I can still remember the way the light fell on her bed. The eyes that danced between laughter and fear. Her wild brown hair, the way her fingers flashed as she spoke. The deep stillness that came when she ran out of words and had told her story enough times to hear the truth of it: love is stronger than death. She knew it and had said it.
It’s been ten years now since I met her, and ten years since she died. But sometimes I can still feel her, as vivid as ever. We met when I was doing a chaplaincy placement at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. For a few months I got to walk the wards, sit by the bedsides, offer companionship and hear people’s stories. It was one of the most intense and blessed forms of ministry I have known.
Most days, it was hard to say what I had done. Bed to bed — being welcomed or scowled at. Facing the (bewildering) question: ‘Catholic or Protestant?’ Offering the bewildering answer ‘both,’ when I dared. Often it was no more that a break in their day — someone to talk to, a means of distraction. Sometimes they wanted help with something — a magazine out of reach, a cup of water. And often there would be days and days of watchfulness, hesitancy, courage-gathering before they would say, ‘yes, please do stay. I’d like for you to be here.’
It was a precious gift they gave me.
It all came back to me yesterday as I sat on the train to Edinburgh. I was reading Ewan Kelly’s new book: Personhood and Presence. Ewan was my supervisor at the Royal, and the book took me right back to the table in his office, where we would review the day.
Ewan is one of those people whose influence in my life is disproportionate. He was my supervisor for only a few months. I was brand new. I knew nothing. We met formally, briefly, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have the slightest idea who I am. But when I remember him, I can feel the angels hovering as we reflected on what we had seen and heard and done.
Most of what Ewan taught me was about seeing the holy. He taught me to wait through the silences, or (harder…) to listen four times to the story, till the person could hear their own words. He helped me have the courage to believe in what I was doing — in what we were there to do — when there was so little to show for it, no way to be sure if it had mattered at all. And he taught me to enjoy it: to accept that when God stepped in, the gift was for both of us — patient and chaplain alike.
More than anything, he taught me– (though I only partially learned) — to accept my limitations. The first day, he gave an instruction: “If you come in and you are not feeling well, if you are worn out or sad, if you find yourself thinking ‘I don’t know if I can do this today,’ then don’t go onto the ward.” Read. Write. Think. Rest. Pray. But don’t go on the ward. His point was that we needed to accept that there were times when we had nothing to give — and that pretending otherwise would always be more about our needs that those we were trying to serve. His point was that when we found ourselves ’empty’, we needed to be filled — and the most responsible thing we could do in our care for others was to accept our own needs and limitations. It’s obvious, of course, and I’d heard it all before; but he made it true in the living of it, and tried to help me do the same.
So, this is a belated acknowledgement. Thank you, Ewan, for wisdom, grace, and shared moments of wonder. You taught well. I am still trying to learn.