A sound tree

Balfour Mount is considered ‘the father of palliative care in North America’. Palliative care has been defined as ‘Everything that remains to be done when there is nothing more to be done’ for a dying person.

He acknowledges his debt to Thérèse Vanier, the sister of Jean Vanier.  Thérèse died in 2014 and her funeral Mass was celebrated in Canterbury Cathedral, perhaps the first time a Catholic was so honoured since the Reformation. Balfour came to England to learn more about this new way of care for the dying and at one point, when Thérèse was visiting a patient, he asked if he could ‘tag along’.  To his astonishment she said, ‘I’d prefer you didn’t … you see, talking to a patient is a private matter’.  Balfour tells us he was stunned and embarrassed.

A day later Balfour happened to be passing a bed with the curtains drawn around it but with an inch or so still parted.  He glanced in and saw Thérèse, “sitting hunched on a bedside chair, leaning forward, her face inches from the patient’s.  She was intent, listening, as Cicily Saunders, the founder of palliative care, would say ‘with every fibre of her being’.” To his astonishment he found his eyes welling up with tears.  “Here was ‘active listening’ as I had never seen it”.   It was as though, the day before, he would have interrupted a moment of healing between two people and he would have blocked it.

For Thérèse, this was the only way to reach the pain of a dying person.  It was an approach way beyond the scope of an overworked doctor in a busy hospital. She would give the patient all the time they needed and the patient would then relax and settled back into her pillows and be at peace.

We cannot ‘actively listen’ to every person in this extremely attentive way all the time.  But there is a lesson here in the midst of our distracted culture.  How do we listen to others?  Do we decide at first glance this one is worth listening to but not that one? And even to the one we do listen to do we do it passively, just taking what they say, or do we do it actively searching for the meaning behind the words?  We have to admit our culture, dominated by the media, often limits our ability to listen actively.  We can become superficial and fail to understand the pain of others even if they are in good physical health.

When Jesus talks of a sound tree always producing good fruit he is calling us to develop a habit of active listening to others.  Then it becomes natural to us to relate to others in a way that touches – not where they are on the surface – but where they really are.

3 March 2019     Sunday 8C

Sira 27:4-7           1 Corinthians 15:54-58                    Luke 6:39-45

See also Ann Shearer, Thérèse Vanier, Pioneer of L’Arche, palliatice care and spiritual unity         

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