Today was the (very beautiful) closing ceremony on my fourth and final unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s taken me four years to complete these four units, begun during my last semester of rabbinic school in 2011. And they have given me what the prophet Ezekiel describes:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ez. 36:26)
My own spiritual journey, to soften or remove my heart of stone, led me to seminary in 2006 as part of a long, circuitous route, where I finally or again recognized that learning and sharing my tradition, making it relevant in our time, and being of service are what make me feel that each day is a day that the Holy One has made. (Psalm 118:25)
Meeting Laurie Garrett-Cobbina in 2009, thanks to my dear friend, Scott Clark (for whose healing we pray today—as he sits at home with vertigo), I felt like I had met an old friend, someone I knew in an old soul or kindred spirit kind of way, and someone with whom I could allow myself to be vulnerable, so that I could become the vessel I want to be to be of service.
During my four units, I have worked with children and their parents, seniors in several settings, congregants at the synagogue I served for two years, and finally, patients in an acute care hospital. Each site has presented its own challenges, joys and learning opportunities.
But it has been our class time that has truly made a difference in my ability to serve. Each week, a group sat in a room together, shared sacred texts on paper and imprinted on people’s souls, and learned how to be better chaplains, better pastors, better human beings. As we each sought and responded to feedback, and offered it to each other, we learned from Laurie how to really locate our feelings, how to think, how to observe, how to respond to the pain of others, and to our own internal pain and joys. When I think back to how I was in the first unit and then to how I am today, I am in awe of CPE’s potential for growth, even for those of us in middle age (or older). Laurie lit the path from unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent (that was painful!) to consciously competent (where I dwell much of the time now) to unconsciously competent (where I aspire to dwell most of the time), and guided us there.
I have been blessed to have felt many times in my life since 2006, “I wish I could do this all the time!” And CPE, and Laurie’s mentorship and guidance and friendship and pushing, are among those times. From the first semester, when I clearly needed a few swift emotional kicks (provided both by Laurie and my then-site supervisor, Rabbi Elliot Kukla), that I think opened my heart in a way that no one else had succeeded before. Each unit has been powerful in its own way, and each time I feel blessed to have gotten to this moment. However, this time, I am more sad than happy, as this particular form of growth and mentorship is at a close.
I want to share two stories that I hope will illustrate what CPE has meant for me.
I have been visiting at the hospital a 50-something year old man with what looks like late stage liver disease. He is mostly alone, as his wife left him a few years ago, and his children are largely estranged from him. He was in physical pain much of the time, and they are not giving him enough meds to ease it. One day when I visited him, all he could do was cry from the pain, and as I stayed with him, no nurse came in to help. I took his hand and asked him to try to focus on his breath, and gradually, together, we slowed it down and his tears stopped. We breathed together in sync for awhile, and eventually I began to sing to him, turning Hebrew songs of healing into niggunim (wordless melodies) because I didn’t want to distract him with Hebrew. He fell asleep. My work was done, without a single prayer, blessing or mention of God, although the God of Buber’s I-Thou was clearly in that space.
Another experience involved a situation at the religious school I lead between the only African American girl (or child for that matter) in one class and a couple of the boys. She did not feel safe after a game of dodge ball, and so I came to her support. As a result, she has become closer to me and more engaged in the class. During the verbatim discussion, I was able to look at issues of race in a Jewish community. While the issue with this specific case was more gender related, it allowed me to take up this diversity as a topic for teachers and parents, with the enthusiastic support of the parents of our African American kids. This would not have happened without CPE.
So, SFTS, Laurie, Michael—the best site supervisor I have ever had, Sabrina, Loi, and Paul, but especially Laurie, I cannot thank you enough for helping me with opening my heart of flesh.