One of the many privileges of being a priest is visiting people in hospital, of being allowed to be alongside people at a moment of need.
Hospitals are like large villages, communities in their own right with their own distinctive rhythms of life. They are also places full of stories. Each of those receiving treatment have their own unique story as to why they are here and all that has happened to bring them to this place, at this time. Walking along the corridors the faces of the visitors also tell their own stories – many hurrying, anxious and clearly burdened with worry. Some are visibly crying. Others show relief – there has been good news and the cloud has been lifted. Then there are staff coming on and going off duty, or hurrying between wards and departments. Each intent on playing their part, doing their best, but each carrying their own story, their own burdens, which they try their best to lay down for a while in order that they can help others.
On each visit to a hospital I find myself for a brief moment caught up in all these stories and have a profound sense that I am walking on holy ground.
Hospitals are sadly often quite invisible to all but those needing to visit them. Increasing they are built on the edges of towns, almost unseen amidst the daily life of town and city. And yet we need to be conscious of their presence.
Hospitals stand as a reminder of the vulnerability of being human. They remind us of part of what it means to be human, a part that we try hard to forget or at least ignore. We are at best only every temporarily able-bodied. Illness and disability are never far from us; indeed they are part of what it means to be human. Illness, pain, anxiety and sorrow are not the result of life gone wrong, they are part of what it means to alive. Death too is an essential companion in the journey of life.
A massive industry is based on helping us resist aging, and with it the unspoken reality of dying. Yet to ignore these realities is to fail to grasp the true nature of what it means to be human. Only by understanding these inevitable realities will we understand the truly precious gift that is life. It is only when we face up to illness, pain, sorrow and anxiety that we will begin to get our priorities right and understand what really matters.
Hospitals are sacred places precisely because they remind us of the true nature of what it means to be human. This is not because hospitals are places of doom and gloom, rather it is because they are places of compassion, care and love. They are places where human beings learn to be honest about themselves and one another, try their very best to help each other and face up to their limitations. They are places where life is known in all its fullness in triumph and in tragedy. Although death is a reality here, life is also experienced in all its rich diversity. And in the encounter between staff and patient, acknowledged or unacknowledged, so often the presence of God is made real.
This year our National Health Service celebrates its 70th birthday. It may not be prefect but we should learn to be profoundly grateful for its existence. Many of us have very personal reasons to be grateful for the skill and dedication of the staff. Our hospitals should not be places hidden away on the edges of towns but rather been seen as places which should be at the very heart of our communities. We need to be regularly reminded of all that they stand for and all they can tell us of the nature of what it means to be human.
If you find yourself walking down the corridor of your local hospital and see any staff hurrying by, smile at them and just simply say “thank you” as they hurry on by. And remember as you walk on your way, you are walking on holy ground, you are in a place, which if you will let it, can tell you the true meaning of being human and give you a proper understanding of the priorities of life.