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Feb 16, 2016 | The Rev. Cynthia Caruso

Reflection on a Chaplain Experience

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. Book of Common Prayer, Ash Wednesday, page 266.


In the summer of 2011 I went to Burlington, Vermont to stay with a friend and do a summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), chaplaincy internship. I had believed, when I began seminary in 2010, that I was called to hospital chaplaincy, and I had 12 weeks to discern if this was true.


Within 10 days I knew I was NOT called to this work. I did not like chaplaincy. I was awkward with strangers, felt like I was sort of selling spirituality, and disliked being inside a nearly windowless hospital all day.


Because Vermont is such a secular state, most of the patients I visited did not want a chaplain. “We’re fine,” they’d say, waving me out the door. But one day I entered a room to find “Bill,” who had nearly died from alcohol poisoning a few days prior, and who wanted to talk about God, and life, and how to move away from destructive behavior. Bill had a Southern accent, and I felt at home immediately.


We talked a bit about God that first day, and at his request, I took him a Bible the next day; but it was when I returned on Saturday that things got more serious. Bill asked me how I dealt with sin. I told him I didn’t sin much, didn’t think much about it. He told me he had done some terrible things. I didn’t know what to say. We had strict rules about not getting too personal with patients. So I asked him if he had looked at the Bible I had brought him, and he said no, but he asked me to hand it to him.


He flipped through the Bible like a magazine, and I agonized over what I should say next. Should I suggest he start with Genesis? I did not say anything for half a minute as he riffled the pages. Just as I started to suggest he begin with one of the Gospels, he stopped flipping and looked at a page about half way through the book.


“What is this?” he asked, “It says a song of repentance.” He began read, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” Bill looked at me, and I said, “You just found one of the most famous psalms. They read this every Ash Wednesday.”


Bill continued reading, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He stopped reading, his eyes still on the words. Then he started to cry softly. I got up from my chair and walked to the side of his bed and stood silently beside him. He looked up at me and then asked if I could read the rest of it. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit, “ I continued, until I finished. The room was utterly silent. I looked at Bill. His face was serene, full of light. Then he held up his arms to me, and I bent over and held him.


Finally I released him and walked softly out of the room.


On Ash Wednesday, I remembered Bill, a Southerner in a Yankee hospital, a man far from home, who was found by a psalm.


The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.