The Healing Circle
I sometimes try to attend a nearby church, but more often than not I am an hour late or early because I can never keep straight whether the services are at nine and eleven or eight and ten. More than once I have ended up spiritualizing with the Sunday Times and a double-tall latte at Starbucks rather than in that stone-on-the-outside, seventies-décor-on-the-inside Episcopal church. But on the Sunday after my first month of inpatient medicine, finding time for church seemed more important than ever. Even though I arrived an hour early, I returned after my latte to a pew in the back.
This Sunday, the members of St. Paul’s were commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Episcopal Church’s decision to allow women into the clergy. Coffee hour was also going to be especially elaborate in celebration of the lesbian minister’s recent marriage; the members of the hospitality committee had outdone themselves on post-service cake, cookies, and punch.
During this service, church members were given the chance to offer individual prayers for healing. After communion—which was received in a perpetually forming and dissolving circle around the front of the sanctuary—if you stay standing, the special healing-prayer crew will approach you ready to lay on hands and anoint you with oil. I had never considered remaining up there for even a second longer than necessary. I preferred my observer status in the back of the church.
But today, for some reason, that oh-so-public standing for a little extra healing seemed like not such a bad idea. As the front of the room rose to start the winding and unwinding communion circle, I wondered why I heard the offer for healing so differently this week. I wasn’t sick. No one around me was sick. I was elated to be starting a much calmer month. I had just read the paper while drinking coffee for the first time in weeks.
Then they came clearly into my mind: Ms. Huntington, Ms. Mission, Roseann, the first patients with whom I had sat as each heard terrible news or waited in the terror of not knowing or gasped their final breaths in that huge hospital. As my turn to rise and circle for communion got closer, tears came to my eyes, and I knew that despite all the latte drinking, I was still in need of help in bringing this month to a peaceful close. Perhaps, I thought, I was drawn to standing in front of the whole congregation with the prayer-for-healing team because I now knew real patients for whom I could pray for healing. But in as much time as it took for the row in front of my own to rise and begin their ambling journey to communion, I knew the need for healing was also, and most immediately, my own.
So I stood up there with the communion circle dissolving around me. It took only a few moments of my standing there alone for them to see me. Maybe they knew I sat in the back and rarely went to coffee hour, but the two women—one young, with a dyed white streak in her dark hair, and the other older, larger, in an orange scarf—approached. The young one put her hand on my head; the older one came with the oil. They asked for whom the prayer was to be prayed. I smiled as I found myself stumbling to say that it was for me, and for the whole team, really—probably meaning everyone from the team that listens to me at night, to the team that really had the responsibility for the patients I’d seen this month. The healing-prayer crew was thrown only for an instant before they proceeded with earnest prayers for this mysterious whole team and me. I returned to my seat in the back pew. I felt silly. I felt better.
Chelsea Elander Flanagan Bodnar ’06 will undertake her pediatrics residency at the University of Washington Affiliated Hospitals in Seattle.
These essays were excerpted from The Soul of a Doctor: Harvard Medical Students Face Life and Death (Algonquin Books, 2006), edited by Susan Pories, MD, Sachin H. Jain ’07, and Gordon Harper ’69.
This article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin.