Presence in the Silence

I had been working as a hospital chaplain for just a few months, when one morning I visited a patient (let’s call her Joan) who was due to have complicated cardiac surgery later that morning. The moment I entered her private room I realised that she was consumed by anxiety. She sat on the edge of her bed facing the window, wearing a hospital gown and looking very vulnerable and alone. I gently asked if I could sit with Joan as she awaited her call to theatre and in a very nervous tone she agreed. We spoke just a little about how she was feeling but I quickly realised this was only making her more anxious. I decided to be with her in the silence and she seemed relieved by this. Every now and again one of us spoke but for our time together very little was actually said. After some time the nurse entered the room to tell Joan the porter was waiting for her to bring her to theatre. I took my leave having wished Joan well and promising to remember her.

As this was a Friday leading into a bank holiday weekend, I didn’t get to see Joan until the following Tuesday. On entering her room she instantly recognised me, her face lit up and she expressed how glad she was to see me. I suppose I was initially a bit surprised by this as our encounter had been such a silent one. She invited me to sit and having explained how well the procedure had gone for her she went on to tell me how she had hoped to see me again to tell me how much I had helped her before her surgery. She had my complete attention as I was always open to feedback and to learning how best I could accompany those to whom I minister. She said, “I really hoped to see you again Niamh. I just wondered after the surgery what was it about you that helped me so much last Friday. I thought and I thought. I could just remember you sitting there in that chair in your red jacket. You said very little. In fact I realised that if you said anything I was so anxious that I would have asked you to leave. No, I realise after thinking about it for a long time – it was your presence. You were completely present to me and that helped me more than you can imagine. Thank you Niamh. I just wanted to tell you that.”

During the following week I reflected on this encounter. Aside from the fact that I became more deeply aware in the process of how important real presence was when accompanying a patient in pain, having heard this first hand from the patient herself, I wondered how this ability to be truly present had developed in me. Of course the skills of attending to another were an integral part of my chaplaincy training (Clinical Pastoral Education) and through my C.P.E. experience at the Mater hospital I received much practice in this area. However I believed the presence I was now offering to patients was more than a learned skill and came from a deeper place – a contemplative space. I came to understand that my ability to be completely present to another was a fruit of my faithfulness to spending time each day opening myself to the presence and action of God through the practice of Centering Prayer. Through my twice-daily commitment to this relationship, a relationship beyond words, beyond thoughts, in a spirit of total receptivity I had developed the gift of being able to sit with a suffering other in that same spirit of surrender and receptivity to them at exactly where they were at in that moment.

As Thomas Keating explains, “In Centering Prayer … little by little, we enter into prayer without intentionality except to consent… and consent becomes surrender … and surrender becomes total receptivity… and, as the process continues, total receptivity becomes effortless, peaceful.… It is free and has nothing to attain, to get, or desire … So, no thinking, no reflection, no desire, no words, no thing … just receptivity and consent.” (Thomas Keating, ‘Centering Prayer’ segment, Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ)

It is in this same spirit of receptivity and consent that I believe I now accompany the patients I minister to each day. I am keenly aware that when I sit with patients in this way a space of truth and freedom opens up, a space where the Divine enters in a profound way and where transformation comes about through His healing presence and action. I believe this is the greatest gift I can offer to those I accompany as a healthcare chaplain. I will always be grateful to Joan for her feedback that day which helped me to realise this gift and to commit myself to share this gift freely with those I serve.

by Niamh Brennan