Saturday, July 05, 2008

Holy Man

Every week when I arrive in the ED for my volunteer shift, I ask the case manager if there are any patients I should see first. This week, the case manager said, "Yes. Go see Room X." (We all refer to patients by room number: this is partly for privacy and partly for convenience, since patients come and go but rooms remain the same.)

Room X, it turned out, was inhabited by a man with several mental illnesses, and off his meds, who was a missing person from another state. Our local police had found him wandering in the middle of the street and had brought him to the hospital. His family had been called with the happy news that he'd been located. "He might like to talk to you," the case manager said.

I went into the room. Patient X was an imposing person, sitting on a stool and neatly drying off his feet, which he'd been washing in a bucket of water. I introduced myself, and he graciously invited me to sit down. He asked me about my volunteer work. Did I enjoy it? (Yes, very much.) How long had I been doing it? (Three and a half years.) Did I intend to keep doing it? (Yes, as long as I could walk; when I couldn't walk any more, I'd volunteer from a wheelchair. That made him laugh.)

He was much more interested in talking about me than in talking about himself, although I did learn that he has a cat, being cared for by his daughter. When I asked if he'd like to pray, he said yes. When I asked what he wanted to pray for, he pursed his lips for a minute and then said, "Well, we should pray for world peace, of course. And for direction for you and all ministers. And for love between all people."

Usually, patients close their eyes while I pray, holding their hand. This time, Patient X took both of my hands and said, "You go ahead, dear. If you falter, I'll jump in."

I prayed for his wishes, and managed not to falter. He held my hands the whole time, sometimes stroking my wrists, his eyes on my face. When I was done, he started his own prayer, which was much more fluent than mine had been. He stroked my hands and arms now, according to some pattern of his own. "Don't worry; I won't rape you." I must have looked nervous.

When he'd finished his prayer, he kissed my hands, kissed my head, made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and blessed me to go out and keep doing my work with other patients.

There were, to be sure, some things he said that I had trouble following, but that was more because his voice kept sinking into a mutter than because his words were nonsensical or incoherent. He clearly believed that he possessed a great deal of power and understood a great number of hidden things, and I suspect that his doctors and loved ones would call these beliefs delusional. And certainly the way he arrived at our hospital wasn't an indication of ideal functioning.

Still, I felt genuine power in that room, and the presence of the sacred. If he believes he's Jesus, nothing in my brief encounter with him would make me disagree.

The second patient I visited was a very elderly woman. As I sat next to her bed, chatting, she said, "I get such a good vibe from you! You're such a loving person!"

"Thank you," I said, but I had a feeling that the vibe was from the blessing I'd just gotten.

The rest of the shift went very well. I did good work with several other psych patients; one had thrown a chair at a doctor before I got there, and one wound up being thrown out of the hospital for disruptive behavior, but when I was with them, we got along fine. I kept wondering how much the blessing had shaped my interactions with those patients.

If nothing else, it was a wonderful way to begin a shift, calming and centering. But it was also a poignant reminder that those we help sometimes see themselves as the helpers, and that they can indeed help us if we let them.


  1. Interesting story, Susan. It has that quality that makes you long for more, maybe more info about his history. I hope he finds peace in his world.


  2. OtterB4:40 PM

    Not a direct comment on this post, but I always enjoy your chaplain stories and I was reading a book last week that reminded me of them in some ways. The author became a Unitarian minister and a chaplain for the Maine Game Wardens after her husband was killed. (What she refers to, with some irony, as "the plucky widow story" that everybody likes.)

    The author's name is Kate Braestrup and the book is Here if You Need Me. One point that made me think of your work: there's a search for a little girl who wandered away from a campsite, and the mother says something like, "It's cool that the warden service has someone like you to keep us from freaking out." And she replies, "I'm not here to keep you from freaking out. I'm here to be with you while you're freaking out."

    The other point in the book that reminded me of you was when she says that in her Greek classes at the seminary, she learned that the Greek "logos" could be translated in other ways than "word." She liked the idea of starting the first chapter of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Story, and the Story was with God, and the Story was God."

    Anyway, enjoyable book.


  3. Thanks, Lee! And thanks for the book recommendation, Betsy! I'll look for it!


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