I first met Bill (not his real name) last November. He called me out of the blue early one afternoon from a funeral home. His wife had just died—rather suddenly—the previous night, and he wanted me to come by for "last rites." He said he was once an active Episcopalian in another part of the diocese, but has never had a connection with my parish. I had plenty on my plate that day, but, setting aside the fact that it was a little late for "Last Rites," this is not the kind of request a priest can decline without an overriding reason. So I went.
A few weeks later, Bill came by the church one day, just needing to talk. So I sat with him in the nave, offering a sympathetic listening ear and an occasional word of affirmation or redirection. He and his wife had been married for 59 years, so he had some understandably unresolved grief, as well as cognate "issues"—Why did God take her? Is He trying to punish me for something? Is there something I could have done to prevent her death? Is there something He wants me to do now with my life?
In a gentle way, I urged him to reconnect with the community of the church. He needed the sacraments, I told him. He needed the Word of God in his ears. He needed the relationships of mutual caring and accountability that are part of ecclesial life. His explanation for not having involved himself with St Anne's over the last 20 years that he's lived in this town was the Episcopal Church's moral amnesia—"What I was always taught was a sin they now say is right!" I couldn't argue with him on the facts, but I could—and did—tell him that those facts don't constitute a reason to ex-communicate himself.
This conversation repeated itself several times over the winter and spring, like the morning sequence of events in the movie Groundhog Day. I don't claim the right to tell the man how to grieve, but I've learned enough about bereavement to recognize when somebody is stuck in their process. He was on a hamster wheel—lots of activity, but going nowhere.
So late this afternoon he stops by yet again for another session on the wheel (lately under the cover of wanting to discuss to whom he might give his wife's clothing and shoes). Only today is a feast day, so we have a Mass scheduled at 5:30. When he arrives, one of our staff members directs him upstairs to the chapel. He walks in during Evening Prayer, kind of oblivious to what's going on, but we make allowances and welcome him in and find him the page, etc. etc. But, as always, Bill is a bit of a motormouth, so while I'm throwing on vestments in the hallway, he's bending the ear of two staff members, the only others in tonight's congregation. Eventually I clear my throat loudly. We may not ever get started otherwise.
During my (very informal) homily I ask him a question, whereupon he informs me that he really can't hear a word I'm saying because his hearing aid is turned down. Then, during the Peace, he breaks back into his stump speech (see above beginning, "Why did God…?"). It's obviously been a loooooong time since the dude's been in church. I go ahead and set up the altar while he talks and the three of us listen. In my head, I'm fishing around for a strategy to redirect his attention long enough for us to finish the liturgy.
Then a line from my stock funeral-sermon-when-I-don't-know-the-deceased-very-well-but-we're-celebrating-the-Eucharist-anyway dawns on me. "Bill, I've got an idea! How would you like to have supper with your wife?"
"How would you like to have supper with your wife? We can do it right here, right now."
I have his attention. He nods in affirmation.
"She is here with us. Or, more precisely, we are joining her, for these few minutes, where she is. We're going to eat from the same table that she's eating from."
Without pausing long enough to let him form and express another thought, I plow ahead. "The Lord be with you." And we proceed to lift up our hearts. When we get to the part of the Eucharistic Prayer (B, if you know the American BCP) where the celebrant has the option of "populating" it with the names of actual people—usually the BVM and the patron saint of the parish and whatever saint is being commemorated on the day—without missing a beat, I turn to Bill and ask him, "What's your wife's name?"
"What's your wife's name."
"Eloise." (Again, name changed to protect identity.)
So I add, after "the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God; Anne, her mother … Eloise … and all the saints…". At the mention of his wife's name in such august company, Bill's face lights up like a Nevada town on the Utah border at night. As I place the Blessed Sacrament on his tongue, I point to the paten and tell him, "Eloise already had hers."
Will what we did for Bill tonight get him off the hamster wheel? I don't know. I'm not overly-invested in that outcome. Was it a liminal--"thin"--moment for me and the two others who ministered to him? Certainly so. It was at the same time the one of the most unsettlingly bizarre and one of the the most luminously mystical celebrations of the Eucharist I have ever attended.