Today I got to help out at the hospital chaplaincy. Before I go in, I always dread it: striking up conversations with sick, elderly people I don't know is my worst nightmare. And I'm not allowed to wear jeans. Ugh.
But then every time I leave with a huge smile on my face, feeling on top of the world. This morning was full of chance encounters, brief yet meaningful: an elderly lady who had lost her only child at a week old; a woman whose son was murdered a decade ago; a gentleman who gripped my arm with tears stark in his eyes, wracked by the loneliness of age and hospitalisation.
I was directed to one very elderly gentleman by a nurse. At ninety six years old he was as sharp as ever, wearied and aged but full of fire and passion. He had been a preacher in these parts for over fifty years, and boy, could he still preach. He told me of a vision he'd had as a young soldier lying wounded in France in 1939. Dying, he saw a vision of Jesus before him; thinking of his wife and two young children, he begged Jesus not to take him. He'd survived. Seventy six years later, he lay dying again, this time in a hospital bed. Now, it was enough. Now, he was ready to go. But still, as I prayed with him, he clutched my hand and prayed too, with all the strength he had, and urged me to use his story, to tell as many people as I could about this Jesus whom he knew, whom he'd been preaching of all his life. Maybe there was still one person his story could touch.
It touched me. I left that ward feeling unbelievably privileged to have been invited into the most vulnerable moments of these people's lives. Who was I to sit with them and hold such treasure?
The thought of any one of those encounters would have crippled me a few months ago: the idea of having to come up with a prayer, of trying to meet the spiritual needs of someone who is trapped in a circumstance I can't begin to comprehend. But that's where the beauty lies: there is no professional way to love. I am not there as the person with the answers. I'm not there as a professional fixer. I haven't got a clue what the right thing is to say, or the correct prayers to use. You know what I do, mostly? I sit beside them and I listen. I ask them who they are, and who they care about, and what matters to them. I invite them to share themselves.
It's as simple (and profound) as that. Slowly, beautifully, one person unfurls to another. In that pale hospital ward, I have no answers: all I can do is be human, and share in their humanity, and hope that somehow in that space, something holy is discovered.
It's just listening, holding a hand, blessing. Just being human. But I'm beginning to learn - being human is all we are ever asked to do. And there is a joyful mystery in this: for it seems to be when we are most human that we come closest to the divine.