I flew out of my comfort zone recently. I've recently completed a placement at the local hospital both shadowing the Chaplain, and visiting patients on the wards who are in need of company, sympathy, prayer. The time I spent there was brief, but the depth and breadth of the learning, the needs, the work to be done, has overwhelmed me.
I now have some time to reflect on my experience before trying to make sense of it somehow, both practically and theologically, so I can submit an assignment as part of the qualifying criteria for my being commissioned as a lay minister in the summer. But with it being Lent, when I'm already reflecting on poetry, and injustice, and discipleship....it makes me feel a little suffocated.
I feel privileged and humbled to have done my little bit, as part of my training. But I am overwhelmed by the overall NEED of the sick, the lonely, the suffering, the dying. How did Jesus do it? No wonder he needed time to go off by himself and pray. There is so much. It can't be done by one hand alone. And yes, I know this is why there is an entire DEPARTMENT of Spiritual and Pastoral Care at the hospital. There is a team of people who excel at what they do. And sometimes they get weary and need refreshment. And then they go back and do some more.
I don't know whether I will be going back and doing more. I have existing pastoral responsibilities with parents of young children here in the Parish, which may increase, and I may also take on more study, and responsibility in a different area. I have my young family, and it's possibly not the right time to be going and making a difference to people who are spending their time in what is, basically, an institution - people who are longing for mobility, independence, their own homes, but are at the mercy - quite literally - of health professionals. It can hurt to come away, and know the suffering is continuing. Ever continuing.
It's a timely thing to have done during Lent.
The hospital I was at was established in the early twentieth century as an infirmary and workhouse. Basically, a place for those who had nowhere else to go. I don't know whether there was a chapel attached then - there were very few medical staff, and hundreds of patients. I'm not sure either at what point the hospital came under the charge of the National Health Service (NHS), but I do know that when the NHS was established in Britain in 1948, there was a focus on the WHOLENESS of the being to promote WELLNESS - on the emotional and the spiritual wellness of people, as well as the physical - recognising that both needed to be treated, hence the presence of chaplaincy departments throughout NHS hospitals during the 20th century.
Today, despite funding cuts, the UK government thankfully continues to support this need, and these departments continue to employ paid and voluntary staff, lay and ordained - they are both ecumenical and cross-faith (including Muslim chaplains) - and they do so much. From providing comfort in the instance of a stillbirth, dealing with the bereaved, praying that a baby with live after its life support provision is discontinued, from ministering to people who have lived large proportions of their life in hospital, to those in for 24 hours, even being there for the hospital staff, seeing the best of healing and new life, and encountering a depth of suffering, sickness and death you would hardly see in parish work - these people do SO MUCH.
I am at a crossroads right now - I feel I can close the door on my work with the hospital for a while, reflect, write up, submit and hopefully be commissioned in the area of pastoral care. Then I will be more equipped for parish and/or hospital work, and.or exploring further study, or taking on God's other plans for me. But processing this - realising that I can't actually walk away now I have experienced this, that the knowledge and experienced I have gained in the few weeks has opened my eyes to another world, a transient section of society with whom we only usually intersect in the briefest of encounters in our lives - it's going to be with me, churning around my mind, for years, yet, possibly forever. Like others' visits to Bolivia or Guatemala on behalf of charities like Compassion, I have been exposed to an area of need that I was previously happy to compartmentalise and walk by. Hospitals were where other people worked, what other people dealt with, people who had a medical vocation.
God often takes us right out of our comfort zones, and shows us that we can do it, we can survive and, indeed, thrive. I found this in the hospital environment - yet I think it will be a while before everything comes together and I know exactly what I can give back. But meanwhile, I can't turn off the switch - I can't just forget the people to whom I've spoken, the institution I became a brief part of, the patients, the staff, the blood, the fear, the pain, the boredom, the depression. It's difficult to put into words here, because it's heavy on my heart. And that's my Lent - other people's suffering. Something too big for me, personally, to alleviate. But possibly something that my small self, in this big world, can help with, in thought, in word, in deed.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25: 35-46.)