It’s All Saints Day, 2022. I am involved in a training to serve as a chaplain at the upcoming polls during the US midterm elections. I was joking with a friend of mine, who lives in Flanders, that I was hoping I would not be called upon to perform Last Rites during the voting. Humor is how I deal with my anxiety. Always have.
My comment prompted me to remember the many saints that have contributed to my life. But also, it got me thinking about my remarkable introduction to the use of Last Rites in my pastoral ministry. Having served as the inimitable “youth minister” and as an “ass” pastor (associate pastor) in the local South of God iteration of church for a number of years, I knew something of pastoral presence. I had walked alongside an adolescent as he negotiated a long death from cancer. I had buried a teenager hit and killed by a car while riding his bike to school. Not just the usual youth minister with a guitar in one hand, a football in the other, with some bodacious “hip” in his back pocket, I thought of my work as a ministry to young people and their families. I learned a lot during this amazing time.
As the Associate Pastor of a key progressive South of God outpost, where Jimmy Carter was once a member, my role was specifically pastoral, working with persons struggling to make sense out of a faith that they had outgrown. And, my pastoral work extended to the therapy of couples who were both seeking to grow and to recover from the ever-present rocks and boulders in the flow of life. My job also entailed visiting in the hospitals, offering a listening ear, and a spontaneous prayer. I often felt entirely inadequate…meaning that I was not suffering from the common pastoral psychosis of thinking I had all the answers. I was acutely aware of my inexperience and what I did not know.
When I “transitioned” into the Episcopal Church, I found that I had some tools that I had not had in my previous life. They are called sacramentals, signs and symbols of the community of faith that were transportable, that is, they “traveled” well from the regular Sunday worship to where people were living their lives. As a priest, I carried them with me as a “connector” between the person shipwrecked in a hospital ward, re-minding them of a deeper reality, transcending their designation as a patient, or a history on a chart, or a prognosis, sunny or dire. They were a person of the community of faith: connected, significant, and of worth.
Those tools were sort of simple, I guess, by design. First, I presented myself, “showed up” with this white round collar, perched on a black clergy shirt. In the past, I wore a blazer, maybe a polo shirt if I were feeling sporty or on the way to the golf course. A clergy collar broadcasts an identity that carries a message: this is important. I mean business! Whether you cherished that clerical presence, were scared by the dire implications, or rejected it as quaint, you HAD to deal with it. I can’t tell you how many times that simple collar moved the dialogue right to the heart of the matter, rather than wasting time in chatty exchange.
And there’s the bread and wine, the Blessed Sacrament, that I bore in a variety of vehicles. One, a box with a silver chalice and small plate, two small cruets with wine and water, if I were to consecrate the elements with prayer at the bedside rolling altar. Or, as I came to know as more efficacious, or in my terms, have more “stroke”, the sacrament from the congregation, already blessed in the congregation’s worship on Sunday morning. Nothing seemed to carry that spiritual truth of connection with more powerful valence than the Blessed Sacrament.
My secret weapon was a sacramental most of my priest colleagues seemed to miss: oil, or the sacramental name, chrism. This was a small vial of oil that had been blessed by the Bishop, given to priests at Holy Week, when we renewed our priestly vows. My bishop, Judson, who I have mentioned often, would go to great lengths to put a special scent into the oil that he was blessing, From his Anglo-Catholic raising, he knew of the power of our olfactory sense, particularly in extremis, when other senses were fading or failed. Anointing the forehead of a person, as I traced the sign of the Cross on their forehead as they reclined in a sick bed literally re-minded them of their identity as a member of Christ’s Body, especially if given an assist by a whiff of the Divine Presence. I would do that regularly when visiting the sick, regardless of the seriousness of the malady. I often found it broke through years of sedimentation of religiosity to a deeper soul space, making way for a spiritual connection.
The Prayer Book was another point of connection. For those who grew up in the Anglican tradition,The Book (Book of Common Prayer) had special symbolic power, one of the reasons that we catch Hell when we try to update it or change it. I am often surprised by the ignorance of long-tenured priests who casually make changes, surprised by the reaction. The changes are often called for but we forget the symbolic function, particularly among people who have every part of their life in seemingly continuous turmoil. Reading a Psalm, an ancient prayer or liturgical form can go deep, and quickly in a pastoral exchange.
You would expect that depth of reverence from one who “grew up” with the Prayer Book, but what of those of us who are newbies, freshly-minted Episcopalians, many who are spiritual refugees from fundamentalist Bible thumpers, whose rectal muscles could turn black coal into diamonds. For those of us who come from such tight spaces, the Book of Common Prayer represents a life-preserver that kept our heads above the water of relativity and the sea of uncertainty. It symbolizes a freedom that unleashes us, liberates us. And, even though our exposure is brief, our loyalty can be fierce, for this is our deliverer.
A priest does well to remember the power of these sacramentals. It is easy to take them too casually, to handle them with a familiarity that does not honor their magical, mystical connective power. They should come with a warning label: Handle With Care!…but often.
