Friday, August 15, 2008

Pastoral Care On-the-Fly

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.


Robert said...

Dan, that was an amazing pastoral moment. God bless you for that and thanks for sharing it. It moved my heart.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I really appreciated it.

RE: "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!"

Why not try a different church?

Rather than people take themselves out of church altogether, why couldn't he try some other denominations? Not the same, of course, as Anglicanism, but that's the world we live in right now in the US. I have made it a point now for years to have a ready array of good churches in my region within other denominations to recommend to others.


Sheila said...

Dear Pastor Dan: Wonderful article you have given us all !!!
I would like to tell you about the loss of my dearly beloved husband 16 mos & 2 days ago. Let me know if I may, it's about 3 pgs long though.
It is amazing that I've made it this far, but only because of our precious Saviour & Lord, I can guarantee you that !!!
Let me know if possible to send you my story.
Sincerely yours, in Christ alone,

Anonymous said...

Fr, did REAL good! Watch out, the "warm fuzzies" may take you over after all!


Unknown said...

God bless you Father Dan. One of the silver linings that has come from all of the turmoil in the Anglican Communion is that many of us have been exposed to the lives and ministries (lay and ordained) of wonderful Anglicans, Episcopalians, Christians, across our entire planet, but most especially within the United States. Thank you for your ministry and your inspiration.

God's peace.

Joe Roberts, Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana

Meditations and Musings said...

While I agree that this was, indeed, an "amazing pastoral moment", I do not think that it should have made it to a very public blog. St. Anne's is not that large of a church, nor is Warsaw that large of a city. The privacy of the person mentioned in this blog is certainly at risk, and the pastor's tone toward him (or her - I guess he could have changed genders as well as names) could be viewed as somewhat disparaging (ie. motormouth, stump speech, dude). I would be worried about the possible negative results if the person in question should happen to see or hear about this blog.

Young fogey emeritus said...

Regarding moral amnesia, sorry but yes, 'go somewhere else'.

Sorry, Father, but 'canonising' Eloise on the spot to make Bill feel better wasn't on. Why not tell him, in terms he can understand, that we don't know why these bad things happen but God knows our pain ('Jesus wept'), and that we don't know exactly where Eloise is but we believe she still is and that we can and ought to pray for the repose of her soul? Interestingly a lot of Catholic orthodoxy here, regarding Bill's questions, is about admitting what we don't know.