Drawing close … from a distance

Imagine being a hospital chaplain who cannot enter the room of a dying patient. This is the reality of coronavirus. Public health demands that patients die alone, yet patients still need people to journey with them, and to offer words of hope and comfort both to themselves and to their loved ones.

And so chaplains are finding creative ways of being present while remaining physically absent: calling people and hearing their stories over the phone. Asking nursing staff to hold iPads near the critically ill so they can hear a prayer spoken through zoom. Standing in the corridor, resting a hand on the ward door, and singing a blessing. Affirming God’s love and mercy for those who cannot affirm it for themselves. Or simply praying and trusting that the patient will feel loved, even if they are unconscious and do not know they are being prayed for.

Of course it would be preferable to do these things in the flesh: to be present, to listen, and to reflect back what you have heard; to assure someone you are listening and that, in some mystical way, God is listening, too; to pray; and to communicate some of God’s love and care through your own gentle presence. But needs must, and so chaplains the world over are discovering new ways to be present while being physically apart.

And so are we all. Indeed, to some extent, we have always done this. We listen for the needs of the world, both in person but also through news reports, memoirs, podcasts, public talks and holy gossip; we reflect on those needs; and we pray. And we pray knowing that, through the communion of the Holy Spirit, which transcends our limited notions of time and space, our prayers connect us with people and situations of every time and place.

During this crisis, I suspect most of us feel quite helpless. But we can still read the papers, and listen to podcasts, and share holy gossip. We can still think about and reflect on the needs of the world. And we can still offer up to God what is happening, and name our sorrows, griefs, fears and yearnings; we can still beg for comfort and healing and resurrection life; and we can still do these things not only for ourselves, but for all who suffer, whoever they are and wherever they live.

So let us pray without ceasing that the world may be healed, that the healers may feel supported, and that those who are suffering may know God’s love and tender care.


Emailed to Sanctuary, 6 May 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. This reflection was inspired by a piece in The New Yorker on being a chaplain during the coronavirus epidemic. You can read it here. Image credit: Josh Hild on Unsplash.

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