Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Power of Presence

(This post is part of a series of blogs by Canon Chris Harris as he shares some of his experiences during his field study this summer with Episcopal Community Services. Read the whole series here)

As part of my field study at Episcopal Community Services, I recently found myself wandering into a trauma ward to visit one of our clients who had been hospitalized. With nothing more than my Book of Common Prayer under my arm, I was amazed how far I was able to get before someone stopped me. While I have visited many people in the hospital before, this was only my second trip to a trauma ward and I must have stood out as it didn’t take long for one of the nurses to ask me if I was lost. I explained who I was visiting and they took me right to him. I wasn’t sure what I was going to encounter, whether the patient would be awake, up and about, happy to see me, angry, or what. As the doctor took me in to his room, I saw that it was none of the above. He was completely incapacitated. Breathing tubes and respirators covered most of his face and feeding tubes most of his arms. “Now what?” I thought to myself. We had covered active listening extensively in our Pastoral Care class, but nothing had prepared me for this exactly. I have visited many parishioners in the hospital over the years, but his was all together something different. In fact, for a brief instant I remember wondering whether it was OK for me to even be there given the critical condition he was in. But the doctor soon assured me that my presence was welcome as he brought me a chair so I might sit next to the bed.

I sat down and returned to my initial question of what now? Suddenly I remembered reading somewhere that even comatose people can hear you talking to them. And then I reminded myself that whether he can hear my prayers or not, God certainly can. So I pulled up the chair close, leaned over and whispered to him that it was me and that I had come to visit him and was going to say some prayers for him. I opened up my Book of Common Prayer and began reading from section containing prayers for the sick. I read a psalm, said a few prayers of my own and then talked with him a little, letting him know that we’re all thinking about him and praying for him.

I really couldn’t tell if he heard anything or not. I sat silently meditating for a moment not sure what else to do. Suddenly it occurred to me to reach out and hold his hand. I don’t know why I thought to do this; I didn’t really know him very well. In fact, there was only a little of his hand exposed as it was partially taped up which caused me to again wonder for a split second whether it was OK to touch a patient in such condition? But I reached out anyway and held his hand because it just felt like the right thing to do.

Earlier as I walked up to the hospital I had prayed to God to help me be there for this man in whatever way he needed me to be and perhaps this was the answer to my prayers because as soon as I reached out to hold his hand…he squeezed it…tight.

He held onto my hand and didn’t let go for more than a minute. And in that minute he said more to me than any words could have.

He had heard my prayers…as did God.

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook

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