The question I’ve been facing over the last two years is how to find God’s presence when you’re tired and overwhelmed beyond what you imagined was ever possible. Most of you who know me know that I’m usually quite tired these days. I’m a resident in the hospital which means very long hours, lots of responsibilities, and even more stress. I’m constantly surrounded by physical pain, existential suffering, exhaustion, and deprivation.
It’s emotionally devastating. A few months ago, I’m the lone doctor responsible for the cardiac ICU at 3:00 in the morning when most other people are sleeping. One of the nurses who was yelling at me earlier in the night asks me, “Can you come into this room? Something’s off about this patient’s pupils.” I learn at 3:30 in the morning that a 29-year old is bleeding into his brain and is dying, and there’s nothing that I or anyone can do about it. I call his family in the middle of the night and listen to the grief in their questions.
How can I know God’s presence when that’s happening?
It’s mentally overwhelming. I’m fielding a constant tsunami of requests and pages: Jenga tower of tasks – simultaneously growing taller and more precarious. The requests span from the trivial to the terrifying, but they all have one thing in common: they never end.
“Doctor, can you ask them to move me back to my old room? I liked it better there instead.”
“There’s a new patient for you to transfer them out of the ICU. Please hurry because there are other people waiting for that bed.”
“This patient’s insurance company is requesting a direct phone call to approve rehab; you have three hours to call them or it will be automatically denied.”
“Can you come talk to this patient to calm them down? They’re yelling rude and insulting things to the staff, and they want to talk to the doctor now.”
“This person is having chest pain; I think it’s just acid reflux, but I’m not sure; will you come check?”
How can I possibly hear God’s voice in the middle of the cacophony?
It’s also physically impossible. Being a doctor is hard enough; being a resident means far more hours. I routinely wake up at 5 in the morning, to work all day and return home at 7 or 8. And I do that 6 days a week many weeks. I come home, longing to pray, only to fall asleep involuntarily on the couch. My body and my mind won’t listen to me anymore.
I’ve tried so many things—saying breath prayers, using the Pray as You Go App, silent coloring when I get home, listening to the Bible read out to me, sleepily praying the Examen, reciting the Prayer of St. Patrick—and sometimes they work, but lots of the time they don’t. I feel too tired and dead inside to hear God’s voice, or experience God’s presence.
So where is God in all this? When I do have time to be away from it all, I ask God this question. “Where are you? Why can’t I hear you? I thought you called me to care for people as a doctor, so why is this so hard?”
Sometimes I hear nothing at all. Sometimes, when I have time away from the hospital, I hear God’s voice clearly. He doesn’t say anything life changing or profound; he says gently to me, “I have been there in every moment, walking behind you. Even when you can’t hear me, I’m still here. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.” There is no promise to remove the exhaustion, to change the circumstances around me, to give me a superhuman capacity to feel his presence at all times. He responds to me in the words of the Prodigal Son’s Father: “My son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.”
In the words of Richard Foster, “[When I have] been addressed personally, intimately, the voice of the true Shepherd [is] altogether sufficient.”
Calvin Gross, MD (email@example.com) is an Internal Medicine Resident, University of North Carolina Hospitals. Originally from Charlotte, he attended Princeton University where he majored in the Classics. As a medical student, he sought to understand the deep connections doctors make with their patients and so completed a Master of Theological Studies degree through the Duke Divinity School, focusing on theology and ethics. Calvin has actively volunteered in caring for the vulnerable – from refugees to the elderly. He enjoys writing, and was able to publish a thought piece in Academic Medicine, reflecting on the timing of when students take the Hippocratic Oath and its impact. At this point, he is most interested in a career in Hospice and Palliative Medicine. In recognition of his outstanding humanism and academic achievements, Calvin was inducted into both the AOA and Gold Humanism Honor Societies. Calvin’s wife is pursuing her PhD at Duke and in his free time he enjoys reading, cooking, gardening, and tabletop RPG games.
Dr. Calvin Gross, MD, is a directee of Associate Spiritual Director, Cynthia (Cindy) A. Neely BSN, MS. She is affiliated with The West Virginia Institute for Spirituality and The North Carolina Institute for Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation and the Catholic Communities of Saint Thomas More and Newman Center of Chapel Hill , NC. More information about Cindy, including her contact information, may be found in this issue of Thema, WVIS Associate Spiritual Directors.