To back up: there has suddenly been a great deal of mortality, and of leave-taking, and of enforced letting-go in my narrow window of life lately. To list a few:
- the valediction of a close friend so beleaguered with cancer that she is not expected to recover from a precipitous and a shocking decline; her prognosis a matter of weeks
- a daughter who has suddenly chosen to depart the nest well before expectations; the house an echoing emptiness
- a memorial service for Mandela here in the greatest Cathedral in this 'city of churches'; joy and sadness fused together
- and today, an urgent, death-bed visit to a beloved church member; the faces of her family at the bedside a shattered landscape of grief
This last bereavement, especially, has hammered home some of the paradoxes of ministry that are still revealing themselves to me, newbie that I am: I was today both utterly useless and yet absolutely required.
To be clear: in our ministry education, we received no formal training in these matters. No clever theory, no strategies, no tactical psychology. Perhaps the wise heads who decided I was a fit candidate for the role, saw something in me which made them feel I could handle times like this. But whenever I go into such a situation, I am far from sure I will know how to respond.
And when I'm far from sure, I pray. How sweetly old-school. How charmingly naïve. How (what is the word?) weak.
And, again, to be clear: when I pray, I talk to my best self to find my highest thought, my most loving disposition, my deepest feeling. If the divine is in any sense within us, I would recognise it in these guises. But it does not talk back to me. Not in words at any rate. Nevertheless, I find it opens a clear channel, and steadies the tossing dinghy of my heart on the heaving seas around me.
Unitarianism can feel a bit mealy-mouthed at times like these. What should a Unitarian minister say to someone who is dying before them, reaching out to them for succour, the certainty of mortality snapping at one's heels? Shall I ask if they've made 'arrangements'? Shall I go all spooky and talk in vague terms about the great mystery to which all must go? Shall I offer wry and dapper observations about how in life we are always in the midst of death? Shall I give them false, comforting hope?
Shall I quote Emerson?
Today, you see, the oddest thing happened.
Having prayed on the way and met only the usual silence, I went in disarmed. I held her hand, stroked her head, sat with her laboured breathing for what seemed like ages, but wasn't.
And then I leaned over and whispered into her ear this clutch of words from my childhood faith. Words I thought I'd forgotten, that simply bobbed to the surface from somewhere:
Which, in it's most recent, hippest, Unitarian-disinfected translation, might read;
Yes, Bible fans. It's the song of Simeon from the Luke gospel (the one most interested in the nativity and early life of Jesus). Simeon was a faithful, elderly Jew whom God had promised would not die until he had seen the saviour. And when he had, he simply let go of hanging on to life, and was at peace.
Though I did feel a squeeze of the hand, I will never be sure if she heard me or not, barely conscious as she was. But in the corridor, the talk among the family was of letting her go, of our letting go of her, of honouring her DNS wishes, and how we would support her grieving husband of 6 decades. And love. All the important stuff. There was a gentle acceptance and peace.
I'm not taking credit for anything. I'm not especially clever in navigating the tigerish waters of violent feeling. All I know is this: I prayed and something helpful was revealed.
And though I've spent this day waiting by the phone for the inevitable call, and in melancholic mood, it is hard not to feel blessed.
Because you see lately, I've been seriously questioning why I got into this job/role/vocation. Soul-sickened by the usual internal politics of church systems, irritated by the inertia of sloth and selfishness that attend a fundamentally conservative cohort, maddened by its lack of vision and mission and relevance, beset by its internalized consumer-model mindset of expectation, demand, and complaint. So much ME and so little WE. And even less of what's really important.
But suddenly none of that matters a toss any more. I, too, let go.
Today, this day, this is what I was for, what it was all for--ready or not. That I got what was needed says far more about the workings of God (or whatever you will) than about me. Its says things about perspective and priorities, about life and death.
And maybe even a little thing called "grace".
"From the gods who sit in grandeur/ grace comes somehow violent."