Touch and intimacy – some reflections from my hospital placement

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news." Isaiah 52:7
Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (previously Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

Earlier in the year, part of my ordination training, included a placement with the Chaplains at my local hospital with a couple of days also spent at our local hospice. What follows is an edit of the presentation I made recently of what my experiences got me thinking about:

Now; I’m married to a secondary school teacher, and in the past I have served time as my church’s Child Protection Officer. In both contexts, we are very aware touching people too much, or inappropriately is ‘not a good thing’.

This probably explains my surprise at the emphasis on touch, particularly on my visits to the Hospice, but also observed in my experiences on the hospital wards. I was in fact told by the hospice chaplain that “communication needs to be intimate even if the patient has lost all power of speech,” and that the touch of a Chaplain “is similar, but quite different, to the touch of medical staff.”

It’s probably obvious I am using ‘touch’ to refer to the act of making physical contact with something, in this case another person. ‘Intimacy’ has probably had it’s definition damaged by the overlay of centuries of sexual imagery, but in this context I am referring to it as the human desire to offer and receive the care and closeness of human companions, such as that Jesus sought from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Watching the hospice chaplains at work, whether during sacraments or simply talking or praying with a patient, there was a lot of touching going on:

  • As one patient was anointed in her dying hours, the daughter was held gently but firmly about the shoulders by the other chaplain;
  • I was aware of the tenderness required in holding the service sheet so that a respite patient could say the words of the Holy Communion service, and in the gentleness of the chaplain as she anointed his head and his hands – both intimate acts.

At the hospital, movement around and towards a patient felt far more restricted and constricted by the proximity of equipment and medical staff:

  • The table, a medical line and stand meant I couldn’t easily sit alongside one patient to talk in a friendly fashion – when she expressed eagerness for me to pray for her I was unable to get close enough to even put my hand on her shoulder: I felt inhibited in my fulfilment of her request;
  • As I moved to administer Holy Communion one Sunday morning, a nurse grumbled from behind the curtain of the neighbouring patient, pointing out that my physical presence too close to her was why visitors weren’t welcome on wards in the mornings!

My own natural responses were divided:

  • I am by nature a fairly touchy-feely person: I know that part of the way I relate to people is through touch – I naturally want to offer gestures of comfort and care;
  • Yet, I find it difficult to look at people when talking to them: my husband spent many years of our early relationship trying to stop me making an in-depth study of his ears when talking to him! In some situations I still back-slide;
  • My experiences on placement, reminded me of my mother’s final days, of finding repellent the idea of massaging her swollen feet, or feeding her yoghurt she could barely swallow, and yet being glad to manage both as the situation demanded the roles of mother and daughter be reversed.

So I was left dwelling on the hows’ and whens’ of touch in a pastoral context, and whether it is in fact a problem when our own repulsion, or the apparatus of care, dis-able such a physically intimate response. Most particularly, I found myself asking the question, what did Jesus do?

Though Jesus doesn’t always touch those to whom he brings healing, he reaches out his hands

  • to touch a leper and break the religious and social taboos (Matthew 8:2)
  • to raise up Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:15)
  • to anoint with dust and spittle, the man born blind (John 9:6-7)

If Jesus doesn’t use touch, he certainly gains a swift and intimate understanding of those he meets

  • In the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) before Jesus heals, he sees and learns about the man’s condition and it’s duration, and then tests his psychological state by asking the question ‘Do you want to get well?’
  • There is discernment and healing of a different sort offered in the forgiveness given the women with the alabaster jar and the simultaneous challenge given to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50.

Of course, the Bible also gives us examples of those who reached out to touch Jesus:

  • At birth Mary took the child she had given birth to, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7) – the Mother, ignoring her own post-natal needs in grim conditions to tenderly provide warmth, and protection to her helpless child;
  • When the beloved disciple leans back against Christ at the Last Supper to ask who will betray him (John 13:25) is that the last time Jesus is touched, without betrayal, ridicule, and torture?
  • Some like to depict a grieving Mary holding her sons body when it is taken from the cross. What the Gospel does tell us it is that Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus’ body, wraps it in a clean linen shroud and lays it in a new tomb (Matthew 27:59) – like a mortuary attendant respectfully caring for a victim of crime; like a loved one taking the hand of a dead partner, making the fact of their death, a reality;
  • Then there is Thomas, who having not seen, needed touch to enable to proclaim the divinity of his risen Lord (John 20:19-29)

If we understand ourselves to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and we apply St. Paul’s teaching that Christ was made in the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), then then such intimacy makes us more fully Christ-like.

