Hospital Chaplaincy

March 01, 2016

Hospital Chaplaincy

This afternoon I went to see a patient in a Hospital.

From pavilion to pavilion I walked, through that city of suffering, sensing the tragedies hardly concealed by the brightly painted walls and the flower-bordered lawns.

I had to go through a ward; I walked on tiptoe, hunting for my patient.

My eyes passed quickly and discreetly over the sick, as one touches a wound delicately to avoid hurting.

I felt uncomfortable,

Like the non-initiated traveller lost in a mysterious temple,

Like a pagan in the nave of a church.

At the very end of the second ward I found my patient,

And once there, I could only stammer. I had nothing to say.

  • from The Hospital, Michel Quoist[1]

Chaplains are often called on by those who are suffering. Suffering can reduce us to silence, and much of the time, silence can be the most appropriate and reverent response. To speak too quickly can be to walk with heavy boots on the pain of others.

Hospital chaplaincy in particular takes place in the face of human suffering, and is because of that a highly disturbing occupation. Most of us do all we can to avoid suffering ourselves, and to eliminate suffering from the lives of those we love and care for. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to a place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.[2]

Hospital chaplaincy takes place on the turf of someone who is suffering. On that turf we are, most of the time, an uninvited guest. Yes, we are invited by the hospital to offer pastoral care, but we take the initiative in moving towards each particular patient with the offer of attention, presence and a listening ear. By and large, the medical profession and NSW Health accept our role, understanding the connection between spiritual well-being and holistic health. They recognise that meaning and significance are important but know it is not really their territory.

One night at the hospital the chaplain was called by a nurse who was with a palliative patient. The patient lay in her bed groaning and was inconsolable, the nurses tried in many ways to care for the woman but rightly sensed spiritual distress. After a number of visits to this patient the story unfolded of a broken family relationship that resulted in a sense of guilt and regret on the part of the patient. It was only after the pain of the story was expressed that the patient was able to come to a place of stillness and quiet having had her story heard, and an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness experienced.

Chaplaincy is ministry at the cross roads. Suffering has crossed a person’s path and brought them to a hospital within which God might be discovered. We are called, I think, to have a double focussed attention:  being present both to God and the patient. To offer that presence is a very great gift, because in the face of suffering many people flee, literally or emotionally. Family can be there, but not really be there, avoiding the deep and real needs present in the suffering.

For me, chaplaincy is grounded in three realities. First, in the character of God. 1 John 4: 7-12 tells us that God is love and all acts of loving care reveal something of God. Care finds its expression in acts of human kindness. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, the movement of love to another is a witness to the character of God.

Secondly, chaplaincy is cross-shaped.  

This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice.(1 Jn 4:10)

Hospital chaplaincy stands in the movement of God towards a broken world. When we stay with others in their pain, when we listen to others saying, perhaps, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me, this is part of standing in the love that is shaped by the cross. Faithfulness to the cross of Christ means, in part, being able to bear with the suffering of the world and to stay there with it when everyone wants to flee.

On Good Friday, a mother was in the chapel at the hospital crying. I had been journeying with her family for perhaps three years as their teenage daughter went through treatment, and things were not going well. All she could say, through her tears, was thanks for being with us. When we are present in the name of God, the message is ‘God is with you’. As Jesus entrusted himself to the Father so we entrust ourselves and our patients, and look for what God will do.

Thirdly, chaplaincy is about liberation. In Exodus 3:7-8a we read of God’s compassion on the suffering of the Israelites enslaved in Eqypt:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians …”

It is a wonderful passage because it reveals so much about who God is and what he does. It reveals that God sees misery. Hears the cry of the human heart calling to him. Is concerned about suffering. And will rescue. It is a great picture of God: not a detached God, not a heartless God, not an impotent God, but a passionate, powerful, seeing, hearing God who acts in human history.

Chaplains, too, see, hear, and show concern, but it is God who liberates. And so ultimately, chaplaincy is about being a witness to a God who can rescue. The chaplaincy world is sometimes very good at seeing, hearing and showing concern, but not so good at witnessing to God’s power to rescue. Verbal witness—powerful words—can be an intrusion, and they are an intrusion if they are not preceded by entering the world of the other and seeing what they see and understanding something of their pain. If we can stay with people who are suffering, then the sufferer might catch a glimpse of that God for themselves. But we have to stay, and that can be the hardest thing.

 So chaplaincy is grounded in the character of God, is cross-shaped and liberative. How does witness happen in that context?

Often people talk about how to ‘bring in the gospel’ into chaplaincy. This kind of language makes the gospel sound detached, from somewhere else, not earthed in the present moment and experience. Witness is a task of discernment that seeks to discover how God is present to the patient.  The chaplain’s task is to help discern God’s presence in the sufferer’s situation. What aspect of God’s character does this sufferer need to see? A loving Father? A friend who comes alongside? A merciful God with the authority to forgive sin and cleanse the conscience?

Jesus said ‘I have come to bring good news’, but what does that look like here and now in concrete terms? How does the good news of Jesus connect with someone lying in a hospital bed? With a dying mum, wracked with guilt about leaving a young family? With parents as they sit with their baby who is suffering from cancer? With the bright young teenager facing a leg amputation after a bike accident? How can people glimpse the cross and find there the God who has entered all our suffering? How do we make that suffering a place where they can see, reach out for him, and find him who has borne our grief and carried our sorrows?

Some years ago I came across a young mother who had suffered domestic violence. As she fled from that and searched for meaning and belonging, she explored God in different traditions and kept coming up against an image of God that was mighty and powerful. To her, God seemed so far away, so unapproachable, that she felt he could not have room for her in her brokenness. But on hearing about Jesus and the cross she found a God who entered our pain and brokenness. In Jesus she saw a God who understood her, who had walked in her shoes, who had room for her, and so she gave her life to him as a result.

If, as people who care, we can learn to watch and pray; if we can be silent; if we can listen well; if we can stay present and not flee—then we can help. We can help to create a place, not only where people can give vent to their anguish, but also a place of hope where they encounter the God who is present to them and calling them home.

[1] Michel Quoist, Prayers (Sheed & Ward, 1963), p84.

[2] Henri Nowen, The Way of the Heart (Harper Collins, 1981), p34.

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