'The Continued Ability to Create and Invent': Going for One Hundred Years of Clinical Pastoral Transformation by Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD

21 Mar 2002 9:26 PM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD

The First Annual Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) Award
for Significant Contributions to the Field of Clinical Pastoral Training
3/21/02, Virginia Beach, Virginia, at the Plenary Meeting, of the
College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy

When we've been there ten thousand years.1 Actually, while many have made the collegial, spiritual pilgrimage back to Virginia Beach year after year, this is only the tenth  not the ten thousandth  plenary session of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. The organizing meeting of what was to become CPSP occurred on St. Patricks Day 1990, with the first plenary session  the first full gathering of the community  occurring from March 12th to the 15th, 1992.

While ten thousand years may overwhelm contemplation, ten years worth of plenaries has been within our grasp. What about one hundred years  this award being based on a centenary anniversary  can we appreciate that? This group speaks of Anton Theophilus Boisen and of Helen Flanders Dunbar. Can we take a moment to ponder the importance of the year 1902  one hundred years ago  to these two founders of the movement for clinical pastoral transformation? Boisen felt he owed whatever measure of success he was enabled to achieve, exploring the inner world of mental disorder and religious experience, to the compassion, wisdom, courage, and steadfast fidelity of the good woman, Alice Batchelder, whom he met in 1902  one hundred years ago  the year Helen Dunbar was born. Alices death precipitated, as Boisen completed his first book, his final psychotic episode, out of which he was led by Helens rekindling of that Dantean love that moves the sun and  other stars.2 Thus the bedrock of this organization lies in the year 1902  and in love.

Again, what about one hundred years? This award celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Helen Flanders Dunbar, psychoanalyst, theologian, and Dantean scholar, who herself did not get to see that age, but whose last book, Psychiatry in the Medical Specialties, noted her research on those who did, the so-called centenarians. Dunbar knew she would not be among those who would live that long. While I can not prove it, I suspect that the following words, sent to her in publishers galley proofs the day of her death, describe her own personality cohort, and she knew it:

These are people who have attained some degree of maturity or at least recognition through achievement. No matter at what point one may find

them on the ladder, they appear to be live-wires, going somewhere and

with a tremendous amount of energy to go on. They must go, they must

grow and sometimes they run head on into a stone wall, a blind alley or

perhaps a luring adventure that becomes a point of no return. This kind

of frustration is intolerable,  as it is to [one] who explores  confines 

and [who] wants to go beyond.  They feel stifled. They feel themselves

like withering plants growing in the basement without sunshine and they

[have an]  almost physical pain of having to grow with no space to

grow in.  In this group one finds  those who have achieved

everything anyone could hope to achieve in the line of their endeavor

but  [who] feel there is no further place to go. All of a sudden the walls

come closing in and they smother.3

As most of us know, she indeed smothered, drowning in the midst of apparent coronary spasm while briefly alone in the basement swimming pool of her home.

Could the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy have helped her  to live a full one hundred years as brilliantly as she lived her first fifty-seven? As stated in the Covenant, it is essential that members

 guard against becoming

o invasive,

o aggressive,

o predatory toward each other,

 make space for one another and

 stand ready to midwife one another in their respective spiritual journeys.

It is not by accident that this terse admonition appears in the Covenant. Dunbar could have used a little love. As most of us know, when this titan  all 411 of her  slipped, as all of us must do at some points in our lives, she was attacked and struggled to regain her poise. With more supportive colleagues, perhaps Dunbar could have felt there was some further place to go. Fortunately for the clinical pastoral movement, her best years, even though only part time, belonged to it. Even Dunbars somewhat second-best years, though, provided more than most of us could offer. Just imagine if we had her here today!

Once again, what about one hundred years? Dunbar knew she could not, would not live that long, but she noted attributes of those who did. Based on her study of a series of about 100 patients followed from 10 to 25 or more years, Dunbar noted that the continued ability to create and invent [her italics] marks potential centenarians. While this continued ability to create and invent is the point to emphasize, a number of Dunbars lesser but unique findings are worth reviewing quite rapidly. She observed that the centenarian appears to have been throughout his lifetime a person different  from the majority of his contemporaries. The pre-centenarian responds creatively to change. She considers this enthusiastic, unfrightened response to change and to the unknown as among the outstanding characteristics of the long-lived. Centenarians have taken catastrophe in their stride and almost automatically mobilized their forces to do quickly whatever could be done to cope with disaster. They seem not to have reacted with shock to personal injury. In brief, these people avoid frustration where possible. When avoidance is impossible, instead of calling themselves failures they make a fresh start. Dunbar also noted that centenarians are honest, giving a straight answer except when they are kidding. She believed this indicated an unusual capacity to be honest with themselves  to observe and face squarely that which is observed. Other noteworthy traits of centenarians, she suggested, are the following: they are religious, but avoid the extremes of orthodoxy; they are disciplined, but are more interested in being creative than in being perfect. They are interested in the development of new ideas, and are never at a loss about what to do with their leisure time. They enjoy conversations with others, increasing their store of information and developing new projects. They express themselves well and keep their lines of communication open. They are more interested in the new than afraid of it. They combat entropy by remaining curious.4

