Sunday 23 December 2012

Season to be jolly?

In a secular NHS can a Christian nurse, without proselytising, deliver something unique to her or his patients over the Christmas season? At first sight the answer to that would seem to be a clear No. There are no uniquely Christian virtues, anything a bad Christian can do a good Atheist/Jew/Muslim could do better. And even if such virtues did exist they would be for life and not just for Christmas. A virtue only spanning twelve days of the year would be a curious thing indeed.

To answer the question we need to start, as we always should, with the patient and what they need and can rightfully expect from those caring for them. As Christmas approaches the loved ones of patients and NHS staff at all levels make detailed and sometimes quite heroic plans to ensure that people can spend all or part of the big day where they want to be, at home or with those dear to them outside of a clinical setting. Left behind are the very sick, those with unmanageable symptoms, such as nausea or pain, the dying, the very poor who are better off in hospital, those whose nearest and dearest are nearly as frail as themselves and those with no one nearby who cares enough to take them out. The last two categories, in my experience over the last quarter of a century or so, has grown noticeably. It used to be the case often that nurses outnumbered patients on Christmas day. No more.

And here the category difference between those who celebrate "the big day" as a time of family, friends, giving, receiving and jollity and those who mark the birth of the Christ child comes into effect. Christians are not averse to all these convivial things, far from it, but for us the "big day" is Easter. Christmas is the necessary prelude to Passion Week. The shadow of the Cross always lies across the crib. The insight that suffering and death is intrinsic to life is not unique to Christianity, Buddhism has it at least as fully. What Christianity uniquely brings to the feast is that not only is there an inevitable shadow but that it is this very thing which is the sign of hope, of resurrection from affliction. Christians are Easter people and Alleluia is our song, as St Augustine put it.

The philosopher Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction and suffering In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark Those who remain in hospital or hospice on 25 December are almost inevitably bearers of this mark.Be it pain Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. other symptoms or persistent and inescapable loneliness and the spiritual desolation which it bears. Affliction is a state which only the afflicted inhabits. Not even the most empathetic nurse or carer, not even one marked by affliction themselves, can enter into an individuals own Golgotha. They are in the valley of the shadow of death even, perhaps especially, when they can expect to live for many more years yet.

To the task of caring for such people in the Christmas season nurses bring as many different skills as there are different nurses. The season can be a burden for those who have an expectation that it is a season to be jolly, to be with loved ones, to be happy the livelong day. Expectations which they are unable to meet in any single respect. Christian nurses do not have any special gifts aof sympathy or sensitivity that others do not. At this time of the year though what we can bring, as Easter people is the sense that the outward and visible signs of the celebrating world mask more than they reveal of the Christmas message. One does not fail to mark Christmas rightly if jolliness is beyond our grasp. Christmas, indeed, is one test that no one can fail. In practical terms that means not, as a nurse, feeling the need to console a patient for "missing out". It is a case, perhaps, where doing less can achieve more.

Or, to say the same thing in seventeen syllables-

Valley of death. Grim
Shadow. Skulking dog in gloom.
Sunlight shaft piercing. 

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