Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Four Days by the Sea

I have been away on a kind of retreat.  I spent four days last week in a sunny, airy environment being well looked after by a kind team of staff.  I shared a room with five other men. My bed was by the window from which you could see the sea.  Fledgling pigeons were learning to fly from the ledge outside.  Next door was the church where my wife’s parents had been married 75 years ago, so I felt a family connection to the place.  

These days brought rhythms and routines very different from what I was used to.  Some of them meant uncomfortable physical and spiritual challenges.  But this was true for my companions too.  When we struck up conversation they turned out to represent a rich and colourful kaleidoscope of life in the north-east. I spent much of the time reading: a life of one of my favourite saints, a history of railways, a contemporary novel.  I slept a lot. 

You’ll have guessed that I am talking about a spell in hospital.  I was in the Sunderland City Hospital for surgery.  I’ll spare you the details.  The procedure was routine for everyone except me: I won’t pretend that I didn’t contemplate this ordeal with some anxiety.  It’s behind me now and I’m grateful to be in recovery mode at home. But the quality of care on the NHS is splendid.  Nurses, consultants, orderlies, meal attendants, chaplains were all exemplary.  I want to thank the hospital staff who took such trouble.  It was my first time as an in-patient and it was a good, wholesome experience. 

What are my thoughts about it a week later? 

First, I reflected a good deal on the nature of a hospital as a ‘place of truth’.  This was something made much of when I went on training courses as a part-time hospital chaplain in the 1980s.  There was nothing life-threatening about my surgery: others were in for more serious reasons than me, and this made me realise I had a lot to be thankful for in a lifetime of good health.  Yet every procedure has its risks, and I was talked through these carefully and honestly.  I always knew what was happening to me and why.  I thought, if only every institution could deal with its ‘clients’ in this way: schools, governments, universities, financial institutions, churches (and yes, cathedrals).  The world would be a better place without smoke and mirrors. A place of truth is also a safe place because truth holds us.

Secondly, I glimpsed in a new way the pressures the NHS is under. One night there was pressure with emergency admissions, a patient who needed constant attention, another patient who fell out of bed. All the staff coped magnificently, yet it seemed that there was no slack in the system to deal with a crisis.  Add to that the systemic challenges of funding cuts and efficiency drives, and all the normal stresses and strains any organisation knows about, and it is amazing to me how good humoured the staff were.  When I was about to go under the knife I quipped with the surgeon and the anaesthetists that it felt rather like an episode of House.  ‘Oh, we really hope not!’ they said.  Their laughter was the last thing I remember. Yet as we all know, our Health Service faces big questions and, despite what politicians say, an uncertain future.  It deserves our complete confidence if we still believe in being a caring, compassionate society – which we do, don’t we?

Thirdly, I learned something about the spirituality of being a patient.  One part of this is the way your world collapses down in a hospital ward.  In this narrow space, you notice everything with heightened intensity: who comes, who goes, the smallest changes in routine, above all what's happening to your own body.  'Out there' with its hum of traffic noise, the line of the sea, the pigeons wheeling in the sky, is a far-off realm, another country where they do things differently.  Even a much-admired orchid sent by friends which took up residence on the window-sill seemed only half to belong to this little world inside.  It's easy to become self absorbed within the confining horizons of the walls of your ward.  Prison literature, the monastic experience both teach the importance of inhabiting a confined space generously, becoming as 'detached' as possible from the things it is so easy to obsess about. Or as Hamlet says, 'I could be encompassed within a walnut shell, yet count myself the king of infinite space'.  An idea rich with possibilities.

Then there is the aspect of being not just a patient, but ‘patient’: allowing the healing processes to take their time, not to be in too much of a hurry for my ordinary life to be given back to me, listening to what my body was telling me. The saint whose life I read was Francois de Sales, the 16th century Bishop of Geneva.  He said: ‘desire nothing; refuse nothing’. That summed up how I needed to be.  Canon Bill Vanstone wrote an influential book called The Stature of Waiting whose themes kept coming back to me.  The central one is that in his passion, Jesus gave up autonomy and control; instead he was 'handed over' and instead became ‘done to’ by others.  Passion means renouncing the active mode for the passive.  This is where healing and redemption spring from.  That helped me not to worry about all the things I wasn’t able to get on with: unfinished tasks, missed meetings, hundred of unanswered emails, letters not written, work piling up.

‘Desire nothing, refuse nothing’:  there is a lifetime of spiritual wisdom in those four words. Recovery means learning to live thm in a fresh way.  I’d like to think that when the time comes to return to work, it will be the richer for having made this journey.  There has been a lot to think about in my four days by the sea.


  1. Thanks for a thoughtful reflection on being a patient. I know about waiting around, but as the spouse of a patient, who has undergone serious surgical procedures on her brain, four times in the last ten years. She has been very stoic over the need for the treatment, while I've had to learn to place my anxieties at the foot of the cross to allow me to focus.

    Her last operation was 18 months ago, and so far, seems to have worked. But she remains under review every 6 months, which could be ongoing for a while to come.

    I can remember the waiting for the operations, the waiting while she was in surgery, the waiting while she was in recovery and the delight when she awoke sufficiently to know me and to whisper I love you, despite her discomfort. Waiting for this should be a time of anxiety, but latterly, with prayer and hope and sitting quietly in a stark utilitarian hospital chapel seemed to provide an answer. I wan't along, someone was waiting alongside me. Holding and comforting me. Trust in God, prayer for outcomes best for my spouse seemed to be the right combination.

    I have huge respect for this part of the NHS, whose work is so underrated by government - other area's need improvement. Particularly Primary Care. Having received a notification that I needed to attend a Well Man clinic, I trooped off to get the blood tests needed as a pre-requisite for the clinic, only some 5 months later, still have been unable to make an appointment with the appropriate healthcare professional. He works part-time in a major combined GP practice covering half of our South East London Borough. Frustrating, but more waiting borne patiently.

  2. "Desire nothing, refuse nothing" is a beautifully succinct way of saying something Lionel Blue once told me: Be generous, but always accept the generosity of others gratefully.

  3. Thanks for these wise comments. I think that the spirituality of waiting needs to be explored much more deeply in an age of instant communication, speedy decision-making, rapid outcomes and easy gratification. De Sales would help us to live fully in the present, as we have to do when reality is tough and painful, as UKViewer says so movingly. But to live that way, when we cannot turn events to the ends we would like, is to learn how to wait for God, which means we must never lose our hope in the future that we believe God is working to achieve. I am trying to learn this.