How Visiting The Sick Changes You – SVOTS

SVOTS – 18/9/19

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Our Lord has commanded us to visit the sick (Mt. 25:36) and those who suffer (Jas. 1:27). But what happens, exactly, when we do?

Our beloved, newly-departed Fr. Steven Belonick (+Aug 7, 2019) once reflected on his visits with countless people with illnesses of all kinds—some curable, others life-threatening—as well as his experience being one of the sick himself when he was laid up for weeks in a hospital bed:

“…Visits from fellow human beings are healing; just the presence of another human being is healing. Most noteworthy of all, I eventually learned that the ‘visitor’ and ‘visited’ become ‘Christ’ to each other. Jesus’ words (paraphrased), ‘…when you have done so to the least of the brethren, you have done so to Me,’ now take on new meaning: for, when we are in the role of the ‘visitor,’ we are in the guise of Christ coming to the needy; likewise, when we ourselves are the “visited,” we are equally in the guise of Christ, in the image of His humanity.”1

A few weeks ago, I shared a little bit about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which brings seminarians into supervised encounters with persons in crisis at hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings. I also shared why CPE is an essential ingredient St. Vladimir’s uses to form priests and chaplains to go out into the world to visit the sick and suffering, just as Fr. Steven did.

But nothing I explained could ever be as powerful as the words of those whose lives and ministries have been changed thanks to their experience in CPE.

“The main thing I came away with from CPE was more deep self-awareness and a more critical look at myself, my motivations, and my strengths and weaknesses,” said Fr. James Parnell (Class of ‘13), rector of All Saints Church in Hartford, CT. “The model helps you start to see some of your blind spots and even delusions that, left unknown, can seriously inhibit effective pastoral ministry.”

Along with his parish responsibilities, Fr. James is also a chaplain (major) in the Connecticut Army National Guard and a clinical chaplain at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Newington, CT, focusing on the spiritual care of those suffering from moral injury, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, acute/chronic pain, and long-term mental illness.

He said he draws from his CPE experience every day.

“It helped to teach me how to make connections with people—to be vulnerable, present, and empathetic—even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when I’d rather stay ‘comfortable’ behind my walls, be they real or imagined.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to a time when it was easy to be disconnected and disengaged from those who are suffering—but I’m glad that I can’t.”

Like Fr. James, Sarah Byrne-Martelli continues to use the skills and experience gained through CPE in her ministry and work. Sarah is a board-certified chaplain endorsed by the Antiochian Archdiocese and a current student in the Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. And like Fr. James, she says visiting those in need is life-changing.

She recalled one memorable encounter with an Ethiopian Orthodox woman in hospice care, whom Sarah was assigned to care for.

“She touched my gold cross and said in her native language, ‘I’m not afraid.’ She kept pointing up to Heaven, touching my cross, making the sign of the cross, pointing up, patting my head, touching her heart, smiling and smiling,” Sarah recounted. “…I saw the Lord’s infinite love on her face and in her heart. I received a glimpse of the promise of eternal life.

And this is a lesson that one learns only by stepping outside our comfort zone and caring for the sick and the dying. In doing so, this truth—that God is with us in death and in life—is revealed to us.

We receive profoundly life-changing ministry from our patients.”

The experiences of Sarah and Fr. James are incredibly powerful, but they are not unique. Everyone I talk with who has gone through CPE has shared similar feelings and insights.

That’s why the Seminary believes so strongly in using CPE as part of its formation of Christian servants, because there are precious and essential lessons learned through firsthand experiences and sincere reflection about them.

Sarah said she can even pick out priests who have gone through this training as she frequently works alongside clergy to care for hospital patients.

“I can tell if a priest has had CPE if he takes time to deeply listen to the needs of the patient and family, and enters into the visit with a particular openness and flexibility. I can also tell when someone has NOT had CPE, if they seem uncomfortable in the health care environment and are hyper-focused on ‘doing’ their role and getting out of the room.

CPE enables clergy to shed any preconceived notions of ministry, learn embodied and creative pastoral skills, and more fully integrate these gifts into ministry.”

If this kind of formation for priests and lay leaders sounds like something worthy of your support, please take a moment to contribute. Click the button below and give whatever you can. Every amount helps.

Next time

Exciting things are underway! I’ll be sharing with you how CPE at St. Vladimir’s Seminary is expanding into parish settings and more.

Please, as always, keep these efforts and our seminarians and faculty in your prayers.