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
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
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