Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it: “Happiness! It is useless to seek it elsewhere than in this warmth of human relations.”
I often think of these words as I go about my work as a Hospice Chaplain. I find that when any of us are approaching our dying we turn our attention to the people who have been important to us. Surely from the day of our birth and onward it is our time with other people that give meaning and purpose to our lives. The God I know works to draw us toward one another as brothers and sisters.
Steve had spent almost three decades in the US Navy, and his life following discharge were given meaning for him by those years of service and the friendships he had discovered there. Over the years dementia appeared to have erased his capacity to speak or in any way recognize familiar people around him. When I met him, he was drawing near to his closing breath.
As we sat around his bed, members of his family were telling stories they had heard from him so often about his years in the Navy. I took out the small music player I carry with me, and with that the room was filled with the tunes of “Anchors Away.” That’s when we saw Steve’s right hand moving, as best it could, toward his head. When the music concluded, his arm relaxed and a calm smile came to his face. We looked at one another, moved by the realization that this old Navy man had just given his last, best salute. Such meaning in those small movements!
Words matter. Music matters. But we know also how much it can matter just to have another person with us in quiet attentiveness.
I know that when I meet someone in distress often my first impulse is to say something. But I also am reminded again and again that there is a time for simply “keeping company,” for being present, for bearing witness. And do not think that in that we are doing nothing. Far from it, we are giving one of the most valuable gifts one person can give another: Paying attention.
Some might say that HOME is the place where we go in the evening to tell the stories of our day. And what better gift to find there than someone to pay attention and to welcome the stories we bring!
In any challenging time of change, I often find myself recalling Saint-Exupéry’s words regarding the “warmth of human relationships,” the work of keeping company with one another “for better and worse, in sickness and in health . . .” and am thus reminded to treasure those who companion with me in the daily course of life.
And what do people do when they are “keeping company” with one another? They may well tell stories. We are always creating stories. While some describe God as the creator of heaven and earth, I think that God is also the creator of stories.
If we hear someone laughing loudly in another room, each of us would come up with a story to explain it – to give it some meaning, correct or not. While our minds know that we cannot understand what the laugh means until we get more information, our hearts and our souls are busy making up stories about it.
As nature abhors a vacuum, so we may have a hard time with not knowing. Living with mystery can be a difficult lesson to learn. We do, indeed, listen for stories to give meaning to our lives. We tell stories, and we listen to them, in order to discover sense and purpose amid the random events of our days. God’s Spirit calls to our spirits to discover how those events fit together as part of the eternal story of hurt and healing, of fear and hope, of loss and love, and in it all to affirm what truly matters.
— Rev. John Davies, Chaplain
About the Author
Rev. John D. M. Davies has served as Chaplain for Central New Hampshire VNA & Hospice for almost a decade. After briefly serving two Presbyterian parishes in rural Ohio, John moved to Brewster, NY, where he served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church for 30 years. While serving that church, he received his Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling, becoming trained as a certified pastoral psychotherapist, and for 25 years directed a local counseling center. In 1996 he left the parish and began 5 years as Chaplain of the local hospice – continuing his clinical practice at the counseling center. In 2000 he moved to Sandwich, NH. In addition, he joined the staff of the Plymouth Congregational Church as their Minister of Pastoral Counseling with a limited clinical practice, and for the past 9 years has served as Spiritual Care Chaplain with Central New Hampshire VNA & Hospice in Laconia and Wolfeboro, NH.