February 11, 2015

Deep Listening: The Healing Ministry of Compassion

While chaplaincy may not immediately come to mind in a reflection on the ministries of healing, with this article, I’d like to offer my experience with training chaplain interns and residents to practice deep listening as a ministry of compassionate healing. Scores of books have been written about the emotional and spiritual toll of war on soldiers. In this article, I hope to share how, when framed as the art of listening, of truly hearing another person’s story, chaplaincy becomes a gift of healing, both to the one speaking and to the one listening.

      A Catholic chaplain ministers to
    American Marines and Sailors in Tikrit, Iraq

As a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor, I had the privilege of working for twenty years with many chaplain interns and residents as they learned this art of deep listening, an art that is developed, not by reading a standard textbook, but rather from actual, real encounters with others. In my most recent ministry, I served as a CPE supervisor at a Veteran’s Administration hospital. This experience opened up a whole new perspective on chaplaincy and education for me. By learning alongside chaplain interns and residents as they visited with veterans, I   heard firsthand from military chaplains about their experiences of walking with soldiers, both in war zones and when they returned home to the United States.

One summer, our CPE group attended a presentation on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The presenters were veterans and members of a PTSD support group. Each veteran told his/her story, sharing with the group their struggles with living with PTSD and, often, their religious and spiritual disillusionment. One veteran held up his two hands and looked at his hands, as if he were back in the event he was recounting, and said: “What these hands have done. What these hands have done…” He didn’t finish his statement, yet we were drawn into the moment with him.

When the presentation was over the veterans invited us to ask them any question. One intern asked, “What would you want to hear from a chaplain?”

The veteran paused and looked at this intern and said, “Don’t judge us (me). There is nothing you can say to change anything, please hear us (me) and don’t judge. War has a tremendously high cost and as our veterans tell their stories of war, of seeing their buddies die at their side, and talk of their hate of those we call ‘the enemy’, and speak of their fear, anger, and loss of belief in a loving God, please hear them.”

For all of us listening, this veteran’s story offered us an invitation to struggle with our own feelings about war and challenged us to look at our image of God, our belief systems and the areas where, despite our best intentions, we do judge. In their ministry of deep listening, of healing, chaplains are asked to struggle with their own feelings of disillusionment, religious and spiritual contradictions, and with their desire to take the guilt away from the veteran rather than to simply walk with them through it, to be present and to hear their story. Framing their ministry as chaplain in this way challenges them to sit with and heal their own helplessness as they listen to the helplessness of another person.

Some time after this summer experience with chaplain interns and residents, I was approached by a National Guard chaplain who asked me to consider running a CPE unit for a group of six military chaplains each serving as a National Guard or Reserve chaplain. The Chaplain who first approached me with the idea served as my course assistant. Together, we worked on a curriculum to meet the specific needs of this group of chaplains.
As we began our work together, this group of military chaplains expressed their appreciation for a place where they could receive support. As they came to trust one another and to trust me as a teacher, they shared more fully the stories of the soldiers they counseled. Many of the stories they shared left me speechless as their teacher. With time, they allowed the stories they were telling to touch their own pain and struggles. The group became a place where, through deep listening, they could become chaplain to one another, showing compassion to one another, and to themselves.

 A Sister of Mercy tends a wounded soldier
in a tent hospital. Reputedly commissioned
by Abraham Lincoln, this painting depicts
a scene in Vicksburg, Missouri. The painting
is in the lobby of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy
convent in Oakland.
Photo: Micaela Young

On one particular day, as one member of the group was sharing about his visit with a certain veteran he was currently counseling, he began to cry. As he cried, the group sat with him and invited him to continue sharing. He shared an incredibly painful experience from his own life, prompted by his work with this particular veteran. This chaplain’s personal story then touched the story of grief of another chaplain in the group. Soon, the whole group sat in our circle in tears. The pain was palpable, the connection real. The tears became our words and spoke what no words could have said at that moment.

To this day, a picture of this group of chaplains sits in my office. They were my teachers and I never want to forget this group of military chaplains and how they deepened my understanding of the healing power of genuine compassion as expressed through deep listening. Some of the first Sisters of Mercy who came to the United States ministered to solders on the battlefield of the Civil War. Catherine founded the Sisters of Mercy to meet the unmet needs of her time to bring mercy and compassion wherever it was needed, and that included the battlefield. As a Sister of Mercy, I pray that I will always answer that call, no matter where it takes me.

Suggested Reading / Web sites
Brock, Rita Nakashima & Lettini, Gabriella. Soul Repair: Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012.
Tick, Edward. War and the Soul: Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005.
Tick, Edward. Warrior’s Return: Boulder, CO: Sounds True. 2014.
Website:  Soldiers Heart

Messages to: Maureen Mitchell rsm

Image: "Military chaplain2" by U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew P. Roufs. - http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=16655. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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