"Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief." - Jane Leavy
I speak with theological students and medical students about caring for people who experience deep suffering. These students think widely and deeply about how to resolve problems, using highly disciplined cognitive framework.
Patients and people requiring pastoral care in general, struggle to make sense of these difficult situations. They are deeply affected by what is happening to them. Cognition is altered and information based communication is frustrated.
Unless the medico or the theologian learns to speak the language of the sufferer effectively, communication is scrambled by the sufferer’s inability to hear clearly, as they are trapped behind the “shattered windshield”.
How do we learn to communicate with those who are struggling behind the shattered windshield?
A team working with palliative care patients concluded that a sensory model of spiritual care worked best,[i] expressed through hearing, sight, speech, touch and presence.
The authors of the article describe effective communication as an embodied experience that engages all the senses of both the professional, and the patient.
They describe hearing as listening intuitively, by paying particular attention to the tone of the conversation, the silences and the subtext. Deep listening requires humility and being alert to the possibility of hearing but not understanding.
They described sight as seeing soulfully, that is seeing the whole person ─ someone who bears God’s image ─ a person with dignity and a person who has a history and a narrative before I entered their life. Soulful sight takes in a person’s surroundings, their relationships and connections, it is not only see, but perceive.
Speech involved the art of taming the tongue, subduing our speech to engage with the patient’s perspective, that is the world through the patient’s understanding and language, building on their understanding, avoiding superficial clichés and hollow scripts of comfort, and avoiding language that minimises their pain, denies their losses or catastrophes and terrifies them.
Touch provides for a physical means of pastoral care, appropriate physical contact can communicate things that words cannot. This may be through a hand that briefly rests on a shoulder, or a forearm, or holding a hand when someone is distressed, or laying on of hands (with permission) while praying. These allow for a physical conduit of care that connects at a deep level.
Presence is the activity of being truly present and available in body, mind, and spirit. So much is communicated by how we are ─ posture and positioning ─ through power, pity, gender, health, status, age, education, language and professional roles. To be present is to be wholly available to the other; we give the gift of self. Presence can convey professional vulnerability, where we do not need to be the expert on another’s experience. When we are truly present, focus spiritually and pray for another in Jesus’ name, we communicate God’s infinite love and concern to the sufferer.
The Gospels describe Jesus as a person who ministered to sufferers through sensory care.
Jesus always engaged at a spiritual level and when talking with people he employed a vast array of communication styles. When engaging with well people, Jesus asked many questions – perceptive questions, which cut to the heart of the matter.[ii] When speaking to crowds he used parables and metaphors, and enigmatic statements that overturned preconceptions. When talking with teachers of the law and Pharisees he was blunt and to the point rebuking and challenging points of law, which had been torn from their original moorings in scripture. However, when Jesus was with people who were suffering, he had an approach that was insightful, gently spoken and often involved touch. He gave his complete attention and was willing to be pulled away from his travels to attend personally to those who suffered various forms of illness and disability. [iii]
Below I have listed a number of Jesus’ engagements with people who were suffering from physical disabilities. A strong pattern emerges when the accounts are viewed together. When Jesus is with a sufferer or their family, he gives them his complete attention. He listens deeply to their account of their suffering, expresses pity and acts compassionately. He often goes to the sufferer or takes them by the hand to some quiet place. His words are gentle. He does not preach to the sufferer even if he is making a theological point to someone else (i.e. Pharisees or other on-lookers) and on a number of occasions he commends people for their faith or their willingness to ‘try’ him.
In summary Jesus’s example of spiritual/pastoral care with people in the midst of suffering includes:
a) Careful listening to the event from the point of view of the sufferer
b) Seeing the entire person, inside and out. But he does not presume. He treats them with dignity, love and respect.
c) He speaks gently, offering only words of comfort and reputation. He uses simple language, without hyperbole or parables and does not use these opportunities to preach.
d) Jesus uses touch. This a constant theme as he meets with sufferers; he does not fear their illnesses or diseases. His ‘cleanness’ flows out of his body through physical contact.
e) Jesus is entirely present during these encounters even if there are crowds nearby or looking on. The sufferer has his full attention and he is at their service.
These are critical observations, because although we are not Jesus, we are instructed to have the same attitude of Christ Jesus. Jesus was, on many occasions, an engaging orator ─ questioning, provoking and challenging ─ but when he was with people who suffered he seemed to come to their level and saw things through their eyes. His response restored their shattered world in ways that were meaningful to them.
Quick notes and Bible (ESV) references of evidence of Jesus’ style of engagement with people who had physical ailments.
· Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hands and touch him (leper), saying, “I will; be clean.” Mark 1:41, Matt 8:3; Lk 5:13
· And he (Jesus) said to him, “I will come and heal him” Matt 8:7
· And when the Lord saw her he had compassion on her, he went up to her and said, “Do not weep,” then he came and touched the bier…. And said “Young man, I say to you arise,’ … and Jesus gave him to his mother. Lk 7:13-16
· He touched her hand and the fever left her Matt 8:13
· To the paralytic, “Take heart my son, your sins are forgiven” Matt 9:2
· Then he touched their eyes Matt 9:29
· He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose, Matt 9:25
· Take heart daughter, your faith has made you well. And instantly the woman was made well. Matt 9:22
· And taking him aside from the crowd, privately he put his fingers in his ears and after spitting touched his tongue Mk 7:33
· And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village Mk 8:23
· And he laid his hand on her and immediately she was made straight Lk 13:13
· And he touched his ear and healed him Lk 22:50
· Jesus said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I’m going another steps down before me.” Jesus said, “Get up take up your bed and walk.” And at once the man was healed Jn 5:6-9
· He spat on the ground and made mud with saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with mud, and said, “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.” Jn 9:6,7
[i] Adapted from “Spiritual Care: how to do it” Sinclair, Bouchal, Chochinov, Hagen and McClement, BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care 2012/2 319-327.
[ii] http://www.christianity9to5.org/rabbinic-questioning/ An article that summarises the way Jesus uses questions in conversations as recorded in the Gospels.