On Call: An excerpt from Paul Wilkes' In Due Season
The Body of Christ is the best medicine for body and soul, regardless of whether we are "worthy" to receive him.
"Are you a priest?"
There I was at the Lancôme counter at Belk's, Wilmington's upscale department store, searching for the perfect perfume for Tracy. And there she was, a visitor from the neighboring Chanel counter, as the distinctive logo on her smock noted. She looked at me intently through those well-etched eyes, awaiting my answer.
"N-no, I'm not a priest," I stammered.
"I remember you . . . ," she began hesitantly, as if this might not be the right place or time. She was not about to turn back now.
"When you came into my baby's room," she continued. "The helicopter was already on the pad ready to take him up to Duke Medical Center. He was sick, so sick. We thought he was going to die. I don't know your name, but I'll never forget that moment. You touched him so tenderly and blessed his tiny forehead with the sign of the cross. You gave me Holy Communion, and you said the most beautiful prayer I've ever heard. You said God would be on that helicopter with my son. And then they whisked us out of there.
"I don't know if that's all you said, but you brought a sense of calm in what must not have taken more than a couple seconds. I felt a sense of peace come over me. I did feel God was with us, and I knew," and here she hesitated, collecting herself, "I just knew from that moment on that he was going to be all right. He's now a rambunctious 6-year-old, and I just want to say," her clouded eyes broke into a mother's proud grin, "thank you."
One Sunday morning in the weekly bulletin at St. Mary, our Wilmington parish, the call went out for extraordinary ministers. There was an opening for a person to visit New Hanover Regional Medical Center, our largest hospital, each Thursday morning. Not knowing exactly what that entailed, I agreed, and was schooled in the ritual of distributing the Eucharist by an unsmiling woman from the diocese, with all the compassion and pastoral skills of a Marine drill sergeant, who talked about the Eucharist as if it were fissionable material, which, if mishandled, would signal the utter and immediate destruction of the Catholic Church.
"Always ask if they are in the state of grace. Ascertain if they are in a proper marriage. At a minimum, be sure they have done their Easter duty. Under no circumstances . . . " She didn't so much frighten as exhaust me with her many admonitions. I would have to see for myself what being an extraordinary minister was all about.
Over the many Thursdays that followed, I gave Holy Communion to some 4,000 people. I was honored to touch the faces of the living and the newly dead. I was welcomed and was occasionally angrily told to leave. I stood with a spouse whose loved one had just received a terminal diagnosis. I was in the room when all tests came back negative. Each Thursday morning offered me a time to be humbled and dazzled by the deep faith of these men and women. Through these patients I came to a clearer understanding of my own life, my church, and my God.
What follows is taken from various visits, but let us call it a richly representative Thursday, for each Thursday presented its own unique chapter in the book of lives.
My first stop is the small chapel on the first floor. I approach the simple altar beneath a pane of backlit stained glass ubiquitous enough to offend none and embrace all. The Bible is open to Psalm 103, one of my favorites.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of his benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit;
Who crowns you with loving-kindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
Yes, the eagle. I bow my head and ask that I would be a worthy bearer of the gift borne in the tender talons of that mighty eagle.
In Room 940 is Edna, a black woman in her 50s, who when I introduce myself ("Good morning; Paul Wilkes from St. Mary with Holy Communion for you") immediately apologizes that she's been away from the church, but assures me she is coming back. It is a frequent first volley: Guilt finely honed by my church.
I look into her bright eyes and say, "Well, I wouldn't worry too much about that right now, Edna; the church has come to you. We deliver!" She smiles.
I come closer to her bed. Is this 8 o'clock in the morning in Room 940, or is it the vineyard at day's end? And didn't the vineyard owner see that the needs of those who hadn't had the opportunity to put in a full day's work are really no different from those who had worked all day long? Each needed to be fed, each acknowledged as having done their best, having given their time, with whatever abilities they had.
