My latest placement, following on from St Petroc’s homeless charity, is with the hospital chaplaincy in Treliske Royal Cornwall Hospital.
I have to be honest, I was dreading this placement. I am not drawn to sick people (!), and I’m not great at striking up conversations with strangers, let alone ill, elderly or (understandably) grumpy strangers in hospital gowns, who may or may not be experiencing the worst moment of their life. I feel overwhelmingly unqualified to offer pastoral care to people who are wrestling with such serious physical, emotional, mental and spiritual pressures. Who am I to hold the hand of a dying woman, or comfort a mother at the loss of her firstborn baby?
I still feel unqualified to do these things, but since joining the team at Treliske my understanding of chaplaincy has shifted dramatically. Firstly, as Margaret Whipp writes in her study guide to Pastoral Theology, there are no professionals here. We are all (as Switchfoot put it) ‘amateur lovers’. However much you study, however many tricks and tools and theories you know, ultimately no formula can ever cover the complexities and nuances of human interaction. The most important thing is your presence: just being there can make a huge difference. You’re called primarily to be a comforting, grounded presence, a channel for the peace and the love of God, when all else is chaos and confusion and frightening. Of course, the more you do it, the more you talk to people, the more you open yourself to conversations, the more you hold hands and bless and pray and bring the presence of God in small ways to that sickly hospital ward, the better you get at it. I watch the experienced chaplains with awe as they move from grieving with children to rejoicing with new parents, to encouraging the frazzled nurses with their gentle humour and understanding. They are utterly focused on the person in front of them, effortlessly communicating compassion and patience, as if they had all the time in the world and no one was more important at this moment than you.
I also love how boundaried it is. All ministry requires strict boundaries of time and relationships and energy so that you don’t burn out; often in parish ministry this is hard to manage, and too often clergy find themselves struggling to wall off their all-important rest and relaxation. But in the hospital, this is a priority. You simply cannot burn yourself out at lunchtime ticking all the boxes off your to-do list because you need to be rested and ready to spring into action at any moment. Who knows whether at 3 pm, just as you’re hitting your caffeine-deficient slump, your bleeper will buzz with a dying child and emotionally wrecked grandparents, or a young bloke in A&E who’s just received the news he’s going to lose his leg and his whole world is tilting on its axis; you have to be ready for the utterly unexpected because anything can happen and you need to be the grounded, soothing presence by that manic bedside.
This is ministry at its rawest. It is liminal, meeting people in their moments of transition, the slithers of life which shift, turn, and dazzlingly refocus their entire future. You are with people as they are born, as they die, as they lose the most precious thing to them. You are the person who helps them navigate these new, uncharted waters.
I love it. Every day I leave with a huge smile on my face. It is a privilege to meet such a range of diverse, vibrant people, to hear their life stories and to be invited into their most private worries. It is a privilege to help smooth their journey forwards into the unknown future. And so as hard as it is, as stretching as it is and as terrifying as it is (as soon as you stop doing and start thinking about it), I cannot think of any other aspect of ministry as rewarding or worthwhile as hospital chaplaincy.