CPE: Clinical Pastoral Education- a required experience for those who are Lutheran seminary students preparing for ordained word and sacrament ministry in the ELCA. CPE students work as chaplains in various institutions while regularly attending a touchy-feely group with a supervisor and other CPE students in which there is a great deal of discussion about feelings, issues and emotional baggage.
I am currently working as an intern (CPE) chaplain at the hospital near my home. Recently someone asked me if I being a hospital chaplain was causing me to face the existential issue of my own death. Not really. This is not to say that I haven’t been pretty freaked out by the experience, only that this mortal coil isn’t existentially unwrapping in my mind around my own mortality. The possible death of my husband, children, siblings or parents is another matter - I’m fairly certain that I would not recover from that sort of blow and even the thought of it can turn me inside out. In providing spiritual care for those who are ill or for the families of those who have died suddenly, or who have had a massive stroke out of the middle of nowhere, I have been completely torn open around the suffering and grief involved in losing those we love. I have found myself in the ER trauma room watching life going in and out of the person on the table whom the doctors and nurses are violently attempting to resuscitate and in that messy chaos my role is to stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room. Kind of a weird job description, but there it is, and I’m strangely qualified. I’ve found myself having various difficulties with this. I can’t help but feel God’s presence in the trauma room, but I find myself sensing God’s presence in other rooms too. In the little white room with just enough space for 4 love seats and as many boxes of tissue, we bring the families of those who are dead, or might be dead, or should be dead, or died and are now not dead but we don’t know for how long. I sit with these people who are consumed with the fear of loss, and sometimes they are then consumed by loss. Their 60 year old father has just died. Their spouse of 51 years has just experienced a brain aneurism. Their sister has just swallowed 4 bottles of pills and they are waiting to hear if her body is dead, or just her brain. So in this pit of pain, I am the chaplain. What can I do? I’d rather die myself than simply spout some standard pastor bullshit that sounds an awful lot like “it’s God’s will that you are experiencing this unspeakable pain and that your life is pretty much fucked from here on out” which is just some freeze dried bullshit if you ask me. I have no answers for these people. I bring them water, make some calls for them, keep bugging the doctors to give us more information or a compassionate update, but words of wisdom I have none. I feel the unfairness of it all. I feel the uncontrollable terror of loss. I feel the finality of never having a father again. I feel the sadness that is both poetic and grotesque. I stand by and witness the disfiguring emotional process we politely call grief. I am aware of God’s presence and I want to slap the hell out of Him or Her or It, not out of anger as much as out of defense. Maybe if God senses that I’m not a girl to fuck with my loved ones will be spared. But then in a slice of a moment, I am aware that God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing but is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it feeling as shitty as the rest of us. It is this awareness of God which torn me open last night during the Good Friday service. I was feeling the sorrow of so many who I had encountered in the last few weeks and when the choir sang I began to weep and I didn’t finished that up until 20 minutes after everyone else left (except the other wretch who couldn’t manage to find her legs and stand the hell up). I wasn’t weeping for myself but for OUR suffering which in some beautiful horrible way is shared with and in Christ. I experienced the readings last night as God’s heart breaking for our suffering through Christ’s suffering and the beauty of it spilled out in my tears.