Silence That Speaks

shellsHow do you ‘do’ pastoral care?  Is it something that requires training? A hospital placement? A degree in theology? A specific calling?

These things can be helpful.  But I reckon much of it comes down to two things: curiosity – and compassion.

1. Curiosity: being interested in the person you’re with. Simple, eh? But not easy. At least, not for me..

Often, instead of listening,  I’ll be talking to someone and thinking about myself.  Waiting for the opportunity to wedge in a similar anecdote about ME or to impart some amazing piece of wisdom.

“Yes well, the key thing about x is…

You know, that reminds me a story about me…”

When I do this, I’m not being curious. I’m treading conversational air, till it’s my turn to talk. And the only person being blessed is me.

But when I stop talking, something strange starts to happen.  I stop worrying about whether or not I locked the car.  I’m no longer thinking about buying bread or calling my mum or the possibility of spinach in my teeth.  I stop looking at my watch. One question leads to another. And I start to actually listen.

You might not be interested at first; but give it time and see where it leads.  The experiences you thought you’d heard, aren’t what you thought. The problems you diagnosed aren’t as straightforward as they seemed.  The advice you were going to give, no longer needs to be said. Small talk becomes Big Talk. And the person you boxed up and labelled, is suddenly someone else. Someone precious. Someone worth hearing.

Listening – really listening – can be worth a million shots of Brilliant Advice. But it’s a lot more costly. You can’t slot it in between the office and the supermarket. You can’t wrap it up in one conversation.  It’s not an A-Z, keep the change. It’s  a walk in the country – rambling, repetitious, open-ended.  Sometimes you think you’re going to one destination, but you end up in another.  Sometimes you double-back.  Sometimes you get lost.  Sometimes you wish you’d taken the bus. But you see things you’d have missed in your vehicle. You fall into step with the other person. There’s space to breathe and think.

And when you think about it, there are a million questions. How did you stop believing in Santa Claus? What do you think about marriage? Would you rather have a hot peach or a cold weetabix? What’s the longest period of time you’ve spent in hospital? Who’s your favourite James Bond? What’s your greatest regret? What was growing up like? What is God teaching you? What’s your favourite time of day? What would you like me to ask you? What’s the most precious thing in your bag?

Even though you might not be speaking, you’re saying this, “I have time for you.  I want to be here.  I’m listening.  There’s no rush.”

2. Compassion:

Curiosity goes a long way. But without compassion, it’s only a technique. Without compassion, it’s a particularly nosy form of judgementalism. Your friend will feel battered not blessed.

When someone tells you something, they’re giving you a gift.  Proceed with gentleness. If you rip off the paper, they might tear.  If you shake too hard, they’ll break. Remember, you’re not holding information, you’re holding part of them.

So you don’t rush in. You peel off the layers – slowly and with care. You examine what’s inside. Not too bright, not too loud. You say thank-you, and you hold it in their presence. You wrap it up again, safe.  Later, you come back to it. You see things you hadn’t spotted first time round. You’re amazed at how much can be contained in something so small. And it’s not one-way traffic. That’s why it’s compassion. You hold them and they hold you. That’s how you stop it being a clinical exercise. Walking together, bearing one another’s burdens.

Curiosity – and compassion.  What’s going on in this person?  What are they trying to tell me: with their body, with their lips? How does God see them?  How can we help each other be more of who God has made us?



4 thoughts on “Silence That Speaks

  1. How very interesting Emma, I teach GP trainees and as part of their consultation training we teach them to be warm (encompassing compassion and empathy), and curious (about the person, their situation etc) We also teach them to actively listen (looking at the person, echoing phrases or words, asking for clarification etc) and tell them to let the patient speak until they are done talking (usually about 60-180 seconds whereas doctors often interrupt at 18 seconds)!

  2. That’s really interesting Emma; especially as GPs are often the first point of pastoral care. In my own experience, GPs are worth their weight in gold and can make an enormous difference, esp when it comes to mental health.

  3. I’m so glad you’ve found that to be so-it’s often not the way it seems in the media, particularly with the current state of mental health services and my inability to do anything for people sometimes as a result.

  4. Hey Emma!

    One of my favourite quotes of all times is by Antoine de Saint Exupery and he said

    “What value has compassion that does not take its object into its arms”

    I don’t fully understand exactly what that entails, because I think, on some level, the meaning is SO HUGE that it kind of surpasses understanding…
    … but I love it.

    Is it okay to love something without really understanding it? I feel a bit silly!
    But then what about God? It’s a silly question!
    Man. I have to stop rambling.

    Anyway, your thoughts reminded me of that quote.



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