This theology tells us that the object we look at as an individual human, becomes the relational being we describe as a person, through our interaction with them: our intimacy with them gives them their person-hood. Intimacy of look, focus, concentration, conversation, gesture, prayer AND touch make them, and importantly us, more fully human. The more of these types of intimacy we are able to offer, the better able to fulfil our God-given task.

In a book by therapist Brian Thorne called “Infinitely Beloved” it is emphasised that an environment of trust and such person-centred intimacy “offer[s] a psychological and emotional climate in which pain can be faced and transcended” and self acceptance gained, enabling the patient to be more responsive to their own needs, as well as that of others.

And, when I worry about my own inadequacies and hang-ups, and the constraints of the physical and social environment in which we often have to minister, I know I also have to remember that God has so much more to offer, and will not be forestalled! As I venture stumbling steps to fulfil my potential to love as God loves, I too have to trust him to dwell within practitioner and patient alike “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and not simply “according to his power that (we are aware) is at work within us”, but to his boundless and “infinite glory, and to all generations”! (ff. Ephesians 3:20-21)

To conclude my presentation I asked my group of fellow ordinands to stand,  to take a minutes silence while standing alone in which we each prayed for the two people standing nearest to us, and then, whatever our normal practice, to join hands and look at each other, trying to catch each others eyes as we prayed THE GRACE over each other.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does look and touch change our experience of prayer, both as practitioner and as recipient?

2. From our own experience and ministry, can we offer ourselves some guidelines regarding our use of touch?

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Does loneliness still cause the greatest pain to ‘The Wounded Healer’?

Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey)  "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me." Ps. 22:16,17
Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.” Ps. 22:16,17

I’ve just finished reading Henri Nouwen‘s ‘The Wounded Healer’ (in an updated form of the 1972 original) as part of background reading for my ‘Pastoral Care’ module.

Throughout this little classic, Nouwen identifies closely with the suffering and particularly loneliness of people, including ministers. He encourages the reader to acknowledge and understand their own pain, and especially loneliness, as a means of removing barriers to creating space for the hospitality of healing.

I love the image of hospitality being part of the gift of healing. Well before I understood my calling to the priesthood, I openly acknowledged and practised the gift of hospitality. In fact a broadening understanding of hospitality, and a frustration that study greatly restricts it’s practice, is becoming a constant thread to my ordination training.

I agree with Nouwen that we need to make space for hospitality in our lives. If I understand him correctly, we are to set within the hospitable space we create within our own strivings, something like a bowl of water with which we can refresh our senses with an awareness of our own suffering, to enable us to attune ourselves better to the suffering of others.

However, 40 years on from when Nouwen originally wrote, and whilst acknowledging that loneliness can be a very acute problem in the lives of some people, I am not convinced that loneliness is the dominant, life threatening, injury that we are most likely to meet in a pastoral encounter. From my limited experience, I see today’s culture of busyness as being the festering wound that causes the greatest pain in both the world and specifically in Christian ministry.

I grant that busyness can itself create loneliness and isolation because it creates a barrier to the spaces in our lives that enable us to priorities love, and exist in the expectation of encountering Christ in others. The non-existence of busyness in the lives of the unemployed and dis-empowered, probably increases a sense of loneliness through the inappropriate assignment of guilt and a lack of opportunity to contribute to changing their own circumstances.

Perhaps, as an only child who has always enjoyed my own company, who is comfortable with a certain degree of introspection and the company of a window, good books and great music, I have yet to encounter true loneliness. But as I replay conversations with people I’ve met, and connections with those in ministry (often via their blogs), the greatest burden today repeatedly comes over as being busyness.

As we move towards Passiontide and focus on Christ’s suffering – the archetype of the wounded healer – I am trying to understand where lay the greatest pain of all his wounds on the cross.

We are used to the imagery of Christ’s lonely suffering on the cross; pain is after all a deeply personal experience (whether physical or emotional) that can not be shared or fully understood by any other living person. We are fond of saying aren’t we, that only Christ can truly understand our pain.

Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) "I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame." Is 50:6,7
Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame.” Is 50:6,7

However, if we read the Passion narratives, much of the busyness of accusation, beatings and denials, happens before first light – the time today when the stress of busyness torments the sleepless, before cock-crow.

Similarly, the male disciples may be largely noticeable by their absence at the foot of the cross, but in common with any busy, out-0f-town, tourist attraction in the middle of a ‘Holiday Friday’, the taunting tumult of conversations, and offers of inappropriate beverages, form an overwhelming noise around the cross.

