My position as a Pastoral Care Worker at a psychiatric hospital was a privileged experience while also a confronting one for a young woman in her 20s. Ministry to those suffering mental illness calls for a particular sensitivity and willingness to be vulnerable. The stigma associated with mental illness became apparent to me. Thankfully, that is now lessening.
This appointment launched my career in pastoral care and as such it was a very stark and harsh experience compared to a later appointment in a much more luxurious and welcoming setting of a private hospital. It distressed me to be given a key to locked wards as if I was somehow superior to those I visited when in fact I came to recognize the humbling fact that we are all vulnerable.
One of my privileges was to celebrate a Communion service once a month with any patients and staff who cared to attend. While initially somewhat hesitant about this, and how I would be received, the celebration of this service became a very meaningful and powerful experience for me and, I believe, for those I served.
To come to the chapel, patients had to make the physical journey on foot through the hospital grounds along a winding path, past various old buildings, some disused. This physical transition, I think, enabled patients to leave behind their identity as psychiatric patients, sometimes referring to themselves as ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘bipolar’, and simply be welcomed as John or Judy.
The Communion service was a unique experience. It took place at 10 a.m. and I would arrive shortly after 8 a.m. to put my reflection for the service together, inspired by the sound of the birds and the beginning of a new day. Writing that reflection each month proved a refreshing task. I felt I never had to weigh my words as with academic papers or other presentations. It was not an exercise in eloquence but in the courage to express and to confront what is real and meaningful, the way the patients themselves would like their own journeys, often readily dismissed, to be received. Thus the reflection came together very easily each time. I would also set up the chapel and then the meeting room for morning tea afterwards. This extension of hospitality was an integral part of the ritual wherein patients could feel at one with the staff and have the freedom to be themselves in an informal atmosphere.
While the Communion service itself is somewhat different to Mass, my approach, too, added to this difference. I chose modern music which the patients, some younger, found relevant and could sing along to on tapes or CDs. My reflection invited interaction. This was not something I initially planned on, but I found patients commented as I spoke or often responded with a resounding ‘Yes!’ I came to welcome this spontaneity as bringing real meaning to the service for the patients and for me as celebrant. Such recognition of the patients as significant participants in the service prepared the ground for the reception of the Eucharist.
As I offered the Eucharist to each of those gathered I was mindful of Christ present in each one, of the common human dignity and the need to belong that we all share, and of Christ’s love and acceptance of each one of us no matter how we see ourselves or how others see us. I found it a very humbling experience to be able to distribute Holy Communion and in turn was inspired by the humility and enthusiasm of the patients who received it. The reception of the Eucharist was not something they took for granted, for I believe the Eucharist was their lifeline. It was a privilege, reminding them that as children of God they live in freedom each with their unique place in this world.
I chose to offer this story as one window into the meaning of the Eucharist which I experienced as very powerful and unifying in that time and place where people could be stigmatised and ostracised. The way of the world so easily creates divisions between people – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white. This I found especially true of patients in the psychiatric area who can be so readily isolated. Yet, in receiving the Eucharist in true faith and integrity, we acknowledge that there exist no divisions. The reception of the Eucharist effects a transformation in us, both in how we see ourselves and others. I came to see in a powerful way over time each one present as God’s work of art, enabling me to exclaim, ‘God, you’re beautiful!’ We are humbled in acknowledging the Great Other and His awesome love for us. We can only then feel our responsibility as human beings to care for one another, counted, as we are, equal in the eyes of God.