One summer during seminary, I did chaplaincy training (Clinical Pastoral Education) in a Catholic hospital in Western Massachusetts. The priest and nun who supervised assigned us as students to do something no one would be allowed by law to do now. They assigned us to be nurses’ aids for a week, before we could begin to be chaplains to patients. Today, that would be against Union rules, patient safety regulations and probably a lot more hospital accreditation standards. However, this occurred back in 1979 and I imagine that it was legal then.
I was a disaster as a nurses’ aid: clumsy, tentative, fearful and awkward. I remember being assigned to give a bed bath for the first time to an unresponsive elderly woman, after very little instruction. I was nonplussed as I gazed upon her pale, naked body lying still in the bed. It took me a long time with the pink basin, white washcloth, soap and water to accomplish the task. I was humbled and whispered my apologies to her, just in case she could hear. I felt badly that she was getting an amateur bed bath instead of a professional one. At least I treated her with respect, even if I was not good at what I was doing. The seed of my admiration for nurses was planted at this time. What could be more earthy, decent and humane than taking care of every need of strangers’ bodies?
After that week of being a nurses’ aid, I was so relieved to “just talk” to patients. In particular, I recall a middle-aged female patient who had a hemorrhoid operation and described her pain to me in great detail. I no longer had to help with physical tasks. I was so delighted and satisfied to be able to simply sit and empathize with her. And I empathized up the wazoo. (I also checked with the nurse about the timeliness of her pain medications.) That summer, I learned about identifying with people in their brokenness, because we are all human and therefore, broken in some way. No one “has it all together.” Not even the person you look up to the most.
I look up to people who have the strength to be vulnerable and real like the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recently wrote Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. As a young minister, like her, I suffered from the delusion that I was supposed to be righteous, good at Christianity, for my church members’ sake. In my mind, it also seemed ridiculous because I was only twenty-three and there were plenty of old saintly people in the church where I served. So, I can identify with Bolz-Weber, who wrote:
“as much as being the person who is the best Christian, who ‘follows Jesus’ the most closely can feel a little seductive, it’s simply never been who I am or who my parishioners need me to be. I’m not running after Jesus. Jesus is running MY ass down. Yeah, I am a leader, but I’m leading them onto the street to get hit by the speeding bus of confession and absolution, sin and sainthood, death and resurrection…I’m a leader, but only by saying, ‘Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.'”
Like Bolz-Weber, I have often learned and taught from examples of my failure or tentativeness and trials. After all, people can learn from a negative example, just like they can learn from a good one. It also helps to have an enormous reliance upon grace and humor. Each of us needs a lot of help to get through any particular day. And isn’t that a relief – not to need to look strong and perfect?
May you know that you are not the only broken and beautiful human here.
May you have the courage to be real and vulnerable.
May you sense grace and peace all around you.