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On this Ash Wednesday - End of day reflections from an interfaith chaplain.

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

“I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Imagen de Glenn A Lucas en Pixabay

Since I was little I have been fascinated by public and collective expressions of faith. Today, I share with you my experience as a chaplain offering ashes to staff and patients on Ash Wednesday though it has been one of those experiences that I will continue to reflect on and process for years to come.

I had this experience first in 2019, when I was doing a Clinical Pastoral Education unit and had the opportunity to offer ashes to staff. I remember it as a powerful experience and I was looking forward to it this year as well. It's been a couple of decades, at least, since I left the Catholic church and this experience offering ashes comes as an interfaith chaplain and a Unitarian Universalist minister.

I started offering ashes to staff and patients almost since my shift started this afternoon. I went to my acute care unit first, visited patients' rooms, and offered them to staff. Then, I would get requests to see other patients who, after seeing the cross on a nurse's forehead, requested it, too.

I then went to the Psychiatric hospital that is under my care, too. I visited almost every unit and department there. Because we are still in pandemic times, we were using qtips to apply the ashes to people's foreheads. For this reason, I asked them to keep their eyes closed in case ashes dripped. I would then make a cross on their forehead and say "Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return. May God bless you." And they would open their eyes, for a second we would connect. At some point, I was surprised that I did not seem to be experiencing this day as I did before.

I had patients to see as well, and I visited them in between going from one unit to the next.

I finally made it back to my office and, after resting a few minutes, went to clock out for lunch. I sat in the cafeteria and suddenly I felt overwhelmed by this deep sense of connection and reverence. So much emotion came to me at once. I had been so busy, moving from one place to the next, talking to patients, offering ashes, responding to messages that, as soon as I had a quiet moment, the intensity of all those interactions came rushing to me. I felt humbled by this experience.

I still like these public and collective expressions of faith, not just because of the ritual, not because of what each tradition says, but because I still sense that it touches on a mystery beyond...and I mean, way beyond my understanding. A mystery that, in those expressions of faith, I experience as palpable and real. A mystery that my mind cannot fully comprehend, but that seems to speak to my heart in a language that is known and familiar to it.

Today was one of those days in which, as Annie Dillard describes it, I did not know I was a bell but I am still ringing.

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