Is it not therefore, the constant barrage of questions, appointments with secular and religious officials, off-stage whisperings of fraudulent friends, and the intrusive clamour of the lynch-mob, that produce the wound of busyness around the central sacrifice, and which that actually causes the greatest pain to the wounded healer on the cross?

Writing this reflection on my recent reading I realised that there are links here with the ‘I’m not busy’ Lent campaign, and Stephen Cherry‘s ‘Beyond Busyness’ book, which I haven’t had time to read 😦 

Any thoughts on what causes the greatest pain in our society, or recommendations on reading round the theme of ‘Wounded Healer’ as a model for pastoral care, would be greatly appreciated.

What would you ask for? Lent Lunch study Matthew 20:17-28

Last week I led one of our Lent Lunches, which run for an hour in our coffee shop each Wednesday. I chose to look at a passage from Matthew where after once again announcing his approaching Passion, the mother of James and John kneels at Jesus feet and makes a special request.

The study not only tries to delve into what we might ask for if we knelt at Jesus feet, but  it also asks us to consider ideas around leadership, not only in the light of the current situations in North Africa and elsewhere, but in the context of being a parish in vacancy interviewing for a new vicar this week.

If you think this sounds like it might help inspire your prayers or study, you’re welcome to take a look: Lent Lunch 2011 Matt 20v17-28

Ephesians 6:10-20 – Armour of God

This term, one of my collegues and I have been nurturing a new homegroup.

Back in our Summer for our Reader Training module on Faith and Daily Life, we each had to run a 6 week study course, and after it, many of those who participated asked if they could form a permanent group.

Many of them have been involved in homegroups in the past and for various personal reasons there lives have changed to make that commitment difficult for a period of time. A particular issue was that many evening groups run on Wednesday’s in our parish and most of these people can’t meet on Wednesday’s for various perfectly good reasons (like regular clashes with other community meetings). For some it seems to be working out, for others the evening commitment isn’t right, and there is still a sense that it is a group in formation. In the long-run, with suitable leaders, or a shared pattern of leadership in place, my collegue and I will leave them to their own devices, and move on to something else.

The very first week, we gave them a taster session using some material from a series on Ephesians that St. Peter’s was working through in the summer. They asked to progress through the rest of this letter written from Rome when St. Paul was probably chained to a soldier or guard under house-arrest.

Last week we started the last chapter, but ran out of time before got to the famous ‘armour of God passage’. However, when I looked at the material again today, I decided it was very thin – the questions simply asked how we make the passage relevant today, and what our prayer life should be like. My sense is most of the group will want to get a bit closer to the text than that.

For me the only way to make the armour of a Roman soldier (on which the passage seems to be based) relevant is to understand what it is used for, and the relevance of the passage is surely to understand that spiritual warfare is something that we should all be aware of and ready for. Individually, and corporately as churches trying to connect with our communities, we must expect it to happen – which is why St. Paul puts his explanation of the armour in the context of prayer – we put the armour on through prayer.

So in a few hours of quiet this afternoon, I had a bash at writing a worksheet to help us get a bit deeper into the passage. For what it’s worth, it is attached here as a .pdf to download. If you make use of it, please help me by giving some feedback as to what works, and what doesn’t – it might help me do better another time.

StudySheet_Eph6v10-20

Sharing study material

During my training I have had to produce various study materials which now aren’t being used. So this seemed like a suitable place to share them people. For full details, and additional material as I can sort out the various file attachments, please look at the ‘Study Material’ tab (above).

ACTS IN A NUTSHELL

These three Bible Studies were my New Testament assignment. They are for use with adults meeting in home groups, and include teaching and group material (with a small amount of space for participants to make notes) and some reflective material to aid worship.

Since then the two groups that have used them, have found there to be too much material (especially “interesting questions”) for a group to get through in one evening, so you have been warned. My tutor was a little over enthusiastic about them according to the moderator! Perhaps one day I’ll have the time to review and edit them myself based on your comments?!

The material comes in four documents for you to download: and Introduction or ‘overview’ (which is designed for all group members to read) and which gives group members some things today before attending the first study. There are then the three sessions of study material, concentrating on three specific passages in Acts, but drawing out some of themes from whole of Acts. The final one of these, completes the “story” so that participants aren’t left anticipating more.

Please download the pdf files by clicking on the relevant list below:

Acts In A Nutshell – Introduction

Acts In A Nutshell – Study One – Acts4:5-35

Acts In A Nutshell – Study Two – Acts10:9-48 and Acts 11:17-18

Acts In A Nutshell – Study Three – Acts20:17-38