The popular "What Would Jesus Do?" litmus test-both a subterfuge for appalling abuse and grounds for grace-filled acts-might seem a bit facile a way to guide my actions. But, quite honestly, it seems to make more pastoral sense than the third degree recommended by my Grand Inquisitor eucharistic instructor. Well, what would Jesus do? I am not Jesus, so I can't know for sure. And I am not a priest, so I cannot hear her Confession, which she might normally do before receiving Communion. But does a simple Act of Contrition rising up from this hospital bed from a woman in an advanced stage of respiratory failure and pneumonia not reach the ear of God?
"Edna, before we approach the altar together, so that you might receive this precious gift, let's lay down the burden of our sins," I say. We begin the Act of Contrition together: "O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee . . . "
My prayer complete, I look down at Edna. I hold the host in the still air before her. The only sound is the muffled gurgling of the machine valiantly trying to cleanse her compromised lungs. "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to this, his eternal banquet. O, Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." I add, "And you are healed, Edna. Your sins are behind you now. Even before you thought about whatever it was you did or didn't do that you felt was sinful, God forgave you. You are as pure and clean and sinless as you were the day you were born, and Christ awaits you with open arms."
Edna takes the host. Her simple act of exhaling, audibly, is like a song wafted heavenward, a release of her worries and pain. The next inhalation will be purely divine.
What gives me the authority to offer the Eucharist without prior questioning, to speak like this to her? I wonder about that sometimes myself, but when I look into the eyes of someone like Edna-or Frank or Althea or Samuel or Blake or Miriam-I find myself carried along on the wings of something. Is this the Holy Spirit? I really don't know exactly what it is. But I am there in person; Christ is there, invisible. Although he is the one we turn to, I am the only physical presence, the only sound available. I must-I want to-as much as I can, bring the forgiveness of God I have felt in my own life. I want to impart something of the love that sends shivers down my arms. I want those I visit to experience the presence that is so palpable each time I open the pyx. I want them to know the abiding trust that washes over me in my lowest moments that somehow, some way, everything will be all right. He is with us; we are not alone.
As I enter a room, I never know whether it will be a crucifixion of pain or the last hour of painless stay, whether the person's beliefs and makeup are standing her in good stead or failing her, whether he is close to Catholicism or had long ago set it aside. Some are annoyed by my presence, but very few. Even those who prefer not to receive the Eucharist will most often accept a prayer, which I offer with as much specificity as I can, and quickly, so as not to overstay my welcome.
I have found that it is not the degree of pain, the seriousness of their disease or illness, the level of their religious practice, or even the imminence of death that separates those who seem somehow at peace and those who are not. All are afraid. Every one of us is terrified just being in a hospital bed. Early on, I would have said that it is faith that draws the line. But now I think it is something else.
It is anger, its presence or absence.
Anger that life was not fair to them, that people were not fair with them, that God seemed to look away just when they needed him the most. If they are not burdened by some variation of simmering resentment and they come to the conclusion that the germ/bad gene/virus/the cells multiplying too quickly or those too depleted to regenerate-even the shoe they tripped over that landed them here-were more sheer happenstance than evidence of divine wrath, then they seem to do better.
Such is not the case for Anna in Room 540. There is a rosary on Anna's bedside table, a book of spiritual reading on her lap, a crucifix wedged behind the bulletin board on the wall. But I find all these are of little avail, because there is so much anger in Anna's soul. I had seen her many times before that day, in fact almost from the first diagnosis of ovarian cancer. An attractive, self-assured woman in her mid-50s, she had lost her long, luxuriant auburn hair and regrown the stubble of a more curly variety.
Usually as a fatal disease dully marches on to its inevitable end, people release themselves from the unfairness of it all. Not Anna. Her husband had left her many years before, but the wound was still fresh. Her children didn't come to visit-or at least not often enough for her. Her jobs-to my mind, substantial-had never fulfilled her. "I have my faith," she says, clutching the rosary so tightly that her knuckles were white. "Thank God I have my faith."
Hers is not a faith that I can easily understand. Hers is a brittle pact with a hateful God who never allows anything to happen the way we might want and always frustrates us whenever we have even the least chance of being happy on earth. A God who believes we must suffer in a vale of tears so that we might better appreciate the paradise that awaits us.
