At The Hospital, Doing Nothing


When I sit with someone in a hospital, office, funeral home, or coffee shop, it can look and feel like doing nothing. Mostly, you sit. You listen. There are no magical things we are told in seminary or by the Holy Spirit to say or explain to people. There is small talk. There is prayer, out of a book or out of your head. There is sometimes crying. Sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it’s exhausting.

In my head, however, there is also an invisible board of chaplains, clipboards and pencils in hand, scrutinizing me and concerned I’m not doing enough. Sometimes they’re helpful and sometimes they’re a curse.

Recently, I tried to bring communion to an elderly parishioner recovering from a fall in a rehab center. I tried to visit in the morning but interrupted breakfast. I walked into the dining room to say hello to him, but he had trouble speaking and seemed groggy. It’s hard to share communion or have conversation in a crowded room, so I told him I would come back later.

When I did, the late afternoon winter sun was streaming into his room. He and his roommate were sleeping. A nurse was there, adjusting a tube, and greeted me. I took off my coat and set down my bag.

In seminary, we were encouraged to wake any sleeping people we were visiting, that they would hate to miss us or the chance to receive communion. But I had a feeling that if I woke my parishioner he would be more disoriented than glad to see me or receive the Eucharist.

I didn’t want to leave, so I moved a wheelchair away from his bedside and replaced it with a chair. When I sat down, his eyes opened for a moment then closed again. His face was pressed into the pillow, his glasses still on. His face was dry and bruised from the fall. I sat with him. I closed my eyes: sometimes praying, sometimes lost in thought.

I tried to surround his body with God’s love and thought about memories I had of him. I prayed for his strength and peace of mind, but after a while I felt self-conscious. Was I showing off – playacting at being the noble priest, eyes closed in prayer at the bedside? Was I deciding to let this man sleep because it was easier?

The communion kit sat unused on the dresser. I hadn’t even touched this man – to pat his shoulder or his hand – because my hands were still cold from the winter day. The invisible board of examining chaplains looked over my shoulder and shook their heads: “It looks like you’re doing nothing! Do something besides just sitting there. You’re Episcopalian after all – we have a prayer book, remember?”

So, I found my prayer book. I read four or five psalms to him, slowly and softly. He shifted in his sleep. I read Psalm 121: “The LORD himself watches over you; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.” My hands were warm now, so I daubed my thumb with the anointing oil I always carry in my bag and marked a cross on his forehead while I read a blessing for healing.

“I did something!” I could now say to the invisible chaplains. Reading to him and anointing his head did help me feel more connected to my parishioner. I hope it felt the same for him.

There’s a tension in ministry between “doing something” and “doing nothing,” as my invisible chaplains always remind me. This work is a funny dance between what seems passive – praying, listening, standing at the front of a church, or sitting at a bedside, and what is clearly active – teaching, organizing, preaching, communicating.

I’m grateful for the Book of Common Prayer, which reminds me that the spoken word matters, and for the sacraments, which make what is ineffable and eternal touchable, just for a moment.

If you’ve ever been afraid to visit someone in the hospital or a nursing home, don’t be. Don’t be afraid of the talking heads on your invisible examining board. You don’t have to know what to do or to say. You certainly don’t have to be clergy. Facing pain, illness, and death is hard, yes, and visiting means showing up to face those things with someone. Sitting, listening, praying, remembering, or reading aloud is enough. A dry finger can be just as precious as holy oil for touching and blessing someone’s forehead, or hand, or feet!

I will continue to worry about doing enough whenever I visit with someone, but I will also try to remember that doing nothing with someone is still a way to be together in the presence of God.


  1. Thank you, and all clergy, for showing up. Being present. Perhaps your ‘doing nothing’ makes the one you’re visiting . . . and all of God’s children . . . feel better when we aren’t able to do anything.

  2. Heidi, this reflection is powerful & a good reminder of why our Healing Prayer Team goes to the Bolingbrook Health Clinic – sometimes, just being there IS enough.

  3. Yes, being present is all that is needed most times. Sharing a smile, a memory, a touch, and a aprayer goes a long way for comfort and healing.

  4. Donnie Williams says:

    Rev. Heidi, as the Junior Warden for my lodge, I had to visit many of my brothers in hospitals or nursing homes. A lot of times I arrived at inconvenient times, while they were sleeping or being medicated. I felt like I should wait or come back later. The majority of the times I waited and when they woke up or received their medication they were thrilled for the visit. However, there were times when I felt like I was doing nothing but later someone would tell me that the visit was appreciated. God knows what he is doing, so I let him. Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Heidi, Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful, candid thoughts. And thank you also for reminding us that, when we don’t know what we are supposed to be doing, sometimes it’s enough to just show up.