As some of you know, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, a skilled nursing home in Rockville, Maryland. Two-thirds of the way through my seminary career, I had already realized that interfaith dialogue would be a cornerstone of my ministry, so I sought out the program that would immerse me as fully as possible into the rhythms of Jewish life and community. Perhaps, though, I should back up even further and explain what CPE is. CPE is a requirement for ordination in most denominations, a kind of crash course in pastoral care in which seminarians are called to experience briefly—usually over the course of a single summer—the life of a chaplain and what it means to be present and provide spiritual care for residents of liminal, even crisis-filled, spaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. While it's certainly challenging, many of us end up describing the process as one of the single most important elements of our formation, of learning what it is to be a clergyperson.
Now, let's get back to Hebrew Home itself. While I had anticipated and even actively sought out the Judaism of the experience, I can't say that I had really processed the difference in what it means to be a chaplain in a nursing home as opposed to a more typical health care setting. Most of the visits that you make to people in a hospital will be relatively brief, echoing the brevity (if not immensity) of the experience in their overall lives. Occasionally, you might see someone once or twice more, but you go into most rooms knowing that you’ve probably never met this person or people and you are unlikely to interact with them again. Which is not to diminish the experience, but it's a very different one from an environment where you build up relationships with the residents over weeks and even months. Different skills are involved when the visits and interactions are with people who have slowly been woven into the fabric of your daily life. There's a different kind of knowing involved, a different kind of trust when you meet them again and again and are able to share more and more moments together.
There are innumerable stories I could tell about Hebrew Home, both in regards to the program itself and how I grew from all of the ways that the residents taught me to see them and share those moments in ways that might actually be helpful. I'm not sure that I'll ever fully understand all that they gave me, even as I was striving to pastor them. In short, I'm still learning their lessons. This week, I've particularly had in mind one woman and my last experience with her. Let's call her Sonia. Sonia was a long-term, relatively conversant resident who, like many of her peers, felt a little isolated and cut off from the life that she had known before she came to live in the home. Over our time together, she slowly warmed to me, and we had spent a number of hours talking about her life—how she had survived the Holocaust, meeting her husband after the war, coming to America, raising a family, and the state of her relationships with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She seemed to appreciate my visits, and she'd even try to grandmother me whenever she got the chance. For both our sakes, I tried to keep those chances rare.
The last time Sonia and I spoke was in one of the final hours of my CPE program. Excited to have made it through CPE and even picked up a skill or two, I was making my final rounds to check on my residents and say a last good-bye to them. As bittersweet as those visits were, I couldn’t help but feel a certain restless excitement to be off and on to the the next stage of my seminary journey. For whatever reason, Sonia ended up being one of my very last interactions as I found myself less and less able to practice the presence and mindfulness that I had spent all summer cultivating. Even as I tried to honor her and the dynamic we had shared, my mind kept wandering back to the final supervision session that I, the rabbi, and the other program members would be having shortly. Sonia, on the other hand, was tearfully and utterly present in the moment. Even as my thoughts wandered, I noticed that her farewells were entangled with stories that she had never mentioned before. She spoke of the experiments that Dr. Mengele had performed on her and her sister; about escaping through the woods; and about those hours were she and her companions had no idea (nor particular concern) whether they would actually be able to enjoy the freedom they had wrestled for themselves. Shamed by her final, loving gift to me and all that we had shared, I mentally shook myself and tried to listen close. I was late for supervision.
We didn’t particular talk about it at the time, but last Sunday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I know firsthand that it can be all too easy to let those stories become background noise, to miss the incredible vulnerability and gift in the stories of those who survived—and those who didn’t. It’s a simply fact of our world that there will be fewer and fewer survivors to tell those histories as the years go on. Let’s listen while we can. Let’s pay attention to the horrific realities of the Holocaust, of the anti-Semitism present in our world today (and statistically on the rise), and let’s remember that, though the mirror may be dim, we must ever strive to know each other more and more fully. In the reading from First Corinthians this week, Paul opens by talking about what it means to speak with or without love (1 Cor 13:1), which is certainly vitally important in bringing the Kingdom. But if CPE taught me anything, it’s that first we must simply listen.