From the Goldfields
Goldfields God-Talk: Bearing Witness
The Revd Dr Elizabeth J Smith AM, Mission Priest, Parish of The Goldfields
In the nursing home, I may sit next to someone who has no words left, or none that make sense, and take their hand. All I can learn about them is found in their face, body and voice: tension, pain, peace, fear, weariness.
Perhaps they cry out in sudden distress, or make small sounds of discomfort or anxiety. Perhaps they are sleeping, as some do for most of every day. Whatever the shape of their life before this present diminishment, they can tell me nothing of its blessings or its traumas. They cannot say what frightens or what calms them.
For a priest who loves words, the loss of language could be a challenge. But my role is to bear witness, paying attention to everything else that “speaks” about the person I am with.
I am bearing witness to the mystery of that person, of who and how they are. Uniquely among their carers, I have no physical job to do, no problem to solve. Carers and nurses do their jobs with generous compassion: washing, feeding, dressing, combing hair, massaging, stretching, giving medication. But all I can do for the person is bear witness, speaking their name, touching their hand, and observing, with curious and loving attention, whatever can be learnt by means other than spoken language.
I do not know if they can understand my words. But I often speak, anyway, responding to something in their body language or their facial expression. As I bear witness to sadness, I can acknowlege it with empathy. I don’t suggest looking on the bright side of life. As I bear witness to pain, I can stay present to it. I don’t offer advice about techniques for taking the ache from a broken spirit. As I bear witness to fear or to weariness, I can reassure them that I am here, that God is near, that they are safe, and that they can rest or let go, as their heart desires.
In the face of suffering, the urge to fix something or someone, to provide a solution, is powerful. But, since some situations are beyond any human fixing, one of the earliest lessons of pastoral care training is not to problem-solve. I think this applies to how we pray, too, in these extreme situations in the borderlands of human life. As we see and hear and hold a person, so we trust that God also simply sees and hears and holds them, too, for as long as they need it. Jesus Christ, who has been to and returned from those borderlands, is their steadfast companion, though we can travel no further with them on their journey.
When the time comes that I am drifting, and can no longer tell you what I want from you or from God, I’ll be glad if you would just pray the Lord’s Prayer, slowly. And ask the Lord Jesus to keep on holding me, and to carry me gently home when the time is right.