Chaplaincy as Eldership

by Astuti Bijlefeld
Central Finger Lakes Meeting


Early one morning during the year that seemed endless, a chaplain colleague and I walked over to acute care. Exhausted and worried, the nurses had asked for a blessing. On the way, we quickly reviewed the practical details: who would say what and when. Everything else we carried with us: tiny individual bottles of anointing oils, a few prayers and affirmations. What I had not done was pause to prepare myself to hold the space and those crowded into the small break room.


The nurses, in gowns, goggles and respirators, could only be away from the unit for a few minutes, but they all found a seat. The talk slowed and stopped. Some eyes closed, some tears welled up, some shoulders eased back a little, breath in, breath out as the space and the group became still. The chaplains said what they had planned, the anointing oils were quickly claimed, someone taped the affirmations to the fridge and the nurses went back through the sealed double doors plastered with warnings to stay out.


Friends’ faith and practices continue to shape and guide the ministry to which I feel called. The learning continues daily. This issue’s focus on spiritual accompaniment is challenging me to become intentional about holding a space, a group, another person. I am only beginning to see the discipline required for this spiritual practice and to imagine some of its potential. At the same time, occasions such as this blessing remind me daily that another power is at work in these encounters. In the break room gathering, the sense of being held came to me from the group. Francis Howgill’s image continues to serve me well: this power “did gather and catch us all, as in a net.” Reflecting with Friends on the practice of “holding the body” is giving me a whole new appreciation of Howgill’s next words as I see more clearly that my assignment includes coming “to know a place to stand in and what to wait in.”


Astuti Bijlefeld is a chaplain at a VA Medical Center.