When I was beginning my summer of clinical pastoral education (CPE), I was somewhat intimidated by those who had already been through CPE and said that it taught them how very little anyone can do in these acute care situations, how anything and everything we might do falls well short of what is needed, and how CPE dispels any notion that we as pastors might actually be able to make much of a difference to people who are suffering.
While I do agree that the CPE experience is humbling in many ways, I have come away feeling amazed at just how much we can do in these challenging situations and how much difference even the slightest bit of pastoral care can make. While I have not cured or healed a single person this summer, I do believe my presence has been meaningful to many of the people I have seen at my hospital.
Maybe it was less traumatic for me than it has been for others because I had fewer unrealistic notions about my abilities going into CPE. At age 50, I don't have a whole lot of youthful fantasies or delusions about what I can and cannot do, and I have never held myself in such high esteem that I thought I could single-handedly turn someone's sorrow into joy -- nor have I ever believed that I might make the lame walk or cause the blind see.
And, without a doubt, I was blessed to have a CPE supervisor who follows a collegial educational model, rather than believing that CPE students should be treated rather like soup ingredients that must be thoroughly chopped into small pieces before they can be of any use. While I did feel challenged, I did not feel belittled or disrespected at any time during the summer.
And, when all else is said and done, I am left with a number of crystalline moments that I am not likely to forget. Over the last 10 weeks I have been present at more than 20 deaths, a couple of dozen severe traumas, and more heart-wrenching moments of suffering and painful decisions than I can name.
What amazes me more than anything else is that people have welcomed me into these most intimate of moments in their lives, have allowed me to be part of this experience that they might share only with close family members or, in some cases, with no one else at all. What a great gift that is!
Pastoral care is exhausting and difficult work, but I believe that, as a result of this experience, I have begun to see how compassion works in situations that are difficult almost beyond imagining. And I am reminded of the difference between mere empathy and compassion. As Matthieu Ricard has written:
"A way to deal with this challenge effectively is to cultivate unconditional love and compassion toward the suffering person. This is much more than merely resonating emotionally with the suffering person. . . Compassion is nothing else than love applied to suffering. Such love and compassion can override the feelings of distress and powerlessness that empathy alone generates and lead to constructive states of mind such as compassionate courage.”
Compassionate courage is a great gift of pastoral care work. It may not look like much from the outside, but I believe it is one of the most powerful forces in the world. I pray that we all might be courageous bearers of compassion in the face of suffering, that we all might be witnesses and bringers of the love that will not let us go.