Have you heard of Clinical Pastoral Education? Affectionately abbreviated CPE, it’s a common part of the seminary experience for many. It’s often required for Episcopal seminarians (like me!), and the bulk of my rising-middler classmates are completing it this summer. What does it look like? For me, in a summer intensive, it looks like forty hours per week (Tuesday–Saturday) spent at the hospital, in a mixture of class time (about fifteen hours) and clinical time (about twenty-five hours).
I have a cohort of fellow summer-unit students, a mixture of Christians and Jews, and we spend time together in class, but much of my time is spent on my own, practically functioning as a hospital chaplain. I thought I had respect for chaplaincy before CPE, but after experiencing it my admiration has expanded exponentially.
I expected CPE to be really difficult, and it is—but not for the reasons I expected. I anticipated emotional distress from spending so much time around critically ill people, including a substantial number of children. In fact, though, being with patients and families often leaves me inspired, amazed, and filled with hope. The problem is, it also leaves me exhausted, anxious, and grouchy.
See, I’m happily introverted, and most of the time that’s fine and dandy. The last decade of my life has mainly involved lots of time in higher education, which is pretty introvert-friendly, along with a brief stint getting paid to spend all day with a pre-verbal toddler and sitting at my computer copy editing papers for people with whom I interact solely through a comment thread.
So to spend an entire day inviting myself into incredibly intimate moments in people’s lives, introducing myself to them, and being available for potentially heavy conversations does not promise to keep my energy stores filled. Heck, I’m tired just having a handful of shallow conversations and then excusing myself to go in the women’s restroom where I can finally be alone and quiet for a few minutes.
I realized, concurrent with all of this, that my ways of relating to people (i.e. hiding from them—that’s a joke, but also not) are connected to the ways I relate to God. For a recent CPE assignment, I was asked to imagine a conversation with God/the divine/a religious or cultural figure around some issue I was wrestling with in my chaplaincy experience. I was excited at first, as I tend to be about creative assignments, but I wound up stymied. My typed-up conversation with Jesus was more stilted and awkward than most of the conversations I have with patients, and I just felt frustrated.
Part of the problem for me, I realized, was that I don’t listen for God’s voice verbally. I don’t expect to have a conversation with God in this way.I speak to God conversationally, sometimes, but mostly just to get something off my chest—to rant, often as not. God usually speaks to me, though, in quiet things—in a novel, or a poem, or an essay I’m writing. In friendship and music and the damp, humus-y smell of the forest floor.
And in turn, this way of relating to God reflects on ways of relating to people. Sometimes (especially, I would argue, in many hospital settings), there just aren’t a lot of words—and sometimes, that’s okay.