Back page interview: Stephen Wright, director of Sacred Space and professor of nursing

by
04 January 2012

‘NHS reforms? A car crash in slow motion’

I drifted into nursing. After I had wandered around Europe and grown my hair — this was the ’60s, after all — my parents insisted I get a job. A neighbour thought nursing might suit me; so I went to the local hospital to see the matron. The next thing I knew, I’d signed up to start training two months later.

There was no sense of calling, at that stage. It was just a job that looked interesting and focused on people, as opposed to the business-orientated jobs to which I had gravitated after school, and which felt hollow and mean­ingless. I became a Professor of Nursing by invitation, first as a visiting professor in Southampton, and later St Martin’s College, now the University of Cumbria.

I’m a multi-tasker when it comes to earning a living. I’m a journalist and editorial adviser for Nursing Stand­ard, a consultant to various health-care organisations on staff develop­ment, spirituality, and health matters, an author, sometime poet and com­poser of hymns and chants, active in my role as Hon. Fellow of the univer­sity, and spiritual director at the Sacred Space Foundation.

The last of these takes up the bulk of my time. All these things have their pleasures and their challenges. I’m blessed to be in a place in my life where I don’t have to do what I don’t want to do. The most joy-full is work that is not work: just being with someone in spiritual direction and witnessing the light come on.

Nursing and faith are deeply bound together. Modern nursing, after all, was founded in the Christian ethos, action, and mysticism of Florence Nightingale.

I’m informed by Jesus’s teaching on the nature of healing and wholeness, and, in these times where nurses are accused of being uncaring, by the powerful image of the towel and the bowl at the Last Supper. This was the text of my first sermon in a Christian church about four or five years ago, and I’ve written a play about it, imagining the impact that watching Jesus washing his disciples’ feet had on the couple who owned the house where the Last Supper took place.

Clever, powerful, technical tasks are often called “higher order”, and we call washing an older person, or taking them to the toilet “basic nurs­ing” — something anyone can do. But making a person feel comfort­able and good about themselves is the highest thing you can do for them.

We’ve perverted the core values of nursing. Unless nurses can grasp that basic principle, we’ll carry on ignoring old people, while we help young men take their drugs and get back to work.

The notion of the highest being the lowest — that attending to humble, not to say dirty, work is, in fact, the highest order of values and practice — is deeply relevant in these times when the seductions of hierarchies of power and technical skills have lured so many nurses away from the essentials of caring.

The Government’s reforms to the NHS? A car crash in slow motion playing out before our very eyes. We’re spending millions, billions, on changes for which there was no electoral mandate, for which there is no need, based on fundamentally flawed thinking that competition, not co-operation, delivers the best results, and skewed towards the business rather than the caring ethic. Other than that, I think they are a great idea.

I was raised in Methodism, and abandoned it in my teens — better things to do in the ’60s — as ir­relevant and irrational. I skirted with politics, atheism, other religions, and swam the length and breadth of the New Age river, and was ordained as an interfaith minister.

The gradual, and not entirely will­ing return to my Christian roots was a coming home, an opening to the depth and the value of a tradition, and a shift from religion as rules and the “thing out there” to a deeply personal and mystical relationship in the divine, long suppressed since childhood.

The disparaging of vocation in favour of a profession — making it thus a job like any other — is one of the great cul-de-sacs of modern nursing. In an effort to break free of the exploitation that the idea of voca­tion brought in its wake, we also lost the value. I see vocation now being revisited in nursing — for some this was never lost — and it’s curious that it has come along with a burgeoning interest in spirituality and spiritual care.

Nurses and other health practi­tioners have always given spiritual care, but it hasn’t been recognised as such, and there’s still great ignorance and fear around spirituality and its relevance to health care.

