WAR and Peace: My year of Clinical Pastoral Education

by Emily McGaughy, MDiv 2009

The time I reached seminary at PSR in the fall of 2005, the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq had been going on for two years. The war was being rhetorically framed as a justified response to the devastating events of 9/11. Like most descendants of the “Peace Church” movement, I had questions at that time about the rhetoric of revenge being used in the public square, questions about neo-colonial “nation building” through military occupation, questions about the role of the responsible global citizen during the global war on terror, and theological questions about history continually repeating itself.

During my three years on Holy Hill, I found colleagues and professors willing to engage those questions, particularly Jeffrey Kuan as we journeyed to Vietnam as part of a PSR-sponsored immersion trip in 2007. My haunting experience in Vietnam solidified and confirmed God’s call upon my life: a call to make peace and to tend the wounds of war. Naturally, when considering where to fulfill my denominational requirement for clinical pastoral education (CPE), I chose  Veterans Affairs because I considered that context a place of unparalleled opportunity to wound-tend and peace-make.

I did 30 hours of clinical chaplaincy and 10 hours of classroom instruction a week during my year at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Healthcare System. I worked in several units, including spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, severe mental illness, intensive care, critical care, and both women’s and men’s trauma recovery program. My daily schedule consisted primarily of visiting up to 10 patients and facilitating clinical spirituality groups. I was most excited by a group that I began running collaboratively with a colleague from psychology services that explored the intersections of spirituality and cognitive behavioral therapy on the psych ward.

My long-term religious angst about violence and war took on a new immediacy when, during the summer before starting at the VA, I stumbled upon a cut-off piece of family history. I found old, filed-away, hand-written letters documenting several involvements of men in my family in WWII—I had known nothing about this before reading these letters. A clergy person on my paternal side left the military for seminary after witnessing horrors at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. He spent the rest of his life thinking about and responding to “war and peace, the nature of man, and the need for religion.”

Finding out that such thoughts were flowing through the blood in my veins gave me a new “hermeneutical horizon” as I started chaplaincy with vets. Like many veterans, my family members who served in the military rarely talked about their war stories out loud but spent a majority of their lives suffering from the reliving of those stories in silence. Our society has done a terrible job of providing space for men to explore, lament, and connect with one another in order to examine the impacts of geo-political violence upon their lives. I considered my upcoming CPE time at the VA an opportunity to hear such war stories, as well as a time to integrate cut-off parts of my family history into a relationship of companionship and care. It’s humbling to look back upon my naiveté in those early days of the program.

Pretty quickly upon entering the CPE process I ran into some difficulty being a “listening companion.” I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering: traumatic brain injuries, severed limbs, sobbing wives, and stories of losing loved ones, losing memory, and losing faith filled my days. And it seemed that every time a veteran honored me with his or her vulnerability, I went into “fix-it” mode. But the CPE process is designed to highlight, examine, deconstruct, and reconstruct the famous (and dangerous) “fix it” tendencies of well-meaning pastoral types. CPE colleagues and supervisors prodded me to explore how my own “untended grief” was causing me to perpetuate what I refer to as the colonizing model of pastoral care, which is enacted when the care-giver, in a controlling attempt to alleviate her own discomfort with pain, constructs and carries out an uninvited pastoral “plan” instead of witnessing the present suffering and waiting for the healing desires of the other to be articulated.

Seeing my participation in the colonial model of care forced me back to the literature I’d read in seminary, with new questions. Certainly non-responsiveness to violence wasn’t the answer. I immediately went back to a chapter in Judith Butler’s Precarious Life entitled “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” She writes: “When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action invested with the power to restore the loss or return the world to a former order, or to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world formerly was orderly.” She goes on: “Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? ...If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” The action-reflection learning model of CPE helped me discover the white western male dominance embodied in my pastoral approach. With the help of faithful companions along the way, I’ve learned to think of Butler’s “return to a sense of vulnerability” as part of my repentance work for that faulty embodiment.

The wounds from war continue to increase. The call for peace-making persists. Slowly, I’m learning that if there’s any chance of healing the wounds of war, it will come not through the offering of fix-it recipes, but in the offering of vulnerable presence in relationships where salvation is a shared process tied up in burden-bearing, professed needs, honest negotiations and admissions of limits, the grieving of irreparable injuries, and a creation of humanizing intimacy. Where I used to have self-righteous questions, now I have faces, lives, loves, and stories that push back against any quest for easy answers. Thanks be to God.