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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Touch and Healing: A sermon for nurses

It is a great honour to be preaching to you at the beginning of your annual congress.  I come to you not just with generalised good will towards the nursing profession which everybody shares.  Nursing is part of my family: my mother was a nurse and one of my daughters is.  I have personal reasons for being grateful to the nurses whose paths I have crossed in recent weeks. It is when you are a patient that you recognise the conscientiousness and care with which you are looked after in our hospitals and surgeries.  As a patient you are ‘done to’ by many others.  Your dignity and personhood are at risk amid the interventions of modern medicine and its technology.  Last week in the University Hospital of North Durham, I had reason to be thankful for the nurses who are the front end of healthcare.  It was not only for their skill or even their care that I appreciated.  It was because they were the human face of our beloved National Health Service. Every institution, if it is not to become depersonalised, needs to be recalled to the values at the heart of humane life and service. This is part of what nursing represents.

Yesterday was International Nurses Day, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth in 1820. Who am I to tell you anything about her?  I remember as a child having a much treasured book of story-biographies called Heroes for our Time.  There were two nurses in that book: Florence, of course, and Edith Cavell.  I would go back to those two great women again and again.  I would read how Florence Nightingale was so loved by the pitiably injured soldiers of Balaclava that they would kiss her shadow on the wall as she passed by.  For her, famously, ‘the first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm.’  She died in 1910.  Five years later Edith Cavell faced her executioners and said, unforgettably: ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough.  I must have no envy or bitterness towards anyone.’ My perception of nursing was always going to be coloured by these heroic women of courage and perseverance whose watchword was to care. 

In preparing this address I have visited the RCN website and read some of the posts there.  As a layman speaking to professionals, what picture of nursing today do I gain? What comes across is the immense pride you take in your work, your sheer love of what you do.  I recognise from my own path in life the language of calling, vocation: you believe you were meant for this: it is part of what you are and aspire to be.  Perhaps there are not some for whom it is simply a job: that too has its own dignity. But the parallels between nursing and ordained ministry only begin here. Our common role is to give ourselves in the care of others, or as the literature says, to be ‘skilled companions’ alongside people in their need, suffering or pain. One nurse in the RCN bulletin says:  ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also.  That’s where our care comes from.’  That is a deeply theological way of seeing it.  And another, on Facebook, perhaps burdened by the pressures and difficulties that beset all caring roles at present, says: ‘I suspect that nurses are just as frustrated, aggravated, annoyed, disappointed and concerned by poor care as anyone else, if not more so.’ When your purpose in life is compassion, you are grieved when unsympathetic politicians, squeezed finances, poor allocation of resources and especially your own sense of inadequacy, let you down. 

‘Ministry’ means ‘serving’, and this lies at the heart of both our professions. In our reading from a famous passage in St John’s Gospel, we see Jesus kneeling down to wash the feet of his disciples and friends.  They are in the upper room just a few hours away from his betrayal, suffering and death.  They think they are there to serve him, for is he not their Master and their Lord?  Yet he lays aside his robe, takes the towel, stoops in front of them, and does for them what only the lowliest of slaves would do in ancient society. It is a powerful and evocative picture of what true service means.  It means taking up the task of abasing ourselves by getting close enough to another person to attend to their needs.  It means touching soiled, malodorous bodies in ways that no-one else would wish to do or be able to do.  It means applying the cleansing, soothing unguents that a broken or corroded or diseased body craves.  Foot-washing is symbolic of all these things as water is symbolic of all that refreshes, renews, heals, gives us back our life. Nurses do all these things both literally and figuratively.   

The New Testament has a word to describe this kind of service.  St Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn that speaks of how the Lord of glory ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’.  That word, kenosis, tells us what underlies the best and truest forms of caring.  ‘Self-emptying’ means being ready to act sacrificially, renouncing the self for the sake of others.  And in the account of the foot-washing, St John has an all-important introduction that makes sense of this otherwise inconceivable act of self-emptying. He says that ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’  That is what service ultimately means.  It goes beyond mere duty, for it answers the question ‘what would I not do to care for the people I am given to serve and show compassion towards?’  Remember what that nurse said so beautifully: ‘we don’t just heal with our hands.  We heal with our hearts also’.  In your calling as nurses, you know what it means to love to the end, often to the end of a patient’s life: your touch and your voice may be the last memory that man or woman or child has in this life.  And you know what it means to love to the end of your resources, your capacity to give and cure and care.  When you have done all you could, when you are spent and your arms ache with the pain you have borne for others, that is when you have loved to the end. 

There is something deeply Christ-like in all caring roles, because all of them in different ways involve this quality of self-emptying, self-giving, renunciation.  But perhaps nursing embodies them in a uniquely focused and beautiful way.  In St John, the act of serving and caring and loving to the end is linked to intimate touching.  No other profession is marked by this privileged touching of another person’s body with, or especially without their permission.  To me, it is as sacred as foot-washing: we are on holy ground where we tread with awe and respect. And this is what we should celebrate as we gather here for this annual congress.  Healthcare faces big challenges, and nursing will not be exempt from the difficulties and struggles that undoubtedly lie ahead.  But I hope that you never lose heart, never lose the sense that what you do is cherished and honoured by all of us who come within the orbit of your care.

Elizabeth Jennings has a poem, ‘Night Sister’, that captures what I am trying to say. 

You have a memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.
I never met a calling quite so pure.
My fears are silenced by the things you’ve done. 

I have to face hospitalisation in the next few weeks.  I won’t pretend that I am not anxious about it.  But that last line of the poem speaks for me too.  My fears will be silenced by the compassionate touch that I know I shall receive.  And I also know that in the nurse who reaches out to touch, I shall see the face of Christ.  

The Royal College of Nursing Annual Congress, Harrogate, 13 May 2012
John 13. 1-17

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