Spirituality, faith and hope marched in bold letters along the spine of the bright red folder my friend carried. Not necessarily what you'd expect from a specialist nurse. 'I wondered', she said, 'when I was printing out the label, how some of my medical colleagues might react to this.'
Talking about spirituality in healthcare has its complications. As chaplains we pick our way carefully through the undergrowth of misapprehension and religious prejudice but at least we're expected to be walking there. It's different for clinical staff because although much is made about holistic health care and integrated approaches, spirituality remains a bit hazy; hard to find words for in a world dominated by scientific method.
Making meaning is seen as one of the important elements of spirituality. For patients who get well and go home that's not much of a problem. The real challenge begins with chronic conditions that appear to have no cure, relentless death and the ongoing stream of human despair. Trying to make meaning out of that can leave patients and healthcare professionals alike feeling helpless.
For people trained to save lives, to be helpful and useful, this can break you open and leave you flailing, becoming only too aware of your own mortality in the process.
One way to deal with the helplessness is to develop distance and to take a purely scientific approach to suffering. Put your trust in evidence based medicine to fix what you can and don't linger too long in situations that appear hopeless.
Dr Robin Youngson, challenges this approach in his new book Time to Care. He says, 'Beyond all of the wonderful treatments modern medicine has to offer, the most profound healing comes from a bond of shared humanity.'
Although he uses the language of psychology and neuroscience, Dr Youngson has embarked on a spiritual approach, finding a way to make meaning out of the space that opens up when we reach our limits.
In that space there's a unique emptiness, an absence of any interventionist, all-powerful God and recognition that academic knowledge has boundaries.
It's a kind of desert experience where, regardless of any particular belief system, you can be surprised by the sparse grandeur of existence and our insignificance in the face of that. Aware of the universality of suffering, knowing that what affects you has an impact on me. Profoundly awake to what we are not, despite what we have come to believe about ourselves.
The desert offers medicine and spirituality a place to connect beyond the life-saving heroics that run deep in both our cultural traditions. To awaken us to the healing that lies in our heartfelt cooperation.