May 9th is the beginning of National Nurses Week in Canada. Across the continent, as part of their annual celebrations, many nurses will be experiencing the acknowledgement, affirmation, empowerment and appreciation that come through a ritual called the Blessing of the Hands.
John O'Donohue, author of To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, defines a blessing as a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen. In this case, nurses' hands are blessed as a symbol of healing, wellness and strength.
Blessing of the Hands is offered in different ways in different settings, often by the chaplaincy department within the organization, and it is received within the context of each person's faith tradition. In Australia, a dean of nursing joins instructors in blessing the hands of students; in Cape Coral, Florida the hospital chaplain anoints each nurse's hands, palms up, with oil; and at Johns Hopkins Medical Centre hands are ritually washed before anointing with scented oil.
Whatever the actual ceremony, the ritual is brief, lasting only a moment or two, and the service is interfaith with all traditions welcome. In many cases, the blessings are individualized to recognize the specific work done by the hands in each area.
These blessings may be greeted with skepticism or discomfort the first time offered, but staff are generally so touched by observing or participating in the experience that numbers tend to rise exponentially in the following years. Some organizations, recognizing that not everyone can leave a unit to attend a service, now send teams around to each ward, unit and clinic where all who wish a blessing are included.
While I am no longer a practicing nurse, I was moved to the point of tears when I first heard of this blessing ritual. Many others find it to be "the best part of Nurses Week". I hope that many of you will have the opportunity, this year, to receive the healing, affirmation and renewal that are at the heart of this blessing experience.
I'll leave you, today, with the words of Blessing of the Hands adapted from Diann Neu's writings in Waterwheel, Winter, 1989:
Blessed be these hands that have touched life and felt pain.
Blessed be these hands that have embraced others with compassion
Blessed be these hands that have been clenched in anger.
Blessed be these hands that have withdrawn in fear.
Blessed be these hands that have given and taken away.
Blessed be these hands that have assisted those in need.
Blessed be these hands that have anointed the sick and suffering.
Blessed be these hands that have comforted the dying.
Blessed be these hands that have prepared the dead.
Blessed be these hands that may grow stiff with age.
Blessed be these hands, for they are the hands of the Holy One.
Pastoral Care Services
The Johns Hopkins Hospital