It is a tough topic. And, for many of us, it is an uncomfortable one. But, it is unavoidable.
I have had to overcome my own fears of being around death and dying in the last two years of nursing home ministry. In this environment, death always is nearby in space and time. It defies the comfortable platitudes and euphemisms we use to escape the imminence and inevitability of our mortality. I have had to learn to wade into that, to listen, to feel and learn the peace of Christ — the promises of our Risen Lord — in the love and communion of those who bless us with their time and presence.
I’ve been learning this, over the last two years, in ways I never could have imagined in the first 42 years of my life. And, I could spend the next 42 years studying and reading, I dare say, without learning more than one of our ministry members taught me recently in a few brief words.
This man, who we’ve grown to know personally and love deeply, recently went into hospice care. In the last few visits for Communion, he was barely able to speak, and couldn’t begin to sit up. So, when I arrived a few days ago to bring him Communion, I braced myself for the possibility he would no longer be there in body. It’s common for us to find someone’s died simply by finding their room cleaned out.
But, he was there, and he was sitting up, alert, watching TV. I set down the Communion box, and exchanged the usual pleasantries before delving into the readings and prayers for Lay Eucharistic Visitation and Unction.
“How’s it going?” I asked him.
“Just waiting,” he answered softly. His voice was neither anxious or sad. “Just waiting.” He said it like he was waiting for a train to arrive for a long-anticipated, deeply-desired journey.
I knew the answer, but asked anyway: “What are your waiting on?”
He smiled. He made the sign of the cross. And he pointed upward, jutting his index finger to an unseen but definite destination.
That simple gesture silenced anything I could have said to him. I didn’t need to say anything. He’d summed up years of study, volumes of learned text, the entire theology of our faith — all with a simple gesture of his withered index finger. He knew what lay before him, with a certainty to which most of us can only aspire.
Speaking softly, halting between words, but with a smile that didn’t fade, he taught me how we all should face this journey — not just of death, but of life.
“I have no fear,” he said softly, serenely.
Surrender. Courage. Faith. Love. I read all these in great volumes in his four labored words. To face death without fear. That is a grand measure of faith. But, then he taught more, in four simple words.
“I’ve never been happier.”
He wasn’t just facing the end of bodily life with courage. He was completely surrendered to God in a way that gave him unparalleled joy. And he’s a man who’s lived with a lot of joy. The walls were coming down between him and his Lord. And there is immeasurable joy there.
I’ve said before that I learn far more from my visits to the nursing home than I could ever teach. That was proven at a profound level in this visit. This loving, gentle man, who was not only ready, but eager, to come face-to-face with God, summed up in 10 simple words the faith I strive to live:
I have no fear.
I’ve never been happier.
In those few words he teaches us all the central promise of our faith, given to us through Jesus in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Then, Jesus asks us all this all-important question: “Do you believe this?”
My friend, with a point of his finger and 10 simple words, answered our Lord with an emphatic “Yes.” I pray to live my life and my death with that courage and faith.
I close with the prayers he and I prayed together after Communion, and that I pray tonight:
Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Hail Joseph, son of David, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among men, and blessed is our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer, pray for us and be with us, now and as we sigh our last breath. Amen.