Have you ever dived head first into murky waters, knowing that you’ll be surely bitten by some foreign creature? Honestly… that was how I felt in early February when I started studying Pastoral Care at St Vincent’s Hospital near Kings Cross in Sydney.
Since August 2015 I have discerned various ministries. After much prayer and reflection I can happily say that pastoral care for young people is something that I feel strongly called to. So, when the suggested opportunity came up to study CPE(Clinical Pastoral Education) at St Vincent’s I discerned and ultimately decided this was a dive I felt called to take.
The 'foreign creature' for me was the hospital environment. I have never liked hospitals and knew I was apprehensive… What weird thing would jump up to bite me? Who would I encounter? What would it smell like? How would I help patients?
When I set my early goals (as required by CPE) I knew that I needed to let go of some of my fears. Thinking back to early February; trust in love, communio and the call to pastoral care was what kept me moving.
Thankfully with lectures, group discussion, regular journaling and reviewing verbatims (yes these are tedious but well worth the effort) I was able to gain really good understanding of: What questions are good to ask? What do our emotions mean? How are emotions layered? (such as anger being a top layer for other emotions below the surface). With clearer understanding of emotions I started to feel more comfortable on the wards.
Something else also happened, I realised that I was becoming more comfortable with being imperfect. For many reasons (society, fear, pride) I felt the need to self-protect and not admit that I was wrong, even being critical in assignments was hard for me. But, through reviewing verbatims (mine or others in the group) I was able to understand how I could have approached conversations better, I realised too that I didn’t need to have all the answers. Being present with patients and being curious to their feelings (not details of their situation) was my core focus. As pastoral caregivers we are called to companion, walk with, journey together - we must not lead, we do not advise, nor do we need to have all the answers. We validate, paraphrase, allow self discovery and healing to flow.
Understanding empathy vs sympathy, being present and not being ‘right’ was the most important thing. I was challenged to stop saying the word 'sorry' in any conversations - not easy! But, as I started to feel more 'with' and not 'for' it felt like a spiralling movement of an olympic diver moving swiftly from head to heart. I understood it, but now I deeply felt empathy and vulnerability.
Another example of falling on my sword while diving into the unknown is one of boundary setting. When experiencing deep empathy in ministry it’s important not to take on too much ourselves - we are not God, we are companions. One week I had a long and intense conversation involving abuse and found myself in tears the following day. As Mary MacKillop said “God will take care of us all”: When I leave the patient it’s important to remember that I am not the rescuer, I am not God. I must take a little time out after the conversation, say a wee prayer on my own, let it go and leave them in the arms of the one whom I follow. Also, about 80% of conversations do not involve any mention of ‘God’ or religion, but never the less I know the spirit is with us.
Instead of fuelling the fear fire I must (as author Elizabeth Gilbert says) "remove the straight jacket of cool". It is a privilege to companion others; their journeys are forever sacred in my heart. There is a freedom in being wrong and vulnerable; letting go of expectations, falling on my sword and being helpless is where agape has started to surface. Yes it's not easy, I will continue to fail, but to truly care pastorally for another we must dive. It seems that broken, bitten and imperfect people can do effective ministry.
Please pray for this imperfect caregiver, I finish CPE at the end of June and we shall see where the wind takes me after that…