“Keep praying, it’s the only thing that can help now.” One of the surgeons in the trauma bay said to me. I’d just spent fifteen minutes, mostly with eyes closed, praying for a patient the doctors and nurses had been trying to save. His statement startled me. In my first blog post, I mentioned how much of my motivation to embark on this intensive prayer journey stemmed from feeling powerless when working as a chaplain in the trauma bay at the hospital and from discovering my discomfort at being the person who is there to pray and not understanding what that means. I’ve now been working in the trauma bay twice since then. The surgeon’s statement indicated a shift in my ability to be prayerfully present. Spirit has been at work in me.
Last week I wrote about running into Francie, my supervisor at the Retreat House where I did my field education. I mentioned to her about my struggle in the trauma bay. About walking in and seeing the doctors and nurses scrambling to save a life while I stood by and watched. I’d pray for a couple minutes, but then what?
“Try staying present with your thoughts and voicing whatever comes to you while you’re standing there. Don’t try to control it or try to find the ‘right’ thing to pray for.” She added that “silence is okay too.”
That following Saturday night, I walked into the trauma bay after having been away for four months. I saw nurses that I knew and nodded at them, but they were rushing around trying to save a life. Acknowledging me was, rightly so, not a priority. Nor was it why I was there. So I found a place to stand where I could see the patient and began my usual prayer –
Creator, please give your strength and healing to this patient. Hold him in your arms and pass him your peace and comfort. Thank you for the healing hands and hard work of the doctors and nurses. I pray for your wisdom and love to work through them. Bring peace and light to this place. Thank you for all these gifts.
This is when I usually stop and watch what is happening in the room.
Taking Francie’s advice, I tried to pay attention to the thoughts that came to me, to the sensations in my body that might be signaling me. What I noticed was the churning in my belling, my blood seeming to tremble as it zoomed up my arms, all the sensations that told me I was uncomfortable. When I tapped into the thoughts associated with that discomfort, I realized my focus was not on the patient or the doctors and nurses, but on me and my desire for acknowledgement.
I was in that old place of wanting the people around me to notice and like me. At the same time the part of me that worries about being worthy, about feeling useful, wanted my prayers to be what healed this patient. I couldn’t be present to the moment, to the patient, or to the doctors and nurses because I was too caught up in being afraid that I wasn’t enough and hoping I could control the outcome.
Rather than beat myself up about it – how could I be so self-centered? – I followed Francie’s instructions and started talking to Spirit about it.
Creator, I feel so uncomfortable right now. I really want the doctors and nurses to remember me. Its so selfish to worry about myself when there is a person on that table struggling for life. I should be praying for him, but instead I’m worrying about what others think of me. And I don’t even know what I’m doing. Are you even listening? Tell me what you want from me. Can’t you just heal this person? I know you can. What are my prayers good for anyway if that person isn’t going to get better?
Moments later, one of the nurses came up and started chatting with me. Low and behold we started talking about prayer and her belief in its power. She was even using the language of consolation and desolation which is typical language of discernment in Ignatian spiritual practice. All of which led into a conversation about her career as a nurse and the toll of working nights in a trauma bay.
As I left, I gave thanks for Spirit giving me direction through Francie and for this nurse, unbeknownst to her, easing my discomfort. Spirit gave me what I needed to strengthen my prayer practice in the trauma bay. Such that when I received the page calling me for another patient, I spent a good fifteen minutes, eyes closed, praying whatever thoughts came to mind as I stayed (mostly) present to the patient and the work of the doctors and nurses and everyone else in the trauma bay. Old thoughts still slipped in – are they thinking I’m standing here falling asleep because my eyes are closed? Now what do I pray for? But I’d remember Francie’s instruction and let go of worrying what others in the room were thinking and tried to stay present to whatever might arise.
After they had stabilized the patient, I started to leave and it was then that the surgeon asked me to keep praying. I realized with his statement that Spirit was listening. Not just to my prayers for the others in the room, but to the prayers for myself. I may not know what is happening with my prayers in the end, but it is clear to me that they are heard, that I am there for a reason. And with that strengthening, I find myself able to pray more, be present more.