggles with discerning my vocation?
The answers to these questions are still in the process of being written. What I know right now is that we’re approaching the middle of the unit and I’m doing quite well. I’m learning new things, I’m enjoying having peers around all of the time, my supervisor is a bit gruff but brilliant, and I’m finally feeling like I have a bit of a clue about how this huge, teeming, chaotic city hospital operates. I’ve learned how to lead spirituality groups for psych patients, and I’ve done two shifts as a chaplain in an ER that constantly looks like there’s been a mass casualty incident. (I love the ER. It reminds me of the old days – 10 years ago – as a volunteer patient rep in a big trauma center in Philly.)
I do not know at this point where this leads. I do know that if I can handle this program and this hospital, I can probably chaplain anywhere. I also know that I miss parish life. I took a sort of haitus from parish ministry to do this unit – and now I miss the parish. Maybe that’s part of the discernment. Maybe I am supposed to be split in half somehow, like I was all last year – chaplain on some week days, parish priest on the weekends, with the hospital informing my preaching and liturgy healing the places I’m broken from witnessing so much suffering. Maybe, just maybe that’s how it will be going forward. We’ll see.


•August 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s been quite a while since my last post. I was ordained to the priesthood in mid-June, and in some ways I have yet to wrap my head around the fact that it really did happen. I still have these weird moments where I stop and suddenly remember that I’m a priest. After 6 1/2 years of (actively) wanting to become a priest, praying it would happen some day, doing everything in my power to somehow become that person I believed I was called to be, it finally happened (well, the beginning of it at least). It finally happened only by the grace of God. There was a period of time, never discussed on this blog, when I honestly didn’t know if it would happen. That is another story for another day; I think that there may be a book about it eventually. But in the meantime, I am still adjusting to the fact that it did happen. It is a weird transition, exciting and terrifying, humbling and exhilarating all at once.

My actual ordination was one of the most profound experiences, if not the most profound experience, of my entire life. There were many things that were not as I had imagined they would be on that day – everything from drastic changes at my home parish that had left it a shell of a place I once knew, to getting ordained many months later than I expected to, to not having a parish call at the time of my ordination, to certain dear friends not being able to be there. There were, however, things that did happen that I had not imagined; things that were extraordinary gifts. I was ordained with 5 other people, all of whom were friends. My mentor, who has been fighting stage IV cancer for the past year, was there to present and vest me. A parish I love had my ordination stole and chasuble custom made for me – I had almost no say in what the vestments looked like, and they were so “me” I couldn’t believe it. A dear friend, one of my former sacristans, chanted the litany. The bishop selected me to bless the people at the end. I got to bless my husband, my parents, my family and friends and mentors and colleagues – with my real first blessings going to two of my baby nieces at the communion rail. In a moment that stunned me beyond words, my mother-in-law – who doesn’t come from a liturgical tradition, doesn’t really believe in sacraments per se, and is not so sure about female clergy – came and knelt before me for a blessing. And then there were the friends who moved heaven and earth to get there when it would have been much easier to stay home and handle the many things going on in their own lives.

There was also the little box my parents handed me that had been mailed to them by an elderly priest who I knew as a child, the man who had the unfortunate job of teaching my confirmation class (really, there is nowhere 12 year olds would rather be at 9 AM for 6 consecutive Saturdays – ha! – we were a nightmare!) When I was a child this priest (who, at the time, was vehemently opposed to women being ordained) taught me how to acolyte, taught me things about liturgy that I would one day teach my sacristans at the same seminary he attended. So, inside this box there was a letter addressed to Mother (my first name) explaining his gift. And under the letter a worn leather pouch holding a beautiful silver pyx, engraved with a celtic cross, that bears a strong resemblance to a pocket watch. The letter explained that the pyx had been given to him as a gift by his parents, 60 years ago, at his own ordination, and had carried communion to thousands, including my maternal grandmother in her last years of life. My thank you note written the following day was completely inadequate; the only way to express gratitude for such a gift is to use it in the service of the people of God.