My entrance into this world of sacramentals came at a peculiar time. It was when AIDS was bursting onto the scene in this country, and in particular, Atlanta. I remember meeting with the main CDC doctors with the Bishop as they were trying to explain their take on the disease in the early days of the outbreak. They were trying to avoid hysteria, the main agenda of communicable disease officials. We, of course, were interested in the “communicability” of the disease. How was this disease transmitted? Were there reasons for caution in terms of Holy Communion? The scientists/doctors went through extensive explanations of the etiology of the virus, using sophisticated experimental terms that left the Bishop’s mitre spinning. My biology let me hang with them enough to end our conversation with a scary conclusion: So bottom line, you guys don’t know. They nodded, reluctantly. It led us to try on an evolving protocol of how to safely “do” communion, protecting the uninfected, but as we were surprised to learn, more importantly, protecting AIDS patients from our infectious diseases to which they were especially vulnerable.
Our Cathedral parish had a large gay population, resulting in a number of members early on being hospitalized with the mysterious and deadly disease. We had large numbers at a variety of local hospitals, which I would visit daily. The clinical protocol was to gown up, sterile gloves, and face mask to insure that you would not catch the disease, nor spread it. These conditions only accentuated the sense of isolation for the patient, which was profound in this time of anxiety. I made a point to touch the patients and to anoint them with oil, although the clinicians were fearful of allowing these very sick patients to receive communion. It was a scary time for all involved.
Slowly the procedures changed, becoming less stringent, but the sense of the unknown hung over the room. The damnable thing was that most patients were young men with strong hearts, meaning that while their lungs were filling with fluid, their hearts would beat strong, prolonging the end for many. And many would rally, gratefully, but only to go through the hellacious process again.
The other issue that repeated in many situations was that the patient’s parents were discovering that their child had this deadly, mysterious disease at the same time that they found out that their son was homosexual. This made for some very difficult and painful moments for both the patient and their families. I found myself in a mixture of roles, facilitating, counseling, educating, and blessing.
At the time of death, there is a powerful set of prayers provided by the Book of Common Prayer. While it may occur as a one-on-one event with the priest and the person near death, I have found the power in the communal setting, particularly when the family is present. An opening prayer naming the tight space of death sets the stage, followed by the Litany at the Time of Death, a remembrance of one’s baptism and connection with Christ, a pardoning of all sins, the promise of a place with the other saints in light. This is a call-and-response that is beneficial for the person who is in the process of dying as well as those gathered in support.
There follows a common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which unites the participants in a common act of prayer. When I did this liturgy for a bishop who was dying in a nursing home, the previously unresponsive bishop joined in mouthing the words of the Lord’s Prayer, leaving one to wonder how and when he was present to the action. This concludes with this prayer: Deliver your servant, (the name of the person), O Sovereign Lord Christ, set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with your Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Then comes a powerful moment of commendation, which I ask those gathered to join me in saying: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ, who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.
I have been surprised that often the person dies in that very moment. I believe it is because they are experiencing their loved ones giving them permission to let go. That is why I always prep those gathered, both to explain the liturgy but also to make sure that they are ready and willing to give this commendation.
This is followed by a beautiful pastoral prayer offered by the attending clergyperson: Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, (name of the person). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
There are other prayers for a vigil that may be used as this dying process continues, though my experience is that the prior liturgy brings significant closure and peace. I learned so much about the power of sacramental symbol, about priestly presence, and my own sense of mortality as I sojourned in the peculiar valley of the shadow of death. I carried those lesson with me into the rest of my work.
As I am writing this on All Saints Day, I was reminded by a friend, Professor Rex Matthews, of the names of the faculty from Emory’s Candler School of Theology who have departed this life, leaving a legacy of faithfulness and excellence. Names that come to my mind are Jim Fowler, my advisor and boss, Ted Jennings, my Lullwater partying colleague, Chuck Gerkin, Jim Hopewell, and Fred Craddock, just to name a few. What a gift they gave to me.
I encourage you to Pause, breathe deeply, remembering the natural exchange of air that takes place in inhaling and exhaling, and recall those saints who have funded you with their energy and love.
And why just think about those who have departed? Why not Pause and reflect on those who are giving you energy in your life this very day? I am thinking particularly of a group of people who I meet with regularly to explore the nature of Creativity and how we can interact among those with differing perspectives and concerns, coming away with a value-added result. In our current bifurcated, polarized culture, it’s an ambitious goal, but one that seems crucial. We call it Creative Interchange, and I have written about it here earlier in the year. People like my Franciscan brother, Charlie Palmgren, Mike Murray of Texas, John Scherer of Poland ( my Big Three) and my new colleagues, Johan from Flanders, and Cedric from Mayberry. These folks feed me with their brilliance, their spirit, and humor. I am grateful for the saints in my life, from the rich past, the pulsing present, and those waiting on the horizon of the future. A gift, indeed.
Again, I encourage you to Pause, thinking of those persons in your life who enrich your existence. You might go all South of God and actually count your blessings, as the old hymn says, and name them one by one.
All Saints Day is a red-letter day, fueled by a sense of connection that yields a deep experience of gratitude. If you missed the actual day, November 1st, you have my permission, encouragement even, to take on this spiritual exercise at this very moment. Pause, and be grateful. Experientially breathe deep this air that connects us all. Blessings.