To keep death before one’s eyes daily.
Rule of St Benedict, Chapter IV
1. The Hospital is a Desert
As I have written here before, I was a hospital chaplain for about 8 years. It was difficult work and I struggled, but I count this time as a blessing. I encountered God on many occasions. In fact, I would say that God was palpably present in every bed on every ward, for our suffering is God suffering.
While I do not have the gift of being able to chat amiably to everyone I meet as I go about my day – an invaluable gift for a chaplain, the lack of which was one of the reasons I struggled – I ache to be able to visit the sick and the dying again, not for any comfort I might bring, but for the visceral experience of the presence of God.
By grace I was spared some horrors that are encountered in hospitals. Nonetheless, I saw things I would rather have not, and I am affected deeply in ways that can still bring me to tears. I witnessed death in all ages: those not yet formed enough to be born, the just-born, the young, the middle-aged, and those simply past our sell-by date. I am grateful to have held the hands of a few people as their life waned and dipped below the horizon of my sight. I count all of this as gift.
Few people acknowledge that working in a hospital is scarifying. Unless you use religious certainty as a defence, complacency and illusion are dismantled when you are met by illness and death in such daily concentration and proximity. In such adversity, you need external and internal support to move beyond mere coping strategies to find deep resilience through an encounter with self and God. In her book, Resilient Pastors, Justine Allain-Chapman has done a great job in outlining this.
The hospital is a kind of desert in which bodies and identities are stripped. As a patient, you are thrust into this desert by circumstance; staff enter by choice. Like the desert, it is possible to choose to embrace the experience of the hospital knowing that it can be a place to find oneself and God. But you need help. The help afforded by the traditions of spirituality is unparalleled. It is wisdom wrung from people’s struggles and formed over many millennia in all cultures. The NHS, like much of our culture, has neither the mandate nor the will to avail front-line staff of this indispensable help.
In our society there is neither understanding of the worth, nor initiation into the tasks, of living through adversity. Most folk are left to wander in this desert without a map or a guide. All most patients know about being in hospital is their wish to go home.
[Read Part II.]