The Power of Bearing Witness

Bearing witness is the capacity to speak of what is seen and known related to this situation and to weave these strands of stories together, catching deeper meanings and forging new links.

Being present with people and bearing witness to the needs of their soul is a profound privilege. We have the honour of providing spiritual care to anyone who needs or desires a space to explore their religious and spiritual needs.

I greeted Isabel; even lying down she seemed a a tall upright woman. She was in her late eighties and spoke in short staccato sentences delivered in a soft raspy voice. Her wiry hair was unkempt and the paper thin skin on her arms showed signs of years of life in the sun.  Isabel was waiting for a blood result to come back and we chatted for a short time about life on the farm.

Isabel seemed to be tiring and thanked me for coming. As I was placing the chair back against the wall, I was caught by surprise as she spoke again, “You know, I’m not afraid of dying, but I feel so sad I won’t see my great-grandchildren grow up…. so full of life; I wonder what they will do.” Isabel drew a breath, “Will they follow the way?”  

I was unsure if Isabel was really speaking to me, or was I hearing a breath prayer? I asked Isabel if there was anything I could do for her. She said at home, her husband usually read Bible to her because her eyesight was poor, but he had just handed in his driver’s licence, and now it was hard for him to come to the hospital. I offered to read for her if she would like, and she motioned toward a worn black leather Bible with a booklet of daily Bible readings tucked into it on the bedside table. She said, just read the page where the notes up to.

The notes directed me to Psalm 42,  

8By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    A prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God. (NIVUK)

We prayed for her grandchildren. Isabel wept, wiped a tear from her eye, smiled and thanked me.

Bearing witness works with the real, not the ideal, with fragments and shards, frailty and fallenness

Bearing witness is a deeply embodied and active ministry; it comes from the word marturein in Greek, from which also comes our word martyr matureo. Witness is experiential, embodied and ensouled. It concerns what we have seen with our eyes, and what we know in our heart, it directs our conscience, and shapes our character. Bearing witness is an activity of remembering and anticipating, of word and deed, giving and receiving. Bearing witness is the capacity to speak of what is seen and known of this situation and to weave these strands of stories together, with other older stories, catching deeper meanings – forging newer links. Jesus becomes tangibly visible in the room, his Spirit groans and prayer is given voice. He promised that when two or three gather in his name he is present – eternity enters time. Bearing witness works with the real, not the ideal, with fragments, shards, and the frailty and fallenness of life yet it draws evermore forward into deeper reality ushering in new dawns evens as night falls.

Bearing witness responds, rather than directs, opens rather than closes, flows rather than programs, attunes rather than affects. There is an unpremeditated aspect of bearing witness that is always somewhat serendipitous.

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

Author: Pastoral Thinking

This web-page is a place where chaplains, pastoral and spiritual carers are encouraged to think both deeply and laterally about the world we live in, and the pastoral care we provide.

One thought on “The Power of Bearing Witness”

  1. Thank you again. So good to have ‘bearing witness’ unpacked and validated. I’m often aware that there are times in my pastoral care where this is the best gift I have brought to my patient.


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