Often for me the most extraordinary moments of any event, day, liturgy, etc. are the ones I least expect, or the ones nobody tells you about beforehand. I had been told so many times about the experience of the laying on of hands at ordination – of the weight and force of so many hands threatening to push you through the floor. That was a very special and meaningful moment, but very brief, over before I could wrap my head around what was happening to me. However, the moment I will replay in my head over and over again for the rest of my life, hang onto like a life preserver, meditate on, and long to experience again was just before the laying on of hands. My group of ordinands got permission to use the Taize chant version of Veni Sanctus Spiritus instead of one of the two choices found in the hymnal. I had heard it used at another friend’s ordination and found the effect to be profound. It is also easy for the congregation to join in; once you’ve heard the chant a couple of times you get it, even if you’re not a singer. So the six of us were kneeling there, and the chant began. I couldn’t really look around; I had fellow ordinands to the left and the right, and the bishop and his deacons on the steps right in front of me. I mostly looked down and sang along, the voices of hundreds of people filling the cathedral with pulsating chords calling the Holy Spirit to come among us. A montage of images began to run through my mind, flashes of my life, my call, moments I look back on and recognize as part of my call story and some I hadn’t thought of before. Then the hardest part of my journey to the priesthood – the past year – and my patients, the ones I had become most attached to, the ones who had changed my life, the ones who died – their faces and stories and images of my encounters with them, and then the faces and stories of everyone who helped get me to that moment. It all became too much, and I was shaking and crying as the chant continued, and I could hear other ordinands sniffling. I closed my eyes and all the images shut off, and I was floating, carried by the chant, in some other place where it was just me and God, and everything else dropped away. I lost track of everything that was going on, except the chant, which seemed to have taken on an ecstatic, almost erotic quality, and I soared through that place. I wanted to stay in that place forever. And then the chant was ending, it was time to be ordained, and I came back to the present moment. I felt forever changed by those moments kneeling there, hearing all those voices singing, swept away by the power of the Holy Spirit in those last few minutes before I officially became a priest. I knew immediately that in days, months, years to come I would reach back to that moment to counter the heartache and exhaustion that so often also accompanies this vocation.


•June 8, 2010 • 2 Comments

Here’s a bit of an update about what’s going on –

I finished CPE at the end of May. It was a wrenching end – it was so hard to walk away from the staff and patients. The work never slowed down in either volume or emotional intensity. In the last two weeks I took care of three patients dying of AIDS and their families. All three were gay men; two in their 30’s, one in his 40’s. In one case a medical resident called me to come see a patient with a new diagnosis of HIV. A new diagnosis of anything – HIV, diabetes, cancer, whatever – is a great reason to call a chaplain. I went to see that patient prepared to do what I could to help them talk about their feelings about the situation and glad that a resident had actually thought to call a chaplain for something other than a death. I should have known better. The resident, of course, was nowhere to be found. I checked the patient’s chart. The situation was not good. I would never have characterized it as a visit related to a “new diagnosis.” The diagnosis may have been new, but, based on my read of the chart, I was being called to see someone with very advanced disease. When I got to the room I realized the situation was even worse than the chart seemed to indicate. The patient was actively dying, his body overwhelmed with advanced lymphoma and pneumocystitis. This was a deathbed visit.

After 9 months of CPE I still have a lot to learn – and hopefully I’ll get that fourth unit in sometime. But it amazes me how many difficult things I’ve seen – and how I got used to things that would have blown my mind last fall. The final number of patients on “the list” was 45. Of those, 16 died of cancer, 10 of AIDS, 1 of suicide, 1 of a drug overdose, 1 was murdered, 6 were neonatal or perinatal deaths, and the rest died of a variety of things – cardiac arrest, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, stroke, alcoholism, liver failure, etc. Some of them I knew a great deal about and had talked to multiple times, others I met only in death. I also kept a list of people I thought might die in the near future – and sometimes I had to move a name from that list to the list of people who had actually died. The 25 people who remain on my list of very sick patients (except one, who had severe anorexia) had either cancer or AIDS; a majority actually had some stage of HIV/AIDS plus a cancer that was not considered AIDS-defining. I had met and talked with most of them multiple times and I know something about each one’s story. I hate that I don’t know what happened to any of them.

I have so much more to say about all of this – less about facts and numbers and much more about what I learned from the people I served as chaplain, what they meant to me, etc. but I just don’t have the energy to go there right now. I sometimes have these moments when I miss them and I feel like they’re somehow with me. I need to do something with that list of mine – something to let them go, something to put closure on that particular period of my life and the particular losses I witnessed and absorbed. I’m thinking of burning a printed copy of it. Burning it, maybe with some incense, after telling some of the stories out loud.

