In these difficult times it is easy to lose sight of essentials; in the growing pressure to cope and get the nursing work done, we risk forgetting why we became nurses in the first place and where we can and should turn for spiritual support and moral re-assurance. Our role model in these exceptional times should be our patron Blessed Hanna, who clearly stated, that our role is “to help those who are suffering to carry their Cross, and through them to help Christ. It cannot be otherwise, because after all, our work came into being as work of the Church. From the very beginning we tried to seek inspiration for our work from the pages of the Gospels, where there are so many examples of Christ’s relationship with those who are suffering…”
As Blessed Hanna observed, “nursing an ill person [-] cannot be restricted to purely physical nursing activities; it has to also have some apostolic character. From the very beginning we have attempted to follow the words of Pope Pius XII from his Encyclical about The Mystical Body of Christ – that “Priesthood among those who are sick lies not only in the hands of anointed priests, but among all those, who perform acts of charity towards the sick.” We try to deliver our nursing care of the sick to the highest possible (professional) standard, but at the same time we are developing our work in another [spiritual] direction. In truth it is impossible to speak about two directions, as there is only one direction, because a person is one psychosomatic unite.”
We know that our patients are one psycho-social and spiritual unit – just as we are who are practising nurses and healthcare workers, so it becomes logical and imperative that we make sure that the spiritual dimension of the human person is also addressed not only their physical needs. This should be so both in regards to the sick we are looking after and in regard to ourselves and our families. And there is no better way to support our spirits and nourish our souls and those of our patients than by prayer and enabling the reception of the sacraments. However as Blessed Hanna said, “…The work we do, the kind of services we deliver, is an apostolate of action, not words, and this helps in preparing the way [for conversion]. How can a suffering man comprehend the depth of Christianity, or even an aspect of Christianity, when he is unwell and neglected, and cannot see any effort being made to bring him physical relief?”
Whether the patient is religious or not, wealthy or destitute, their spiritual needs remain the same, and as Blessed Hanna noted “neglect in this sphere is sometimes greater among rich people or those from the so-called thinking classes, than among simple folk.” Almost prophetically she observed back in the 1970s that “…Patients are forced by their illness and pain, which is greater or smaller, less or more immobilising to become isolated from the external world, alone in their flat, spending all their time surrounded by the same people, which is often a very narrow group of people. The sick in effect become increasingly isolated.” This is exactly what we are witnessing among the frail elderly and chronically sick who are isolating themselves in their homes because of COVID-19 pandemic. Other patients are cared for in hospitals in reverse-barriers nursing conditions that are anti-sympathetic to spiritual reassurance and psychological support. Meanwhile, healthcare workers themselves are increasingly becoming depressed and cannot see much ahead of the next nursing task. In such circumstances, the call to base, i.e. to prayer is all the more important. As Blessed Hanna said, “In delivering nursing care, it is necessary to take into consideration the psyche of the chronically ill patient, as one cannot limit oneself to what is universally called, charity regarding the soul and body. In our case we care for the infirm body and through this nursing intervention create the possibility for a close relationship between the patient and God.” In order to create this possibility – we need to pray for our patients. As Bl Hanna noted, “…the common factor in these acts of conversion was the prayer of the parish nurse.”
Nurses and healthcare workers need to pray for themselves, their families but also their patients. What better intercessionary guide can we have than Blessed Hanna herself? Praying for Blessed Hanna’s intercession through her litany, or praying the rosary or The Divine Mercy Chaplet, and remembering before the Lord our work, our patients and our families and home life, should be our renewed task. As many a saint has observed, the more work there is to do the more we should pray; even if it just consists of short sighs of Love, or focusing on a cross/holy picture hanging on the wall – for these are all part of the rich bouquet of prayers gathered up and presented to the Lord. Blessed Hanna goes even further suggesting that “We must teach people how to pray at the bedside of the dying and of course, we ourselves must pray, though naturally not necessarily on our knees, and definitely not neglecting our duties.” So, we need to pray and we should be prepared to help others to pray.
There is however, as Blessed Hanna observed, “…A fundamental problem in our apostolate [-] the nature and mystery of suffering. This is a huge problem and it is getting more and more difficult, especially with the spread of materialistic consumption in our society. In such an atmosphere, the spirit of sacrifice is undervalued, or even rendered completely incomprehensible. So it is not easy for the contemporary person to understand the purpose of suffering, which is synonymous with sacrifice and renunciation.” This problem of secularisation of our society and therefore all that affects the patient cannot be ignored. This is happening all around us.
But Catholic nurses should try and stay focused on their patients, and try to deliver holistic care without neglecting their patient’s spiritual wellbeing, even if the patient is consciously unconcerned about spiritual matters. In fact, the more serious the illness the more likely the patient or the family at some point will challenge its cause, question the sense of it all, and try to query the inexplicable. As Blessed Hanna said,“…Based on [my] observations and on our own experience we can assure you, that in most cases the answer to the question “Why me? “, or “What is this for?”, is best answered simply, by ‘this is God’s mystery, in the same way as God’s mystery is the Suffering of Christ’. I have noticed, that even a rebellious patient, awaiting discussion on this subject, someone who is full of internal turmoil, yet faced with such a response ceases to discuss, calms down, and becomes more trustful. And this is the foundation upon which other truths will grow, the full truth, the one which will bring liberation to the sick. And the ill need liberation so desperately. They cannot escape the enslavement of their bodies, but they can drop, or at least relax their spiritual fetters.”
She goes on to say, “The fact that we ourselves, at least as long as we are healthy, are not afraid of death that is quite another matter. However, it does not mean, that we do not acknowledge the fact of the fear of death existing among our patients. Such fears exist and are quite natural. The fact that most patients hold on so desperately to the thin thread of life is on one hand proof of their having been brought-up without adequate understanding of death, but on the other hand it demonstrates how precious the gift of life is to everyone. How strongly old people fight for their life – the question: “Am I dying?” is quite frequent. And such questions should be answered individually… At times like that we can only behave with tact and respect.” Blessed Hanna has given us this sensible nursing advice, and it is now up to us to reflect upon it.
Finally, and in conclusion some friendly words from Blessed Hanna, “First of all we must be humble. We are not in a position to understand completely the nature of suffering, to feel the pain caused by long immobilisation; we do not know what really happens in the soul of an ill person. We mustn’t lord over them, we must only serve. Otherwise we would not be following the example of Christ. We cannot go to our patients with the conviction that we will raise them to some spiritual heights. Whose? Ours? God help us! Don’t delude yourselves, that we will inevitably deepen their faith. Very often the situation is quite the opposite, it is they who deepen our faith and enrich us. It is precisely those silent and meek patients, who manage to keep to themselves their ‘holiest of holy spaces in their innermost soul.”
Based on the writings of Blessed Hanna; Transcript of talk delivered by Bl. Hanna Chrzanowska
14 February 1973, in Warsaw, to The Bishops Conference on Pastoral Work