Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cycling to the Hospital: The case for pedal pastoring

My life involves frequent trips to the hospital…not as a patient (yet), but as a pastoral visitor. One of the central parts of being a parish priest is visiting the sick and those preparing for/recovering from surgery. It gives one a lot to think about.

I am blessed to live within easy cycling distance of the hospital. I say this from personal experience, as the last parish I served was about seven miles away from the nearest full-scale hospital, and in heavy traffic it could take about half an hour to get to a parishioner from my home. Now it is a matter of minutes. In fact, it is close enough that it can take less time to make it to a parishioner’s bedside via bicycle than it does to drive the car, park, and wend my way to the room. Beyond this, though, there is a personal side benefit to bicycle-borne hospital calls.

Hospitals are becoming bigger and bigger; they are also becoming more and more technology focused. Medicine is, to be honest, big business. At times, the purely human dimension of hospitals seems to be on the retreat. The scale of structures, their construction materials (lots of reflective metallic, stone, and glass surfaces) combined with the omnipresence of complex technology can turn a place of healing for humans into something that feels much more like a factory. I know this isn’t the hospital’s intention, but it does strike me that way.

Driving to the hospital requires entering a warehouse-like parking structure, manoevering in various circles, often screeching tires even when going slowly, warily avoiding running into a car backing out or a pedestrian distracted by events connected to a visit, and walking about in semi-empty structures (especially late at night).

When I bike to the hospital, I experience something rather interesting: a re-assertion of the human into the midst of this massive, complicated, sometimes overwhelming place. Rolling up to the hospital quietly and gently on my bike, locking up, and then making my way inside is much less mechanical, much less anxious. I have noted how cycling to see a parishioner in hospital—whether it be during the day or the night—leaves me room to approach the entire experience more prayerfully, bringing less anxiety along with me into this frequently anxious environment. Even seasoned clergy find hospitals can be very challenging places, after all.

This is yet another time when the pace and character of more human-scaled transport has collateral effects. The mere physical act of cycling energizes and opens the body as one is preparing for a potentially profound encounter. Afterwards, the journey back home or to the parish church becomes a time for reflection, consolidation, and (especially) prayer.

I think one of the great themes of the twenty-first century will be returning the world to human terms. Our juvenile love of the machine inherited from the Industrial Revolution can and must mature into an appreciation for the sacredness of the human person, the environment, and the community. Cycling can be a surprisingly simple way to bring these issues in focus, and to act upon them in a creative, humane, practical way.


  1. This is marvelous. And perhaps coincidentally - or maybe not! - a perfect counterpoint to the Lance Armstrong nonsense in the news just now. It just works on so many levels. Nicely turned.

  2. When I read about Lance Armstrong, I'm afraid I feel like I'm reading about someone who lives on the dark side of the moon. It almost seems like he has only a very tangential relationship to the bicycle or to the "real world, " so to speak. I guess it always goes this way with money, fame, and power.

    Writing about these rather obscure aspects of cycling has been both enjoyable and a bit, well, surprising to me. It is part of trying to live a life in which all the parts relate. I have rather a lot of work to do in this regard, but I'm glad to share the fruit of it, and to engage others in their own journey on such things. Thanks!