In 2019 and 2020 I was the Chaplain Intern and Resident at Kaiser Walnut Creek under supervision in a Clinical Pastoral Education program, part of the multi-step journey to becoming a board certified chaplain. Perhaps because I was raised Roman Catholic and because my schedule worked out, I was the staff member doing most of the ash giving these two years.
Mostly hospital chaplaincy is about being with patients. Ash Wednesday was about patients too, but more, patient family members and friends, and an unbelievable number of staff. In fact I found myself in parts of the hospital and medical office building chaplains rarely, if ever, go. Between the two days I ministered to 194 people, 147 of which were staff.
This micro-ministry activated and reinforced connections with staff members that paid off in spades when we had to go virtual/tele-chaplaincy due to Covid.
This ministry is short: just long enough to put a thumb into a small Tupperware of ashes, made from the burnt palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, to draw a small cross on the forehead of the faithful at the third eye, and to say, “You are dust and unto dust you shall return”, with a look into the eyes and a moment for thank you’s and my wishes for them a transforming and Grace-filled Lent. Pure connection. Instant community. The sheer numbers were staggering and so was the slow explosion of Grace and forgiveness in my soul.
Even though I am no longer a practicing Catholic for so many institutional reasons, the opportunity to serve in this way transformed me. It brought me back to the catholic (small “c” or “universal”) connection we all have in our ultimate destiny, helped me explore the interfaith connection back to the Old Testament with Genesis and then Job’s “dust and ashes”, and opened the necessary healing for me as a Catholic who misses part of the belonging I once enjoyed.
In big ways relative to my disallowed calling in the Catholic Church, I was in “dust and ashes”, and how now through extending this ritual, I have returned to myself and to Spirit. Humbly. In service. Grateful.