One of the particularly lovely bits of my monthly cycle of ministry is acting as a Visitor’s Chaplain at Winchester Cathedral. My normal pattern of activity during a shift is to perambulate the Cathedral, chatting to fellow volunteers (often guides) and staff like virgers, any visitors who want or need time to talk, and sometimes members of Cathedral Chapter or Diocesan staff.
I make a habit of sitting quietly for a few moments and writing fresh prayers that are pertinent to the moment: the activities in the Cathedral that day, the liturgical season, and world events. These I then use when I lead the ‘Prayers on the hour’ that punctuate the Cathedral day and remind visitors of the purpose and significance of the building.
And lastly, I tend to keep my mobile phone camera to hand, to catch the light through windows, the Cathedral decorations or community displays, or anything else that strikes me as significant or important ‘in the moment.
This week, the harvest display was still up after last weeks celebrations, so my photographs and prayers reflect that:
As we take time in this holy place to acknowledge your presence, we remember that you do not rest simply in buildings dedicated to your worship, but through your Holy Spirit walk beside us as the crucified Christ, in the joys and traumas of our daily lives.
As we celebrate the gifts of your creation in this Harvest season, we ask you to encourage the political leaders of this world to work for peace, that we might beat the swords, guns and armaments of our nations into the ploughshares, water wells and irrigation systems that will enable us to feed the world family.
We pray that together, in this way, we might bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Around us we see the work of human hands wrought from your creation in stone, and wood, and glass, in stitch-work and flowers. So often this place resounds to the human voice in prayer and song.
Thank you for the skills of all those who celebrate your Word and Power and make for us this place of peace and restoration. Continue to gift those who care for this building with the wisdom and love that enables it to glorify your name,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
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?
I currently have the privilege of undertaking a community placement with the chaplaincy team at my local hospital as part of my ordination training. One session of that placement was sitting in on a meeting about organ and tissue donation.
Until then I didn’t know
the families of all suitable patients who are in cardiac or brain death are approached and asked to consider if they would be willing to allow organ or tissue donation from their relative, or if their relative has already registered for donation are informed of that fact if they didn’t know already;
people up to the age of 80 may be suitable for organ donation (e.g. heart, lungs, liver, kidneys etc.);
people up to the age of 85 may be suitable for tissue donation (e.g. cornea, ligaments, bone, skin etc.).
A few days after this meeting, I had my awareness raised of a new campaign launched 28th January 2013, to encourage Christians to register, donate or promote organ and tissue donation as part of their Christian giving. This is the first time NHS Blood and Transplant have worked with churches on such a national campaign. It actually seems quite obvious to me now I come to think about it that donating our flesh and blood be part of our Christian giving, since we believe in a Christ who died that we might live a closer relationship with God, the author of life (Acts 3). Perhaps we shouldn’t need our own website through which to do so, but surely any campaign that raises the profile of both the need and opportunity can be welcomed.
The campaign is called Flesh and Blood, and provides a whole variety of resources including an easy way to register for organ, tissue and blood donation; stories of those who have donated or received organs, tissue or blood; resources to help raise awareness (including a 90 second video that can be downloaded and played during notices at your church) and make churches available as a venue for blood donor clinics; and understanding for those who are unable to donate but who can become advocates to encourage other who can to do so.
So, have I ever donated blood? Nope, not to date. Until well after I was married I was under weight and therefore not allowed to give blood, and since then just haven’t really considered it – that needs changing! However, hearing the stories of both medical staff and transplant patients at first hand last week, and reading the information at Flesh and Blood has encouraged me to more proactive action, and I am now registered for organ and tissue donation should the worst happen.