It is dark. It is quiet. The loneliness is overwhelming. “Sometimes I cry into my blanket,” he said. “I feel so alone. It’s like I’m the only person on the planet and I’m a really sick one.”
The flowers bloom, the sky is blue, the breeze releases showers of petals. The birds are back and chirping away. There is beauty all around and yet . . . I haven’t seen my Mom in over a month, people everywhere are wearing masks and there is no one on the bus.
I’ve begun a new pilgrimage.* I now work in the University of Washington Medical Center as a “Spiritual Care Provider,” a longer but more inclusive job title than “chaplain.”
Most people have had their routines changed from going to work to staying home all day. Mine is the opposite.
I’m happy to be back working in the hospital but it’s different now. Everyone is wearing a mask, even the lady who runs the gift shop. My first reaction: “What? You think you’re gonna do surgery in here?” Then I remembered: COVID-19.
My main job is to see Long Length of Stay (LLOS) patients. A lengthy hospital stay pretty much sucks but when you can’t have any visitors, it is excruciating. No visitors?! COVID-19. So I look through census and see who has been in the hospital the longest. I visit them first.
Imagine being sick in the hospital, waiting for a liver and having no friends or family around. Such is the case with William who I quoted in the first paragraph. He has been waiting for a liver transplant for seven weeks. Six of those weeks without any visitors.
“It’s not as if I don’t see anyone,” he said. “People go in and out of my room all day. They’re all really nice but they have so much work to do. And they don’t really know me. You know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant
.What you really want is someone who deeply knows you. Like when someone really knows that you joke to cover your pain; that your silence means anger, that you rub your forehead when you’re frustrated. They know you.
Many patients tell me that night time is the worst. That is when they feel as if they will drown in their loneliness. This is when fear pays a visit. It’s a dark loneliness, not literally of course because even at night a hospital can feel like a circus. But the dark you feel inside, like a single piece of dust floating through outer space.
You know how we say to one another, “Come with me!”—to a party, to a meeting, to the restroom. We want someone with us. We want the support, the presence, the witness. We want—connection. Jesus knew this because he reassured the disciples. “I’m with you always!”
This is why when I pray with Christian patients I find myself saying over and over, “Let us remember the promise of Jesus, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled, nor let them be afraid for lo, I am with you always.’”
Jesus is with you. The Spirit is within you. The Presence is with you. Perfect Love lives within you. And perfect love casts out fear.
But sometimes it’s hard—impossible!—to feel that Light within us and that’s when we can offer sparks to one another. That’s what I do in the hospital. It’s not as if I walk in and say, “Good afternoon, I’m here to light up your life.” I’m just hoping to bring a spark.
God works in us and through us and that’s what I count on. I just try to get out of the way. The worst pastoral encounters I’ve ever had are when I’m trying to think of some brilliant theological response. I always come up with nonsense. So it’s better to ask Spirit to use me and then I just walk in and be myself.
We can all do this for one another. Phone calls can be like fireworks–so many sparks flying. You can give and receive sparks on Zoom or FaceTime too. It’s all about being really present. You just can’t over-estimate the value of a good listener.
But what if you’re not feeling sparky? The hardest part is reaching out, but that part is essential. But then, what if you find that everyone else is also sitting in the deep dark, Well of Loneliness and Despair. (This exists.) How do you make a fire with no matches? Dry sticks! Keep talking, keep connecting and the conversational friction can create a spark. It happens!
We can’t always be the Light in someone else’s dark night. But we can offer them a spark.
* I promise I will post about my final week on the Camino but I feel an urgency to write about what is happening now.