Saturday, April 30, 2011

Nursing as Spiritual Work

A guest post from Catherine Browning

We all know that nursing is not an easy job. No matter which area of nursing one is practicing, the challenges are enormous. There are excessive workloads, long hours, few days off, staffing shortages, inadequate salaries, and lack of support by the society. Nursing demands complete focus, expert skills, responsibility, and accountability. Personal preferences and personal needs are set aside in order to attend to the care of the patients. Because the demands placed upon nurses is so high, choices must be made. Nurses inevitably come face-to-face with the stark reality before them: find fulfillment in nursing or quit the profession. When faced with this haunting predicament, most nurses would almost rather quit. Yes, most nurses would rather quit, except for one powerful truth that stares them in the eyes: nursing is very spiritual work.
            They don’t tell us this hidden truth in nursing school. They don’t point out this fact during new employment orientation. This knowledge is something a nurse only discovers for him or herself after years of faithfully fulfilling their professional obligations. After years of sacrifice, after years of giving all that one has, nurses discover that something mysterious is taking place. They discover that, although they may suffer from the long hours and grueling labor, a certain inner peace comes to reside in their hearts. They discover that the God seems to be with them in a special way, in a way they never really knew before. They discover that they are slowly becoming one of God’s special helpers on Earth, attending to the physical, mental, and spiritual anguish of those  in need.
            In fact, holy men and women throughout the religious traditions have taught and role modeled the ideals of a spiritual life: focusing upon God, practicing frequent prayer, improving upon patience, becoming stronger in body, mind, and spirit, sacrificing self for others, forgiving those who hurt us, and offering our lives as complete service to God. How blessed we have been to know about the prophets and holy people of our past. And yet, rarely do we think that in this modern world we, ourselves, would have the opportunity to strive for such great ideals.
            But consider the spiritual dimensions of nursing: We sacrifice adequate sleep so that we can help our patients. We often go without proper food and drink as we busily attend to those in need of our care. We sacrifice precious time with our families and friends so that we can take care of sick or needy people. We often miss out on special family and religious holidays in order that services continue for those in need. We work extra hours or during times when we do not feel our best so that healthcare can continue. We constantly give of ourselves. We rarely ask for anything in return.
The result of our excessive giving could result in physical and psychological depletion. Certainly there is reason to be cautious about our human limitations. We need to take good care of ourselves to prevent collapse. We need to attend to our personal needs to prevent unhealthy codependency. And yet, many of us have had remarkable experiences during our times of greatest weakness. Many of us have been completely exhausted, certain that we could not continue one more day as a nurse, and then prayed to God for strength. As a result of that prayer, we have found ourselves suddenly renewed, dramatically strengthened to do the work in front of us. We have been transformed by our God in order to do the heavy work of helping those in need. More importantly, we have been transformed by the profession itself. Nursing then becomes less of an occupation and more of a spiritual calling. Nursing becomes not only the source of a paycheck and gratification for a job well done, nursing becomes spiritual work. Nursing becomes the holy work of caring for and serving those people in greatest need.
When we face our challenging work in order to serve and please our God, everything about nursing changes. The long hours feel more like a spiritual discipline and less like an occupational punishment. The sacrifice away from family and friends feels less like torture and more like humanitarian compassion. The criticism and lack of appreciation from society feels less like condemnation, and more like spiritual tests. Like the holy man Job of long ago, we face continual temptations and trials while performing our work as nurses. But hopefully like Job, we will be triumphant in the end. We will grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit. Our faith in God will become greater because of all that we have suffered. Our patience will be exceeding and our humility will be deep. What we don’t receive from the world, we will receive from our God.
When we rise each day with gratitude in our hearts for the meaningful, fulfilling work before us, we are transformed. As we think more about the other, and less about ourselves, our hearts become huge and transparent. As we administer every treatment and perform every nursing intervention in order to serve our Beloved God, it matters less and less how tired are our weary bones. As we do everything for the goodness of God, we care less and less about the cold-heartedness of humans. As we keep our focus upon God, nursing becomes less and less a job in the healthcare field and more and more the art and science of spiritual ministry.
When we see nursing as spiritual work, what other people say about who we are and what we do becomes less and less important. Being accepted by the society is no longer the ultimate concern.  Fulfilling our religious and spiritual obligations through our work becomes the most important goal. Our greatest interest, our greatest concern, becomes the performance of our nursing duties with the best care, expertise, and reverence imaginable. When we know without a doubt that God has chosen us for the holy work of nursing, we pray for the strength and humility to fulfill this calling faithfully and dutifully. When we know without a doubt that God has chosen us for the holy work of nursing, we gratefully arise with a smile on our face and carefully watch over the patients God has entrusted into our care.
Nursing is never an easy job. Few spiritual works in this life are performed easily. As with the attainment of other spiritual rewards, a certain degree of sacrifice and unselfishness is required. There can rarely be spiritual growth without some struggle and pain. The greatest consolation for nurses who work hard is not the receiving of a large salary or a fancy title. It is not the opportunity to get ahead or make a big name for oneself. It is the inner peace and satisfaction that comes from trusting that our God wants us doing the exact work of nursing that He has placed in front of us. This trusting gives us confidence to continue day after day, year after year. When we see the difference that we make in our patients’ lives, we know we must be doing something right. When we see the results of our hard work on the lives of our patients, we feel inner peace during this life. As we help many people over the years, we cultivate hope for our future in the afterlife.
Nursing offers the opportunity for spiritual fulfillment. No matter what anyone says, or anyone does, the truth of nursing can never be denied. The historical and contemporary truth about nursing is this:  Nursing is a very noble profession. More than that, nursing is spiritual work. What job on Earth could offer greater hope and fulfillment?

Catherine Browning has a master of science degree in nursing from the University of Missouri, Columbia and a master of art degree in spirituality from Holy Names College. She is a registered nurse and board certified psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner in the USA. She has been a nurse for 25 years.

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