Now, science is a driver, demon­strating that there is indeed a strong link between spirituality, health, and well-being. And not just the health of body and mind; of cultures, too: the summer riots, to me, were a sign of a deep spiritual crisis. The focus was on poverty, or criminality, or whatever, but the malaise was or is rooted in dis­connection, loss of meaning, and purpose — the very stuff of spiritu­ality.

I direct Sacred Space, a charity (first called the Didsbury Trust, then re­named the Sacred Space Foundation) set up 25 years ago to promote the healing arts, perceived as being lost in increasingly technological health care. We still offer courses in thera­peutic touch, and have trained thousands of health-care profes­sionals.

Over the years, we also began to recognise the spiritual needs of health-care staff, offering retreats, stress counselling, crisis support, one-to-one spiritual direction, and so forth, especially as so many seemed unable to find these within main­stream religions.

As time went on, we began to receive people with all kinds of problems and life crises, such as terminal illness, bereavement, and loss. We have two “safe houses” in Cumbria, and a small network of other spiritual directors around the country, as well as the “Companions” — a com­munity of fellow seekers who support each other and the foundation along the way.

We get a lot of ministers asking for help. The Church of England and other Churches do not have a good track record in responding well to priest burnout, which is always a spiritual crisis.

As a child, I had no ambitions of my own, seeing myself as there to fulfil what others expected of me. That did not change for a very long time. When I did find ambitions, it was only eventually to lose them. Now, the echo of my old school motto rever­berates in my life: Sto ut serviam: “I’m here that I may serve.”

I am discovering grandparenting. The grandchildren are repositories of utter joy — and exhaustion. A part­ner of over 30 years, two fine chil­dren grown into two amazing adults, and the deep love of so many others — what’s to complain about? And, of course, family is the milieu for walk­ing your spiritual talk, replete with every spiritual practice and oppor­tunity you can think of.

I’m not so sure “choice”, which implies some degree of awareness, power, and control, is what I have ever had. How on earth did I end up here? Perhaps not so much choosing as complying. The choiceless choice.

Regrets? No. If one micron of my life had been other than as it was, one flicker of fate but different, I would not be here now, and here and now are just fine.

I have no desire to be remembered. I know I will be loved by those I leave behind, and that is remembrance enough.

Jean Sayre-Adams is the uncon­ditional midwife of my soul. After her, Ram Dass, a man of great love and the closest I ever got to having a guru. T. S. Eliot: The Four Quartets.

Probably the single most life-transforming sermon was hearing Kathy Galloway preach on Iona. I had, for some reason, succumbed to attending communion one Sunday while on holiday. Normally, I would hover around the precincts of the abbey and have quiet times inside when no one was there, never par­ticipate. Her words of inclusiveness, non-judgementalism, and a passion­ate, heartfelt welcome to all were an accelerator on my arc back into Christ.

My favourite place is home.

I can’t say I have a least-liked part of the Bible. Some bits are more chal­lenging that others, but all speak, and speak differently as the years pass. I must confess I’ve caught myself think­ing: “OK, Jeremiah, I get the point — you do bang on a lot. . .” But I am drawn especially to the passion of the middle verses of Isaiah, to the emptiness of Ecclesiastes, the mys­ticism of John, and the muscular Christianity of James.

Nothing makes me angry. That’s just me projecting my fear on to some­thing I’ve perceived as an attack. I experience anger when I have fallen into forgetting, becoming discon­nected from God.

My life is a prayer. Sometimes I forget that, and pray to remember. I follow the contemplative tradition, but “everyday” prayer includes sup­port­ing the healing-prayer circle in our parish, and my daily prayers as an associate of the Iona Community.

Trust in God, the light in the eyes of my grandchildren, and, as I write, the protesters on the steps of St Paul’s — they all give me hope for the future.

If she were alive, I’d like to be locked in a church with Julian of Norwich. It can be lonely being a mystic in the C of E. Other than that, anyone who would be comfortable with the deep and blessed silence of being locked in a church.

Professor Wright was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.sacredspace.org.uk

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