Sunday, 28 June 2009

Meeting God in a Hospital Ward

"I'm sure being a hospital patient will help you in your work as a hospital chaplain." Those were a friend's words of comfort as he tried to help me to make the best of what was a very distressing time. Hopefully he was right. But after being a patient several times I've discovered that a hospital is a rigorous school and the lessons we learn there may not be the ones we would expect or welcome.

The most general lesson is what it's like to be weak and vulnerable to illness, dependent upon others for even our most basic needs. We do tend to take our strength so much for granted -until we become unable to do anything for ourselves. Illness involves a loss of freedom and privacy. We hate having to ask for assistance -it's humiliating and we feel a nuisance.

And in hospital time does drag. There's the stress and fear of waiting for the results of tests. The imagination can run wild. And until we've been diagnosed we can't be treated. Nor can we come to terms with our medical problem until it has been defined. During this period I had to try to place myself in God's hands and accept whatever he asked of me. I soon learnt that such trust is very difficult, and the hardest of prayers is to say, "Thy will be done" -and really mean it.

Long inactivity can make life seem very empty. Friends have envied my having nothing to do, when I have longed to be able to do something, anything. They've told me I've got plenty of time to pray. But strangely, God can seem so distant when we are in special need of his support and long to feel him close. Prayer can be very difficult. And being a member of a religious Order and a priest I felt guilty about not being able to pray -that is, until I gradually learnt not to expect too much of myself. Paul tells us that when we can't put our prayers into words the Spirit inspires our groans and knows what they mean. In fact a groan can be far more eloquent than many words. Long before ecumenism became respectable my uncle Harold -a Methodist minister -visited me in hospital. He told me not to worry if I couldn't pray. He assured me that not only was the whole Church praying for me, but it was also doing my praying for me. It was a great comfort to know that I had the support of the prayers of every Christian.

It came as a shock to realize that I didn't cope with illness as well as I expected. At times I was afraid and confused, overwhelmed with questions about suffering, and yet didn't have the mental strength to attempt to answer them. As a member of a religious Order and as a priest I had spent years reflecting on the problem of suffering. And yet, when I became ill the standard answers didn't ring true, even though I knew they were. But I was in no condition to take them in. I resented healthy people who told me what I already believed, but found so hard to accept. I hope when I visit the sick I will have the sense not to choke the poor patient with theology when what he most needs is a friend to be with him, to hold his hand and to pray with him -a friend who knows when to keep silent.

And I have needed a spiritual kick in the pants from a good priest friend. He needed to tell me to stop thinking I was stronger than Christ in Gethsemane, or nailed to the cross, wondering why his heavenly Father had forsaken him. If Christ could weep, who was I to be ashamed of being afraid and of feeling despair? I had to learn to accept that I was human, and that that meant being emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable. And without really understanding how, I could identify with the suffering Christ, and he with me.

Those who cared for me in hospital helped me to overcome the indignities of sickness. The nurses and doctors reflected and continued Christ's compassion for the sick. And the respect they showed me helped me to retain my own self respect, when my morale was low. In them I met Christ, the Good Physician. And there was a real healing in the humour and compassion we patients showed each other. I also met Christ in the friends who came to visit me, and especially in the priests who brought Christ to me in a unique way in Holy Communion, and gave me the Sacrament of the Sick. I have seen and experienced the peace and strength this sacrament can bring to those who are very ill.

If I met the compassionate Christ in those who helped and supported me in so many different ways, I also found him in my fellow patients. The crucified Christ identified with us in our weakness and suffering, and we could identify with him. From the crucified Christ I learnt that the Son of God was most powerful when he seemed to be utterly helpless. That's when he saved the world from the power of sin and death. As I lay in my hospital bed I recalled the words of Isaiah, "In stillness and rest is your strength." And one of the psalms urges us, "Be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations" -and therefore in control, when my life seemed to be descending into total chaos, and I couldn't understand what was happening to me, and why. To identify with the suffering Christ is a very demanding vocation and it's difficult to understand that in a mysterious way we can share in Christ's work of salvation. We find it hard to see how our sufferings can benefit us personally, let alone anyone else.

I needed to be reduced to helpless inactivity before I could learn to place my hope in God's strength rather than my own -to accept his wisdom and love, when I couldn't understand what was happening to me. We all want to be in control of our lives and are reluctant to say, "Into your hands I commend my life."

Sickness does change our perspective as to what is really important in life. When, for example, we struggle for breath or are in great pain we stop worrying about the trivial irritants of life. Then we wonder why we used to make such a fuss about things that don't really matter. And if we're facing the possibility of death, the only thing that matters is eternal life.

Not that any of these insights came as a blinding revelation. It was a case of much later realising that Christ had been with me, supporting me, even though, at times I didn't appreciate it. Hopefully I will remember this, if ever I have to return to hospital. Then, in the lonely watches of the night and of the day, in the frustration of weakness and pain, I hope I will recall the words of Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place -and I did not know it! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven," (Gen. 28. 16-18). For me that place was a hospital ward.

Isidore O.P.

Next week will meet God in 'A Vision of Loveliness.'


  1. Thank you for sharing your precious experience in the hospital. We can all learn from it.
    I spent 2 weeks keeping my son company in hospital where he had 2 surgeries for a brain tumour. He was 18 and I can truthfully say God's presence was almost tangible during those 'long' 2 weeks of suffering. However, it all ended with the Father taking him Home to heavenly bliss...

  2. I am trained as a person-centred cousellor and have worked in doctors' surgeries with the terminally ill.
    I am not a "Catholic counsellor" but a counsellor who is a Catholic.As I hope to bring the whole person which is me to a counselling session so I pray to pass on one of the greatest gifts that God has given me;the peace of God which is beyond all understanding.
    To learn to be at peace with God,my own life and situation and my world can be a long and arduous quest but once experienced will never be forgotten.This peace which the world does not know,can sustain people through loneliness and pain,
    Rose Ann seems to have found it although at a great cost.
    My thanks to her and my good friend Isidore for sharing their vulnerabilities and the graces they have found.