One of the steps in ministerial formation for Unitarian Universalists is taking Clinical Pastoral Education (aka CPE). Unit 1 of this rigorous program gives students a chance to work as volunteer chaplains in hospitals with patients in need of care for a total of about 400 hours. Most people take the full time summer program and describe it is immersion, exhausting, and eventually maybe they will get around to saying it is transformative. But it is a lot like granny’s secret recipe for brownies, people don’t say much about the elements of that change. I didn’t think I had the stamina for the intensive as the summer program is rightfully called. So I’m now a few months into an extending program, half time for 22 weeks. There are 2 main parts to CPE. Each week there is group work, with your cohort of students also serving as chaplain interns. We meet and discuss cases and learn about theories of pastoral care, cultural differences and more. The second part involves ministry to patients by spending time on the floors, and working with the interdisciplinary teams that provide quality care to patients. I’m at the National Institutes of Health, on a children’s floor (mostly leukemia, though some other very difficult diagnoses as well) working with pain and palliative care, and on a general ward where I’ve seen a lot of people with hepatitis and a sprinkling of people with other life threatening conditions as well. NIH is the nation’s premier bio-medical research center. All care is free, and almost everyone I see is there because standard treatment for their condition has failed. Or there is no standard treatment because the condition is so rare. Treatment has failed, or there is no standard of care.
When I see a patient in my mind I make a bowl of my two hands and prayerfully place the spirit or maybe even the soul of each patient in that bowl. Their heart, in my spiritual care for a moment, or repeatedly for weeks. I try to just put the little bit of each of them I can hold in my hands, into a container of lovingness, and see how long I can hold that position. I’d want someone to do that for me if I was struggling with an incurable disease. My supervisor calls it “getting into the boat with them, helping them row”. Across nationalities, diseases, faith traditions, language barriers, age and all the rest, whether they are awake or in a pain medication induced sleep I try to be with them deeply for a few minutes. Maybe it is that simple and that hard and maybe that is why no one talks about what CPE is really about.