In other news some of my closest friends from seminary have moved out of NYC. I’m not good at goodbyes; they make me really panicky. I hate change, I hate uncertainty, and I hate not knowing what a relationship is going to evolve into. I know that very few of those I came to know and love in seminary were ever destined to stay here in the city; heck, I didn’t think I was. Still, it’s hard to let go, hard to face the reality that the majority of these friendships will grow apart, and even people I managed to stay in touch with will be far enough away that we won’t see each other often. At least I met them, at least they’re out there, at least we have each other to turn to when this crazy clergy life gets out of control, but still, it’s hard.
One last thing – I’m getting ordained to the priesthood in less than two weeks. After 6 1/2 years the saga is about to end… and to begin. I’ve started to get really nervous and ask myself a thousand questions – like “what was I thinking?” and “am I sure I want to do this?” A friend told me recently that it would be kind of weird if I felt really calm about the whole thing. Some nervousness, apparently, is healthy. I hope so.
Much to my surprise and delight, one of my parishes is making my stole and chasuble. I’m getting ordained in my home diocese’s cathedral with 5 others, all of whom I’m friends with. We’re praying for cool weather because that building is going to be brutally warm otherwise.

What’s next after that? I’m not sure. As I said above, I’ve been taking a bit of a break so I could avoid going into a new job already burnt out. I’m about to begin the job search process. While I’m not quite ready to leave hospital chaplaincy behind, I’m going to see what’s out there in parish work, and then maybe fit some chaplaincy around it. We shall see what happens.

Liminal time, again

•April 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Just after Easter, good news – an ordination date!

In just two months I am to be ordained to the priesthood. Six and a half years into the process and the end is in sight. I am a bit disoriented at the idea of the end of this process and the beginning of… something else… coming so soon. I have also about 4 weeks left in my CPE unit. Almost 40 weeks of CPE is almost over. I’m not sure what’s next. I know I’m staying in the city, but I’m not sure what I’ll be doing. Perhaps some hybrid of parish ministry and chaplaincy. I’m not ready to walk away from either one.

I am in the midst of some discernment that I did not expect to be in at this point. I have a deep love of parish ministry, and yet… and yet the love of chaplaincy tugs at me relentlessly. I cannot imagine my life (for right now, at least) without doing some amount of hospital chaplaincy. I have come to love my work among the spiritual but not religious, among those who haven’t spoken with a clergy member in decades, among those who are suffering and dying and forgotten. I certainly cannot imagine my life without afternoons in the ER, moving calmly among the chaos, talking quietly to the frightened, chatting up the injured tourist, cheering up the waiting child, and, most importantly, being the often silent but deeply compassionate companion of the families of the dead.

Chaplaincy is funny – not funny-humorous (although it has those moments) but funny-strange. It took so long to get used to all the suffering and death, and yet eventually I began to feel that much more alive because of the work I do and the things I see. It is still not easy, but for the most part it is bearable. The struggle continues, the struggle to walk that fine line between compartmentalizing and over-engaging, between caring too much and not enough. I don’t know that that issue ever goes away.


•April 20, 2010 • 1 Comment

Holy Week turned out to be one of the best in recent memory. I was busy at the hospital and busy in my parish, but I established some very strict boundaries around my time in both places that week, and this paid off in the end. I was able, for the most part, to be at those services that were most important to me while still provided good pastoral care at the hospital. I wasn’t exhausted when the week was over. Best of all, I wound up enjoying my very public role, especially on Maundy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil. As they ultimately always do, the liturgies captivated me, transported me, fed me, healed me…

It turns out that there are few things in church life quite as amazing as carrying the paschal candle in the dark, chanting “the light of Christ” and hearing the chanting in reply… that was definitely one of the highlights of the week. For an assignment in my last CPE unit I wrote a “folktale” about my ministry as a chaplain, and in that folktale I was a light-bearer. How fitting, then, to carry the paschal candle this year, and sing into the darkness with all the energy I could gather, declaring the resurrection of hope, of light, of the Christ.

There was only one moment during the week’s liturgies when I had a bit of trouble managing my emotions. On Good Friday my parish does a 3 hour service with preaching, readings, communion from the elements reserved on Thursday, and the singing of the Faure Requiem. It was at a point in the Requiem, somewhere in the midst of the beautiful Sanctus movement, that I suddenly started thinking about one of my patients, a man in his 30s with brain cancer. An image of the radiation burns he had showed me the previous day flashed through my mind. The contrast of the horror of that treatment, which will prolong but not save his life, with the beauty of the Sanctus, just overwhelmed me. I began to tear up but decided not to try to fight it all that hard. After all, it was Good Friday, and provided I didn’t turn into a sobbing mess, emotion was probably not all that out of place.