A new client enters my office for the first time. She sits down and exhales, slowly, and I can see in her body the weight of her worry, her suffering. I watch her look at me, trying to make a rapid judgment as to whether I am trustable and safe, whether I can help or if I will judge or hurt or condemn. I hope she can see me as trustable. Slowly, she settles in and begins to tell me why she has come today. With my eyes, my words, and my gestures, I hope I send the message: I see you. I hear you. I am here with you. You are not alone in your pain.

These days, I spend about half of each week in my role as a social worker at one of Boston’s largest teaching hospitals. Specifically, I work with survivors of interpersonal violence – sexual assault, domestic violence, community violence, and other types of abuse. The people with whom I meet – whether for ongoing therapy or for a one-time consult – have been through some of the most painful experiences of human life. Like Jesus when he appeared to his apostles after the resurrection, many of them continued to bear marks of their suffering weeks, months, and years after the experiences of the abuse they endured. In my office, or in the hospital rooms or emergency department beds in which I meet them, they find the courage to open up to a stranger, to allow me to bear witness to their stories. And when I enter someone’s room to find them lying, often alone, in a paper-thin robe in a hospital bed, or when someone bravely enters my office and begins to tell the story of their suffering and their survivorship, I can’t help but believe, over and over, that I am on holy ground.

hospital patientTouching Heaven
The ancient Celts had a name for “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.”[1] They held that in most places, heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart, yet in “thin places” that distance is even smaller. In “thin places,” the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. The sacred touches the mundane, and even for a moment, we see clearly. We touch heaven.

I obviously wasn’t around, but I from what I’ve read, I think the Celts generally used the term “thin places” to refer to “wild spaces” – the peak of Croagh Patrick, for example, the Cliffs of Mahr, the Islands of Iona. Places where the wind whips, where one feels oneself small amongst God’s grandeur. I wonder what they’d think of me using it to describe my counseling room, which used to be a closet, barely big enough to fit two chairs and my desk, windowless and a bit harshly-lit with overhead fluorescent lights. Or a bed in the emergency department, separated from the others by just a thin curtain, monitors beeping and staff shuffling and life humming all around. Yet it is sacred space, and as I walk through the hospital doors each day, I remind myself that what happens within these walls matters deeply. Every day in this building, people will be born. Sometimes, too, people die. Every day patients here receive good news – It’s a boy. It’s a girl. The cancer is in remission. The surgery was successful. – and heart-breaking, life-changing news – We did everything we could. Unfortunately, it appears to be terminal. I’m so sorry, but she didn’t make it through the night.

sun shining through clouds

Used under a Creative Commons License – Flickr user floringorgan

Holding Space for Others
Inside these hospital walls, the veil is lifted. A hospital is a vulnerable place—a place that reminds us that we are close to death, that we are fragile, that we suffer and experience pain. And yet. And yet within these hospital walls and in my tiny, windowless office, I witness on a daily basis the reality of strength, courage, hope, and recovery. My patients teach me about the tenacity of the human spirit, that people heal, and that I am capable of bearing witness to pain and holding space for others. Sometimes we laugh together. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we sit quietly, together, when there is not much to say. The work is hard, and it is also holy, and in quiet moments I whisper prayers of gratitude for the chance to be here, to touch the sacred, to see dying and rising so clearly in front of me, day by day.

The poet Sharlande Sledge writes that the thin places are those where

the door between the world
and the next is cracked open for a moment
and the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

The light is not all on the other side. It is here, with me, with my patients, in hospital beds and in my windowless office. It is in the telling of the story. It is in the hope we hold for healing. It is in the witnessing of pain. It is in the witnessing of life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome. The veil is lifted. May we come to see.

The views expressed here are Erin’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the medical center.

[1] Eric Weiner, Man Seeks God.