Holy Transformation: Visiting the Ill and New Ritual

“Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine… He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” (Leviticus 16:3-4)

I stuck my hands out and engaged in ritual washing, rubbing my palms together as they moved from unclean to clean. I raised my arms to garb myself in a golden gown, tying the sash tightly around my waist. I slid sky blue gloves over my fingers, tucking their edges under the cuffs of the gown. Cleanliness was paramount before engaging in holy work. Finally, I raised a gloved hand towards the tawny door and knocked. “Come in,” came a muffled reply. I pressed the silver handle and entered sacred space.

This summer, I trained as a hospital chaplain, completing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. During the first week of the program, back in early June, I spent more time in a hospital than I had in my entire life to that point. So much was new. I experienced all manner of firsts as I encountered illness, life, and death in more dimensions than I imagined to be possible. Every day I learned through experience, engaging in the “Action-Reflection”  model of learning: action (you do something), reflection (you think about and process what you did), reaction (you alter your action to improve it for next time). I spent the summer present with patients and family members and held accountable to my supervisor, the spiritual care staff, the staff of the unit upon which I completed my 300 clinical hours, and of course my chaplain intern colleagues. The summer flew by. I can scarcely believe that the program started and ended and is now completely in the past for me to reflect upon.

In the beginning, a lot of the work scared me. I didn’t know how to walk through the halls and feel as though I belonged. I didn’t know how to determine when I was burdening a patient by visiting or when I was inconveniencing a nurse or doctor. Most of the time, especially in the beginning, I had no idea what to say, and I had no idea how to be present with patients without speaking.

Among my many fears, I was most afraid of entering rooms that required visitor “precautions” — gowns, masks, and gloves to keep germs at bay. I wasn’t afraid of catching or transmitting disease, at least any more than I was in general. What scared me was the closed doors themselves– the inability to predict, through a covert glance from the unit hallway, what was happening in that patient’s room. I could not know if the patient was awake or asleep, if there were doctors or other hospital staff or visitors present, if the patient was able to speak or even wanted to speak. While there was an element of unknown in visiting any patient, opening a closed door always felt worse.

Of course, since this was Clinical Pastoral Education, my supervisor pushed me to face this fear. She reminded me that the patients who required precautions, who were kept in isolation, might need spiritual care more than anybody else, because they couldn’t have any of the casual interactions that other patients might. A visit to a patient in isolation was always deliberate. I knew that my supervisor was right, and that it would be irresponsible for me to avoid isolation rooms simply because they made me nervous, but I still felt so scared each time I reached for a gown.

“Well, maybe you could think about it like a ritual,” one of my chaplain colleagues suggested, when I brought up my fear.

“Huh,” I thought. The moment she suggested it, it seemed obvious. After all, what I was doing to enter these rooms, in the broadest sense, was purifying myself. Like the vestments of a pastor or the robes of Aaron the high priest, these gowns and gloves were the uniform needed for me to engage in holy work. They might not have been woven by hand by the finest-skilled Israelites in the land, but they were nonetheless sacred garments intended for a sacred purpose. Each patient’s room might not be as uniquely holy as the tabernacle the early Israelite priests tended, but each patient was.

The next time I went to my floor, I engaged in ritual, and my fear turned to mindfulness.  Squirting cleansing foam onto my palms became a purifying wash. Pulling on the gown turned me into a priest. Putting on the gloves allowed my hands to become pure enough to hold the hands of the ill, if that was wanted. My new ritual became a grounding necessity for the holiest work.

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