So, while ten thousand years may overwhelm contemplation, and ten years worth of plenaries has been within our grasp, for the trained chaplaincy to become centenarian, as it soon can become, in only twenty-three more years, certain preventive health measures may have to be in place. If we can apply, perhaps, individual research data to an organization, Dunbars study suggests that, to make it to one hundred years, the clinical pastoral community will have to

 nourish inventiveness,

 embrace change and unknowns,

 take catastrophe in stride,

 avoid frustration in life,

 not avoid making fresh starts, and

 foster self-observation, while


o religious,

o disciplined,

o creative,

o expressive,

o straightforward, and

o curious.

Thats a tall but doable order. The CPSP Covenant already speaks of valuing creativity. That CPSP grasped the need for parish-based programs speaks to inventiveness. CPSP may wish to broaden its view explicitly to include both recovery and discovery of soul, refocusing constantly away from institutions that exist to facilitate and toward the needs of persons trying to maintain serious pastoral relationship.

While clinical pastoral training implied imparting knowledge with hands-on experience, and clinical pastoral education implied specific exercises for the mind, clinical pastoral creation/invention implies the development of something new. As Edward Thornton pointed out twenty years ago, the best clinical supervisors generally aimed toward neither training nor education but toward transformation  transformation of themselves  and ultimately of their students. Through what Thornton referred to as the central mythic enactment  the so-called mystery of the laying on of CPE hands  the hope was that pastoral theologians, beyond just being trained and educated, would in fact emerge as something new  would be created and invented  re-entering their calling transformed.5

Again, it is not by accident that clinical pastoral transformation sounds suspiciously like the outcome of intimate hours such as were discussed earlier today. Susan Baur wrote five years ago of psychotherapy as an intense, intimate, and affectionate relationship, one intended  to call two people into existence and revitalize them, as it heightens the relevance of the existential dilemmas they address.6 Is that not akin to what your group refers to as the restoration of soul? Is that not what should occur in supervision, or in local Chapter Meetings? Perhaps similar intimate hours of these plenaries can help ensure that the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy will maintain continued ability to re-create and re-invent itself  pastorally transform itself -- into its centenary year and beyond.

Let me begin to close. Several years ago I proposed that it may be time for the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy  to rediscover the inspiriting values of remaining Still Crazy After All These Years, adding these to their ongoing recovery of soul. The true legacy of Boisen, Dunbars colleague, I suggested, may be the courage to espouse beliefs not initially shared by others, with the founding years of CPSP most likely to be remembered for their insistence that a soul was a terrible thing to waste. I further proposed that the true legacy of Dunbar may well be the willingness to tackle the apparently impossible task, integrating the spiritual and the more soulful. Without being explicit about it, CPSP members, it also seemed to me, had already adopted Dunbars liberating emphasis on becoming free to think and act, applying it as much to their colleagues as to their patients and parishioners.7 This time I propose that CPSP take to heart one of Dunbars final observations, that centenarians  perhaps movements as much as people  maintain the continued ability to create and invent. Thus among the challenges facing the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy are the following:

 to maintain the courage to espouse beliefs not initially shared by others,

 to maintain the willingness to tackle the apparently impossible task, and

 to maintain the continued ability to create and invent.

(Each time I speak to you as an historian, I discover and recover one more challenge from your distant past. One of these days you may learn not to invite me!)

I once was lost, but now am found.8 I am honored to be with you. The phone call from Chaplain Raymond Lawrence, pulling my work out of oblivion, pulling together pieces of my life, has revitalized me as a person. I also hope and trust that benefits accrued to others here tonight. I am thankful to be alive, sustained, and enabled to be with you this day. I value your friendship in coming years.



1,868 words


1 added stanza, mid 19th c, to Amazing Grace, late 18th c.

2 Boisen, Anton T., The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience, Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co, 1936. p.v;

Boisen, Anton T., Out of the Depths: An Autobiographical Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, pp.47, 52;

Powell, Robert Charles, Whatever Happened to CPE  Clinical Pastoral Education?1999, published on the web at http://www.cpsp.org/documents/interest/powell_address.htm.

3 Dunbar, Flanders, Psychiatry in the Medical Specialties, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959, p.374.

4 Ibid, pp.465, 461, 464, 153, 459, 460.

5 Thornton, Edward, "The 'Secret' of Clinical Pastoral Education" [editorial], Journal of Pastoral Care, 36 (3): 145-146, 1982, p.146.

6 Baur, Susan, The Intimate Hour: Love and Sex in Psychotherapy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997, p.273.

7 Powell, Robert Charles, Emotionally, Soulfully, Spiritually Free to Think and Act: The Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-59) Memorial Lecture on Psychosomatic Medicine and Pastoral Care, Journal of Religion and Health, 40 (1): 97-114, spring 2001, pp.108-109.

8 Amazing Grace, late 18th c.