Friday, July 23, 2010

My Theology of Pastoral Care

As one of our classroom assignments for CPE, we had to write a paper about how our theology has changed (if at all) from the beginning of the unit. We were each required to read aloud and lead a class discussion on our papers in class. These discussions were, not surprisingly, incredible. This is the paper I presented, showing not only how my relationship with God has changed, but also how I have grown into a Pastoral Care Giver over the last 8 weeks.

Prior to stepping into the Health Care Chaplaincy building on June 3, I honestly believed that CPE would be a program geared solely towards helping patients in a hospital. I came in prepared to deal with the emotions that are connected to the illnesses of my patients. I had no idea that the program would actually be focused on me as the Chaplain—my past experiences, my transference and/or counter-transference, my feelings in the present moment, and my own growth as both a Chaplain and a member of the clergy. As I sat in the chapel during that first hour of the program, I realized this summer was going to turn my life around in ways I never could have expected; I realized that in order to be the best, most effective Chaplain I could be towards others, I would have to come to terms with the hardships in my own life. I also came to learn that much of my relationship with God, which I’d worked so hard to foster since my troubling high school years, was going to be questioned all over again. The comfort and peace I’d found through singing God’s praises were both stripped away as I walked into the rooms of my patients, using only my words, experiences, and skills that I’m just now learning I really do possess.

As a cantorial student, I’ve always found my relationship to God to be most evident when Jewish texts are juxtaposed with melodies sung in a heartfelt, meaningful manner. I believe that through my own singing, or by listening to others sing around me, that God hears my truest, most deeply hidden thoughts and prayers. The music creates a pathway that connects my soul to God, and vice-versa. On the first day of CPE, when Bonita’s (our supervisor) very first sentence to me was that I would not be allowed to sing with my patients, I worried that I could not create the same sacred, important connections between the people in the hospital rooms and God. Bonita said to us later that day that “you are enough” and while I believed her, a part of me felt concerned that by cutting off such a deeply rooted part of my spirituality, I would not be able to be me—and therefore—I would not be enough. My own insecurities were thrust into the limelight by taking away the one thing that has always made me the feel most comfortable around people. My sense of authority—clerical, pastoral or otherwise—was challenged in a way it had never been challenged before, and my fears led me to believe I was not the Chaplain I wanted to be.

Along with the insecurities derived from turning off my inner music box, I was also hit hard by the harsh realities of life as a pastoral care giver. In listening to my patients’ stories, I had a difficult time setting aside the personal issues that these stories brought up in me. It became clear from the beginning that the inner conflicts I had worked so hard to either resolve or put on the shelf were not going to stay put so easily. These issues were made even clearer because of the loneliness I so often experience living alone in New York City. I began to question God’s purpose in bringing these concerns into my life once again at this moment, when I was trying my best to not only bring comfort to my patients, but also to survive in a city I am not comfortable living in. The questions grew stronger and more intense as I learned about my mother’s prescription for dialysis, which was exactly what I prayed she would NOT have to eventually endure. It all seemed like a cruel joke, as though God was in some ways laughing at me, saying “I had you fooled, Fishbein!” My own anger and questioning towards God had me questioning the use and purpose of prayer within my patient visits; it seemed hypocritical of me to offer words of prayer when I myself felt as though many of my own prayers went unheard. Though I offered to pray with most of my patients, the prayers felt inauthentic, as if God had never entered the room for either the patient or myself.

It was only a couple of weeks ago when I had 2 major revelations that changed my chaplaincy and relationship with God for the better. First, I began finding time everyday to pray to God on behalf of myself. Despite my anger, I tried to keep the lines of communication open, asking the Divine to grant me the calm presence and peace of mind I was desperately needing. I found that praying for myself allowed me to feel less angry, to more easily leave my problems in a “box” by the patients’ door, and to listen with greater intent and ability to the stories and meta-stories of my patients. Second, I realized the gift that comes with negative experiences in the life of the Chaplain. By living through a vast array of painful occurrences, I had a wealth of spiritual and intellectual commonalities with my patients. While I can not exactly understand what they themselves are going through in their hospital bed, I can understand some of the feelings and spiritual dynamics involved with serious medical conditions. By allowing myself to use my past experiences in “use of self” moments with patients, a whole new world of personal and spiritual connection was created. By exploring and utilizing these revelations, I have been able to more clearly see how my baggage is, in part at least, God’s gift to me as a Chaplain. My personal struggles allow my patients and I to feel comfortable around each other, and give me the ability to bring God into the room and (hopefully) keep God’s presence in the room once I’ve left. These revelations also, somewhat strangely, help me to feel a bit less alone in New York City; just as my patients relate in some ways to my past experiences, I relate in some ways to their present ones. Those relations—where we as strangers can connect as people—are the places in which God is truly the most present. In many ways, those connections have the same power as the combination of a beautiful melody with a significant text. It is through this realization that I became aware of the fact that I, even without music and singing, am enough as a Chaplain.

Throughout the summer, there has been one text that has run through my mind over and over again in relation to my work as a Chaplain. The following words sum up the evolution of my relationship with God, and with Chaplaincy, this summer:

I wait for God, I seek God’s presence, hoping for an answer to prayer. In the midst of the people, O God, I extol Your might and celebrate Your deeds in joyous song.

We must purify our hearts, and the Eternal One will answer our prayer.

Eternal God, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your glory. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to You, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.

-Ochila La’El, Gates of Repentence page 411

As I began this process, I believed that the best way I could pray to God on behalf of both the people I serve AND myself was to pray through song. Through the song, I sought and felt God’s presence with me. I have learned, however, that in order to be an efficient and genuine Chaplain, I need to wrestle with God on occasion, questioning and even doubting God’s role in the events of my life. Through my struggles this summer, I have become more in touch with myself and my role as a pastoral care giver. I have opened myself up to new relationships with others, which have led to new and exciting pathways to the Divine. Now, as I slowly gain confidence in my pastoral skills, I pray that the words we speak together reach God in the way I feel they do. I pray that God continue to give both myself and the patients I work with the courage to say what is true, and the ability to continue to realize God’s presence within human connections.


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Anonymous said...

I realize your blog post is like 7 years old now - and I don't know if you still use this blog or not, I didn't check. I just wanted to say thank you for your post after all this time. I was googling and searching for other people's thoughts actually on personal theology of pastoral care.... also in CPE, this is my second unit, and we're working on a paper on this as well. Just wanted to come say great job!! :)