My most active clinical day is Monday, which is usually true given the structure of my weeks. I see more patients on Monday than other days and Friday follows. I don’t usually work weekends anymore.
I genuinely enjoy the ministry with patients. Always grounding, it reminds me of what my work is, why it is, and how it goes. There is preparation and surprise. I know some of what to expect, including the part of me that knows most of a conversation is, essentially, under the category of the unexpected.
I do not like this but it is true. In fact, most of me strongly dislikes the unexpected. The spontaneous and surprising. The things that you can only prepare for when cultivating a posture of relaxation and openness. If I can relax and breathe, if I can be open to what comes, I’m prepared. But that preparation feels different than memorizing or following procedures. You prepare differently when you know disruptions to plans naturally emerge.
Preparing for the unexpected, then, is not a procedural preparation. Earlier this year, I was in a training with medical providers and we were learning about difficult conversations. The training is built around treating those conversations as procedures. I found it both intriguing to learn for a week with physicians and nurse practitioners and also thought the approach confounding. I learned a lot about what can be done as a procedure and, perhaps, what cannot.
Surprises and their cousins don’t cooperate with plans and so preparing for encounters has to be generous, and this keeps me flexible in the work of spiritual care. When I saw a particular patient on Monday, we talked for a while. We were in the busiest part of the hospital and it was noisy. We spoke for a touch less than an hour, which surprised me, and a lot was heard and held. There were words and things.
I have told students are others that the universe is in an encounter, and that’s always true, in some form, when I sit with a patient in the hospital. I felt that when I was with this person. It reads as dramatic but I’m convinced that sitting with a person in a genuine encounter is absolutely sacred, that it connects those present with holiness. It’s all there. Even if we can’t appreciate it. It’s all present.
The next morning, my colleague saw the same patient who sent word back to me. This happens once a week or so. Our department is large and lots of chaplains can see patients who stay for days. This week, my patient’s message was, “joy comes in the morning.”
Immediately, I went over the encounter in my head, doing what I often do with students in verbatim seminars. I walked back through the main points and movements of conversation, reconnected with my emotions, listened again to the noises and shifts that helped me remember. I asked my colleague with my eyes what our patient could mean and she was stumped, even though both of us knew the biblical origin of the phrase.
It was funny, the exchange between us as we considered the phrase, pulled out and given. But I went to mental and spiritual work. I used the message in another message, in partial response to someone who texted me the next day, still working to place the phrase, to accept the message. I am still sitting with the gift.
And then, as it was and is still speaking to me, it occurred to me to, while in my particular searching to fit this gift and message, to hold the phrase. To do nothing with it. I’m trying.
I woke this morning, earlier than I planned, something I should plan since it happens half the week! You’d think I’d notice the pattern at some point. And as with all mornings like this, I heard how time occurs to me in the dark of pre-sun rays. The birds, as before, told me what time it was and how long it would be until I saw light.
I thought to my patient’s message, to the preacher’s message, to the psalmist’s message. The whole phrase, the part she relayed, the entire musical selection. I held and checked the impulse to do that interpretive work that seminarians are trained to do. I tried to wait and listen.
I tried to let the birds, in darkness, sing into me what the message could be.