By Aian Macpherson
I was ill for several years as a teenager. I had M.E. I could not get out of bed for a year. I slept fitfully for 23 hours a day. I had to be helped into the bath, in swimming shorts, by my mother, which at 14 years old is not what you want! My Nana had rheumatoid arthritis from age 30, and I saw a fraction of her pain in my many weekend stays. My brother used to get terrible migraines as a child, and I remember sitting by his bed once and praying that I would take his pain if that would help him. My Grandmother died of Emphysema. I had only ever seen her twice a year for a day at a time, but she was my Granny: I loved her and it was sad to see her bright mind in such a tired body. Like all of us at some point I have known pain and seen those I love suffer. No doubt I will again.
I also worked for several years as a paediatric nurse. I have performed the last rights for a child. I have performed personal cares for teenagers who, like myself I am sure, did not want help in that way. I have held children through the trauma of lumbar puncture, given pain relief after surgery and seen family’s receive the worst news.
I have worked in children’s care services and heard the most diabolical histories of abuse imaginable. In situations like Syria such things happen more but they happen even in your town. I have worked with trauma: the result of human evil.
As a priest I have heard such things directly from the adult survivors years later. I listen to families of the murdered and to the daughter who lost her mum first to Alzheimer’s and death after. I have sat with cancer patients and their families in the hours before death. I have lived with adults in the middle of clinical depression and schizophrenia for a couple of days, a few weeks, a few years and through child hood. I have friends and parishioners who struggle with addiction to all kinds of things. I have taken the funeral for the person with no family and lead it with all the dignity and care that I would take over a person with 200 mourners.
Although these experiences of sharing pain are sad it is also a huge privilege to be invited into very private and precious moments. To be the first person someone talks to about something for twenty years. To be able to help, heal, cure, stand with, or listen to people is the greatest honour. That does not take away how painful it can be to care. Sometimes people talk to you and leave looking lighter. It is because some of the burden is left behind.
I do ask ‘why God if you love us do you not stop this’. I find little pieces of an answer here and another there. I live with an answer for a while and then ask again. No answer is complete; none is equally true in every place because of its incompleteness. Disagree or agree with me but don’t write me off as ignorant or unfeeling. I ask too.
Jesus, my better than best friend, said before he left to be with his Father, ‘over to you’ all’. So I aim to live like I have to answer prayer by becoming like Jesus. That is my life goal. When my friend says, ‘I feel like God has left me’, I can say ‘but God gave me to you.
When I was at my most lonely, stuck in a bed in a dark room, God was there. My one comfort was that at 03:10 (am) I would wake up for one hour, I would have less pain and a far clearer head, and because it was dark and quiet my photo and auditory sensitivity was not a problem. In that quiet lonely place, I was not alone. God was with me.
‘Well the placebo effect is wonderful’ you say. I cannot prove you wrong. But you are wrong. Sometimes you can add this to that and do the same again and know that 1+1 is 2. You can prove it. But how do you prove a friendship? A friendship is proved because when you needed them they were there. Or to put it another way, the proof of the pudding is not in taking a sample and sending it to the lab, or in making another pudding. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. God is there to be lived, not examined.
If you were in pain, lonely and depressed and a friend came round to comfort you. Would you leave them on the door step, ask them first to prove that they were not a hallucination? No, you would let them in. If their visit soothed your pain, and gave you companionship and joy, would you at the end say, ‘well that was nice, what a good placebo you have been. You need not come again’. No, you would say ‘thank you for being my friend and comfort. Please stay’. What a friend we have in Jesus who is a friend in need. He is standing at the door and knocks. Will we ask him in; ask questions of pain with him and talk with him? Or will we live in suspicion because the answers are incomplete and ask for our trust?