August 10, 2012

ImageI have just returned, so very gratefully, once again to the world’s most liveable city. This is my second international  home coming for this year.

And it has caused me to reflect on the first homecoming in April.

I was especially grateful to be returning because while away in some of the world’s slightly less liveable cities, I became unwell and, facing the unliveable prospect of not being able to breathe, I was admitted through the emergency department of one of London’s largest teaching hospitals.

In one swift manouvre I was suspended between two antithetical experiences of personhood. Confronting my mortality, and being institutionalised.

Life threatening situations have a way of bringing the core sense of  humanity and our core sense (whatever beliefs we might articulate at other times) of spirituality into focus. And to add to the poignancy, this happened on the eve of my birthday.

The raw vulnerability of facing our last breath sensitises us to the the intimacy of the immediate and the ultimacy of the eternal.

Institutionalisation, on the other hand has a way of dulling our humanity and our sense of the transcendent.

A strange tension pulled at the axis of my faith.

One person in the sea of uniforms and inspections and observations and incursions tipped the balance for me – and I write this to celebrate her, and others of her station: the nursing student.

I had been in hospital for about 14 hours when, for the first time, someone sat down to address me, eye to eye, beside me, and not over me.

It was a gracious act. She was probably doing the ‘wrong thing’. She took time to look at me while I answered her questions for the paperwork she had been sent to do.

This was obviously a natural courtesy for her (and one I have tried encourage in my children): “Look at a person in the eye as they are speaking to you”. But it is not one that anyone else had practised up to that point. Everyone else had been doing something else as well as listening.

This simple gesture was redemptive – in healing ways it was a rehabilitation of live-ability. I was reminded, as she engaged with me face to face, that I had a face. Despite the terrible distortions of pain and swelling that were, in that moment, ravaging my face, I was not faceless. I was reminded of who I believe I am – a human who bears the image of God in my capacity for relationship and community. I was reconnected with the resources of my faith in that moment of need.

The student, probably doing the wrong thing, not esteemed in the hierarchy of hospital administrations, not yet herself properly institutionalised had done something small and significant.

My faith tradition, following the ways of Jesus, is shot through with the ethic of the least, the last, the little and the lowly as the truest revealers of what life really is, as the candidates for bringing that deepest of realities, love.

Despite the institutional forms that followers of Jesus have established – some of which have been diabolically destructive, and some of which, let’s not forget, have been life- giving, peace-making, and justice-bringing – despite the institutional forms of religion, the heart of faith always lies in the face to face, grace to grace simplicity even (maybe especially) a child can bring.

So I celebrate here the healing power of the student.

If you are a nursing student, or a student anything, or a lowest rung of ladder anything who hasn’t yet been taken on by the system, strapped in, worn in, reshaped to fit, shown the ropes, read the rules and cornered to conform…be not ashamed.

I readily acknowledge that the institution, the huge NHS serving millions, saved my life on my 44th birthday. But it was rookie naivete that reawakened the life restoring power of faith, through attending to that deepest of religious mysteries, human dignity in the midst of vulnerability, something I see in Jesus’ humiliating and yet paradoxically, compellingly beautiful death. (And something which I find missing in the rhetoric of the popular debates between atheists and theists.)

Beyond the physiology of a pulse and breath, liveability for humans is in the eye that sees, the hear that listens, the face to face, and the alongsiding of each other.

May God give us children in our midst,

and may God give us awareness of the children placed in our midst,

and may God let us be grateful for those who are child-like in our midst,

full of this rookie naivete

and full of deep, gracious mystery to be alongside us,

to observe and listen, children in our face, to be face to face.

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