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Popular belief in the hospital setting

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 9 May 2017


In my role as a hospital chaplain I was exposed to the whole range of contemporary religious belief. Two examples come to mind.

I am called to see an elderly woman whose husband has had a major stroke. He is paralysed down his right side and has no speech, indicating that the stroke was on the left side of his brain. His fingertips are blue and I am told that his heart is a problem. He and his wife had talked about his death before the stroke and they seem to be at peace. I walk with the wife and sat at the end of the corridor of the ward where we have a view of the park. She tells me of her worries about the immediate future, about nursing homes and how long her husband might last. This conversation proceeds to a sketch of the important events of her life, her childhood on a rural station, marriage, and children. She relates that she had had severe health difficulties while newly married but that she had overcome them. This provoked her to speak passionately about how God had never let her down and that she believed in Him and that He had cared for her all her life.

And then, without a change of topic, seamlessly, she told me about an experience that she had had watering her plants in her garden. She was standing with the hose and her cat was at her feet. The cat suddenly bristled and hissed. She looked down and in the manner of all pet owners asked what was the matter. She looked up and saw, hovering in front of her, a huge silver object. She could see the rivets on the surface and it had red and green flashing lights on either side and in the underneath she described, with a movement of her hands, the motion of a light that moved in a circle. She could not move and was filled with fear and felt invisible forces traversing her body. Then the craft tilted on its edge, moved upwards at great speed and disappeared. She then found that she could move.

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While it is pointless examining the authenticity of this woman's experience in terms of whether it happened or not, the thing that struck me about this story was its similarity to biblical narratives that tell of an encounter with God, an epiphany. The similarities include fear on the part of the beholder, a feeling of awe at an unnatural occurrence, its short time span and its connection with faith and trust.

Of course there were no words from the craft telling this woman to "fear not" or to command her to repent or to go on a mission, but most of the form of an epiphany was present. Furthermore, she had told this story at a time of anguish and loss. This was not casual conversation and there was some fear that I would think her mad. Perhaps the common assumption that the ordained believe in all manner of strange occurrences gave her confidence.

The story was told as an expression of her faith in God. Now we all know that religious visions are culturally determined. White, Anglo Saxon Protestants do not, by and large, have visions of the Virgin while poor Catholic farmers do. If such experiences are culturally determined what does the vision of the spacecraft tell us about how our culture envisions God?

We must remind ourselves that the vision was not of Jesus or the Virgin or the angel of the annunciation, it was a vision of an extra-terrestrial craft. If the vision represents in some way our culture's understanding of God then God comes from space, has awful power and visits on very rare occasions. Furthermore, this God does not speak but briefly shows his glory, and absconds. The seamless way in which the woman told of her belief and faith in God and her experience in the garden shows that the appearance of the craft is closely connected to her belief and trust in God. It was evidence of the otherworldly.

The second example was the meeting of a young woman who had beaten breast cancer two years previously. She had recently discovered that she had secondaries throughout her body. While the attending nurse admitted that any treatment was palliative, the young woman told me that she "will not let anything happen to her body that she does not choose to happen". Despite her superficial self-assurance her panic was awful to see. She died several days later.

She comes to mind as the second example of belief because it is almost the opposite to that of the first. While the spacecraft woman believed in extra-terrestrial beings that took the place of God, this woman had collapsed all trust into herself. Her cure was a matter of self-determination, of self-will. She bitterly complained about being in hospital and of the help that the staff tried to give her. Her illness had aroused deep paranoia within her that estranged her from the very people who wanted to care for her. We are now in an age in which we think that we can choose to die or not as we would also choose a new car or a different life style. We wonder how someone could be so disconnected from the realities of human life. She remains for me a tragic example of a spirit malformed by the beliefs of the day that are defended though thick and thin.

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There is a third expression of belief that I found in the hospital that occurred on an almost daily basis. Patients told me "someone up there is looking after me". It seems that in the face of death and a visit from the chaplain many believe in God. However, this is a God that is divorced from the belief of the church. It exists as a remnant of belief, a hopeful superstition that it is not quite our turn to "go gentle into that good night". The irony of this belief is that if "someone up there" was really looking after them how come they find themselves in hospital at all! This is a God that, in the midst of the hazards of the world, catches them in the nick of time. In the midst of the tragic death of thousands all over the world, God chooses to save me. This is a symptom of the "turn to the self' that has come about in the last few hundred years and which has led some to talk about the narcissistic generation who believes that when the going gets rough they are privileged in the sight of God.

These three expressions of belief are apt to leave the chaplain nonplussed. The etiquette of pastoral care forbids confrontation. One can only listen and nod and be present. Any discussion will necessarily end in tears. In a democratic age many people state their own idiosyncratic belief and the much-vaunted respect for the belief of others throws a blanket over any discussion of them. However, it is clear to me that all of these beliefs are groundless. The appearance of a space-craft is obviously gleaned from science fiction movies and our own airliners. All this vision did was to ensure the existence of an "other" intelligence. There was no content.

Similarly, the conviction of the young woman dying of cancer was completely groundless. We cannot will ourselves healthy. We do not even have to discuss death bed conversions. Likewise the conversion to belief when one is in a fix is obviously self serving and shallow. It is no good saying "whatever floats your boat" and thus baptise the most groundless and stupid belief and congratulated that we are all so liberal and accepting. There is a time for crucial discussion. These are all examples of the loss of God in our time and the fragile substitutes that have taken His place.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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