Sunday, February 28, 2016

When people die

One of the most humbling and vital things a priest does happens when people die.

I've often thought I was privileged to be present to the 'moving on' of so many over the years. I long ago lost count at around 500 funerals I've presided over. And the time before with the one moving on and the time after with those left behind. It has been a privilege I do not deserve to be present and hopefully 'available' to people in those times.

And one of the things I give myself credit for is having no 'comforting words' at the time of moving on from this life to whatever comes next. I have no comforting words since I have absolutely no idea at all about 'whatever comes next'. I just don't know. It's that simple.

On an upside I would tell you "there are just some things I leave to God": and one of them is death.

On a more honest moment I would tell you, "I just don't know what happens next. It's that simple."

Kurt Vonnegut--perhaps my favorite writer ever--told a story about an Episcopal priest on Martha's Vineyard, where Vonnegut had a home, who would fall apart when one of the parishioners died. Vonnegut liked that about the priest and said, "there's something comforting about putting a man of God back together".

I don't 'fall apart' when people die. I am, I pray, what is called 'a non-anxious presence'. I am simply there--no answers and all.

This all comes up because Burt died and I'm presiding at his funeral tomorrow. I've known him for somewhere around 5 years (my confusion with linear time and all...) which means I've only known him in his 90's because he was 95 when he died this week.

Burt was in WW II--not many of those left--and, in the time I knew him was a dear, dear man.

I think of myself as 'getting old' and Burt was nearly 30 years older than me. Life, like Time, is relative.

If you asked me on a good day about my own death I'd tell you I'm at least as curious as troubled.

On a bad day, I'd lie and say I'm not afraid of 'that good night'....

Being at Burt's wake this afternoon, I was reminded of the poem below. I wrote it over eight years ago when I was a full-time priest. In those days I was often with 'holy ones'. Burt is the most recent of them all.

God love you, Burt. (And, though I don't 'know' much...I know God loves you.)


I drive home through pain, through suffering,
through death itself.

I drive home through Cat-scans and blood tests
and X-rays and Pet-scans (whatever they are)
and through consultations of surgeons and oncologists
and even more exotic flora with medical degrees.

I drive home through hospitals and houses
and the wondrous work of hospice nurses
and the confusion of dozens more educated than me.

Dressed in green scrubs and Transfiguration white coats,
they discuss the life or death of people I love.

And they hate, more than anything, to lose the hand
to the greatest Poker Player ever, the one with all the chips.
And, here’s the joke, they always lose in the end—
the River Card turns it all bad and Death wins.

So, while they consult and add artificial poison
to the Poison of Death—shots and pills and IV’s
of poison—I drive home and stop in vacant rooms
and wondrous houses full of memories
and dispense my meager, medieval medicine
of bread and wine and oil.

Sometimes I think…sometimes I think…
I should not drive home at all
since I stop in hospitals and houses to bring my pitiful offering
to those one step, one banana peel beneath their foot,
from meeting the Lover of Souls.

I do not hate Death. I hate dying, but not Death.
But it is often too much for me, stopping on the way home
to press the wafer into their quaking hands;
to lift the tiny, pewter cup of bad port wine to their trembling lips;
and to smear their foreheads with fragrant oil
while mumbling much rehearsed words and wishing them
whole and well and eternal.

I believe in God only around the edges.
But when I drive home, visiting the dying,
I’m the best they’ll get of all that.

And when they hold my hand with tears in their eyes
and thank me so profoundly, so solemnly, with such sweet terror
in their voices, then I know.

Driving home and stopping there is what I’m meant to do.
A little bread, a little wine and some sweet smelling oil
may be—if not enough—just what was missing.

I’m driving home, driving home, stopping to touch the hand of Death.
Perhaps that is all I can do.
I tell myself that, driving home, blinded by pain and tears,
having been with Holy Ones.

8/2007 jgb

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.