An Advent Reflection by Greta DeLonghi

I work as a chaplain in a hospital and encounter people every day who are waiting. Waiting to go for tests. Waiting for test results. Waiting to go home. Waiting to be transferred to a rehab hospital. Waiting for a boyfriend to visit. Waiting for a nurse to help them go to the bathroom. Waiting for a doctor to tell them what’s going on. Waiting to die. No wonder they are called patients. They live the kind of sufferance implicit in the word patience.
Advent is a season of waiting – waiting for the True Light to be born – and I find myself reflecting on some of my encounters with patients. I am awed by the openness I witness. In their nakedness and need, they wait in the way Jesus advised in the gospel of Mark: “keep alert … keep awake” (13.33-37). They are looking for even a crack of light in the midst of sometimes overwhelming darkness.
When I was training to be a chaplain, an instructor advised me to trust that God would lead me to the patients I needed to see. One day recently I noticed on my room list a patient with a form of metastatic cancer. Cancer that had spread. I thought, “That can’t be easy” and decided to go in and see if she needed some support. She had a faith tradition, but she told me in the course of our conversation that her pain had blocked out just about any thought of God. And it was lonely, she said, to be alone with such pain. She was waiting to die.
So I read her some psalms – balms, really – as some of them give eloquent voice to the lament of the psalmists. But they cry out their lament in trust and faith in God. Like Ps. 18: “I love you, O Lord, my strength.” Or Ps. 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Or more poignantly, Ps. 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The patient closed her eyes and savoured them.
I also read Ps. 23 to this particular patient, and she began to mouth the words as I said them: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” I think this psalm speaks to the only promise we have from God about suffering: that God will be with us. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear not evil; for you are with me …”
“I believe that,” the patient said, looking at me and reaching out her hand. “Where two or three are gathered …” She believed God led me to her.
I do not want to glamorize pain and unnecessary suffering here. I felt glad to see on my next visit that medical staff had found a way to manage this patient’s physical pain. She was still moved when I gave her a prayer shawl, knitted by volunteers who did not know her, to communicate God’s presence to her in a time when she was feeling humbled and stripped down by illness and approaching death. I think this experience and others like it have helped me to see that I am more likely to see the Light and Life of the world if I stand in humility – accepting my utter dependence on God – as a way to keep alert and awake as I wait.

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