Holding Space

by Beth Kelly
Brooklyn Meeting


I have agreed to sit as an elder for this Quarterly Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, praying and holding the Body as we discern around an issue about which there is pain and misunderstanding. For much of the meeting I am hunched over, hands folded in prayer against the bench in front of me, head bowed. At the rise of meeting, a Friend I don't know well approaches me and says, "I could see how hard you were praying for us. Thank you."


This patient has coded twice and his family are out in the hallway, crying. They ask me to pray over the patient (though not with them—it's complicated). When I see the doctors and nurses are starting to clean up, I ask if I can come in and pray over the patient. I pray for him, for God to hear the prayers of his heart, and for the family and the medical team to care for him with love, compassion, steady hands, and the wisdom to know how best to help him. I pray, knowing that my prayer is being witnessed by the medical team. This space is sacred, and they are a sacred part of it.


A Friend asks to schedule some time to talk to me about an issue she is discerning about. It's nice to be seen as someone who can help. We've known each other for a long time. I can remember things she has asked me that I thought came from great wisdom. I ask my own questions, but I also repeat her own back to her.


A patient speaks of alienation from his family and faith community, so I ask about alienation from God. "No, I've never felt God has abandoned me!" he says. He tells me that he has experienced God calling him to specific ministry in the world, though he keeps running away from it. We talk about Moses and about Jonah, and I ask him what God is calling him into. "Who will you do this with?" I ask. "Because God will not call you to do all that by yourself."


A Friend is disillusioned by her experience of racism in the Religious Society of Friends. "Do you feel led to give this concern to me and other White people so we can address it? Is that enough? Or do you feel led to engage with the meeting more directly?" I feel led to be an advocate if she wants, a harbor if that's better.


In the height of Covid, a respiratory therapist friend of mine finds me in the hallway. He is weeping. "I think I am killing them," he says. "We don't know what we are doing." I look him in the eye and, social distancing be damned, take his hands in mine. "I know you," I say. "You bring blessing to every patient, every family you touch. You are doing God's work. You are still a blessing, even when the patients don't make it. It is not your fault, and they are blessed to have YOU."


The thing about holding space is that once I started, it became a habit. (Clerking meetings rather than chairing them is another habit that happens for me.) If I believe that God is present in each person, and that God is present in each situation, then I am empowered to name it, to demonstrate the belief, to remind people that their lives and the spaces they occupy can be sacred even in their ordinariness or times of disaster. In this way, eldering a meeting for business is not dissimilar from showing doctors and nurses that they are included in my prayer; discernment is led by how Spirit moves in the person and how they relate to their communities; the experience of disillusionment with one's faith community and one's career speaks to how our hopes for ourselves and those around us are diverted.


I hold space. I hold it in the same ways at work and in the meetings. I trust that Spirit/God/Christ moves in us and I remind people by my presence, which is grounded in the Presence.


Beth Kelly is a chaplain at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn.