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“I could never do your job!”
I hear this statement quite often. “It must get you down.” Well actually, I see my job or vocation as a privilege, to come alongside a person in their last moments of life and accompany them into death and beyond. To ensure as much as possible that people know that the Church is present. You may think, as you read on, that this is a morbid subject to write about, but in fact we miss the point: there is grace and hope in the divine moments between life and death.
Whenever I receive a call to visit an ‘end of life’ patient, I am conscious that I am invited into their sacred space; I am an outsider, a guest, if you like. In the midst of these experiences, the families, in some subconscious way, recognise a need to administer God’s grace; to have a moment of dignity and acknowledge human frailty and vulnerability. The families often seek Christ to intercede on their behalf, through the prayers of the chaplain.
As a hospital chaplain, I am often present when the human heart stops beating. The family and I gather around the body that once held sacred life and I administer the prayers and sacramental elements of the Church. I’m not medical or nursing; as a chaplain I am there to respond in the moment between life and the death, in the difficult things of body and blood entwined within the sacred. I stand in that moment as a priest, daring to fulfil my ministry in the in-between, where death enters the human body and the divine life continues.
I am always struck by the movement between life and death that resonates in the sacred scenes before me. As we stand around a bed, I am often reminded of a Holy Tableau. People gathered, participating in rites and rituals, a human body at the heart of the matter, a divine rite of passage between this world and the next. In this moment, the heart as an organ represents so much more: it is a symbol of life and a sign of love.
To speak about death and hope and grace, to minister in the darkest moments and embrace humanity it all forms, to be fully present and fully human, is a privilege. We all have weakness and vulnerability, but we look to God with hope and trust. Let us be reminded that the Lord comes and leads us gently by the hand. Let us recognise His grace and rejoice that He is, in fact, at ‘the heart of the matter’.
The Revd Charlene Smith is a Priest Vicar of the Cathedral and Lead Chaplain in The Mid-Yorkshire Teaching NHS Trust
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