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Held in the hollow of God’s hand

20 February 2015

A recent experience of serious illness gives David Bryant a new appreciation of dependence


"When the morning Stars sang together" from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job (1823-26)

"When the morning Stars sang together" from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job (1823-26)

I WOKE to a surreal tangle of tubes, drips, and cannulas; morphine injectors; beeping, chimera-like machines; and an oxygen mask resembling a scuba diver's gear.

"Hello, darling. I'm Staff Nurse Cassie. How are you?"

"Where am I?"

"The high-dependency unit. You have just come back from theatre after a four-hour cancer op."

I had always looked on illness with a degree of detachment. I'd done a spell as a part-time hospital chaplain in the distant past, but it had been the goldfish-bowl syndrome: looking in from the outside. With four wards to cover, it was scarcely possible to spend more than a couple of minutes at each bedside. Yes, I had been on the receiving end in the outpatients department a couple of times, but had scarcely penetrated the inner mysteries of that seething hive of healing. True, the annual feast of St Luke elicited a healing-based homily from the vicar; and the weekly intercession list injected a pinch of illness into the liturgy. But often I was unfamiliar with the names of the sick, and praying for souls without any flesh to fill them out is a challenging and faintly disconcerting process.

As for operating theatres, intensive-care units, general anaesthetic, and the surgeon's knife, it was the stuff of TV soap operas - an alien world at which I gawped, sometimes appalled, and with a touch of prurience, before switching off.

THERE was more than a flicker of denial in this. I had always dug the garden, painted the kitchen, and tramped the moors; and I retained an inbuilt assumption that I would reach my fourscore years unscathed. After all, Abraham lived for 175 years, and "breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man full of years" (Genesis 25.7-8). So why not me?

The surgeon-consultant's diagnosis shattered my complacency, and threw me into a strange, sometimes terrifying milieu - an unplotted landscape in which the central tenets of the Christian faith melted and reformed in my mind with startling immediacy. I sympathised with the psalmist who felt as if he was being poured out like water, bones disjointed, heart like wax; and the urgent cry on his lips spoke oceans to me: "O Lord, do not stand far off. You are my helper. Hasten to my aid" (Psalm 22.14).

So I awoke, and in the small hours my thoughts fluttered and homed in on dependence, that fundamental ingredient of any deep relationship with God. It is the antithesis of self-sufficiency, a spiritual state achieved fully only by the masters of the mystical life. "No longer do I live in me, and without God I cannot live," as St John of the Cross succinctly observed.

Helplessness hit me like a ton of bricks. I had often sung Robert Bridges' stirring hymn, "All my hope on God is founded". But now, unable even to pour a glass of water, I began to glimpse the real meaning of reliance on the Almighty. The ordered seasons, the birth of stars, the sun's nuclear blaze, and human life in its vast complexity are held in being by the hand of the Creator, who has brooded over creation since chaos reigned.

Our very breath, the cells in our body, the circulation of blood - all depend on the sustaining power of the Lord, which is written into all that is. We can only live to the full, wonder, and be thankful for the mystery. The Victorian poet Alfred Noyes put it neatly: "We are all one woof of the weaving and the one warp threads us through, One flying cloud on the shuttle that carries our hopes and fears As it goes thro' the Loom of the Weaver that weaves the Web of Years."

I SHOULD have taken dependency on board years ago. It's all there in the book of Job, which I had proclaimed from countless lecterns. Successful, a touch over-pious, arrogant even, Job sees his world drop apart and splinter into sickness and degradation. He attempts to fight a battle on his home ground. Words spill out, sarcastic, impatient, and irate. Questions are fired at God as Job storms against his ghastly situation. This is surely an arbitrary, unjust wielding of divine power, he concludes.

Then, at the end, with almost palpable relief, he gives up the struggle, lets his anger dissolve, and his trust in God become absolute. "I know that thou canst do all things and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted" (Job 42.2). It seems that most of us are slow learners.

THAT was only the half of it. An immense fountain of compassion welled up from my need. The healing power of Christ shone out through every member of staff: cleaners, ward orderlies, medical students, nurses, doctors, surgeons, and consultants. There were whispered words of comfort in the empty, small hours; reassurance and medical skill bubbled over; a concern for patient dignity prevailed; and always there was a quiet voice to still fears and tears. This was a multicultural community comprising many religions, and in some cases none, but through it the Christian ethic shone inextinguishably, scattering the darkness.

Too often a bleak press or a downbeat newscast depicts the human race in a corrupt and degrading light. This skews our think-ing, and an aura of despair and helplessness takes over. Here in hospital, the fruits of the Spirit towered over such emptiness. I began to understand St Paul's curious, rather physiological exemplar of the Church, with its reference to feet, hands, eyes, and all the rest: "Now you are the Body of Christ and members individually of it" (1 Corinthians 12.27). This many-faceted organisation of discrete gifts and vast concern was more than an intimation that the world is fundamentally one, an interconnected, expanded family; a unity that has the potential to sail above all difference and discord. It echoed the Church at its very best.

ALL was not plain sailing. I could not pray. My head spun; the words of the psalms danced incomprehensibly before my eyes, and the clicking of my rosary beads did not kindle a single spark. Even the Lord's Prayer seemed as inaccessible as a foreign language.

Help was at hand. Enter the hospital chaplaincy. It had all started the day before the operation, when my parish priest anointed me with oil and heard my confession. At times like this, there is an an urgent need to set worldly matters in order so far as possible. Being shriven, they called it in the Middle Ages. The anointing was like a lifeline, stretching back over the years to the time of the early Christians; and the Epistle of James rang with truth. "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith will save the sick man" (James 5.14-16). How I hoped he had got it right.

The care continued unbroken. I awoke from a doze to see a dog-collared figure slipping nimbly be- tween the festoons of tubes. I asked for a blessing, and the sign of the cross traced on my forehead was deeply comforting.

On Sunday, a lay volunteer came with the reserved sacrament, making a link with the worshipping community that had kept me buoyed up through a wave of prayer. I felt His presence everywhere, and the fluttering of angels' wings seemed to fill the ward, hovering over all the beds. That night I was able to fall asleep with favourite words on my lips: "May Christ the daystar dawn in our hearts and triumph over the shades of night."

The healing miracles of Christ would never read the same again. The woman with the issue of blood, the restored lepers, Jairus's daughter - they leapt off the page, vivid and vital; and over it all hung an awareness that the Christ who is all in all is the world's healer par excellence.

Surrounded by very ill patients, some of whom were close to the end of their earthly lives, I recalled some words of the theologian and member of the Society of Jesus Karl Rahner, and knew that they spoke to me. "As long as our hands remain folded, remain folded even in the most horrifying downfall, that is how long the benevolence and the life of God surround us - invisibly and mysteriously, but truly - and all the plunges into horror and into death are only a falling into the abysses of eternal love."

GOD was merciful, and I was wheeled out into the fresh air of a new Monday morning, theologically revivified, partially healed, and profoundly grateful. I knew now beyond doubt that the restorative power of the Divine, channelled through Christ and through human hands, fills every particle of the cosmos, and far outweighs the world's destructiveness.

That is a profound comfort when sickness and the fear of death cross our path. 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in Yorkshire.

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