Anna recites again the familiar litany of grievances as I stand there, pyx in hand. I listen. I retrieve a host. She stops and stares at me. "Lord, you are present in the room with us today," I begin, and go on to pray that this would be a good and restful day for Anna and that she would sense Christ's presence as she takes the host, that she would feel him permeating her body with his holiness and that she would know that he stands by the bed all day long. I place the host on her tongue and stand back, my head bowed, for a few moments.
"Anna, he's with you now," I say softly. "If there is anything at all, you can let him carry it. He loves you. He wants your happiness; he wants you to know that you can rest in him and there is nothing to fear."
"I'm not afraid of anything," she says defiantly. "But they should only know what they're doing to me, what they have done to me, what they . . ."
I stand at the door and wave back to her. She pulls the sheet up closer and begins the rosary.
In Room 213, all I can do is cry.
For there is not-so-young Elisabeth with a baby boy nestled at her breast. To see the love in that woman's eyes, that sleeping child with unblemished skin and soul-I can't restrain myself. I touch his smooth cheek, play with his tiny toes, and finally bless the child's forehead with the sign of the cross. He stirs, as if he already feels God's presence. I begin my prayer. "Dear God, here we have this beautiful baby-a sign of your love, this mother's love, a father's love. Be with him to guide him so that he grows into a compassionate, kind, yet strong boy and young man. That he will always hear your voice even when the noises of the world tend to drown out everything. That he will be an obedient son, yet a man of his own mind. Bless him and this good woman, Elisabeth, we pray in your strong name, Jesus. Amen."
I look at Elisabeth. "In this tiny piece of bread, Elisabeth, is the God of ages. Here. Right here in this room on the first day of your son's life. He comes to give you the strength to be the mother you know you can be. He'll be with you in those late nights when you don't think you have another ounce of energy. He'll never leave your side." I begin the eucharistic prayer: "This is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those-"
"But, but I haven't been to church in so long, really since college," she says.
"I'm Catholic, and I will have my son baptized, but my husband isn't much of a churchgoer. I don't know how God looks on all this. It's so confusing."
I look down at her, the early morning sun making the host almost translucent. "This is food for your journey of life, Elisabeth. It isn't a reward for good behavior. What kind of God do you think he is, to offer this beautiful food on this incredible morning and then say, ‘No, Elisabeth, sorry-you don't qualify. I've checked your bar code and you're not in the system.' That's not the God that I know." After her Act of Contrition, Elisabeth receives, her tears mingling with the host, a tear, then another, gently falling onto the cheek of her precious son.
The sign on Room 6 says to see the nurse before entering, and I know what this usually means. I check with the nurse and then slowly open the door. The light from the reading lamp bathes Michael in a saffron-colored, ethereal glow. He is still, a not unfamiliar pose for the terminally ill. He appears to be sleeping. I look for the telltale sign. The pressed sheet over what the cancer has left of his once-broad chest (the pictures on the dresser show a robust Army corporal during World War II, in what appears to be a French village) is still.
There are so many moments of grace in the small ministry I perform, but this is a truly magnificent one. When death seems to have happened. I say it that way because death is not marked by the absence of a pulse or by a straight line on an electrocardiogram. Death happens over stages, and the dying are with us in the world one minute and in communion with God the next. Back and forth they travel. I have seen this over and over again. The face of someone who is seemingly comatose bears a beatific look that assures you that the person is already visiting the other side.
I feel honored to be with the earthly shell as the soul is finally released to go home. What is my prayer? First of all, I know I am praying to the newest saint in heaven. Now that Michael sees the face of God-and understands everything-I pray that he will intercede and pray for me, still thrashing through my days. I don't pray that he or I will get to heaven. That is a given. Could God deny anyone a return home? I pray that whatever this day will bring, I will do the next thing right. That I will not be, quite frankly, the jackass I have the propensity to be. That I will walk the streets of Wilmington with the eyes of Christ, that Wilmington will be my Jerusalem or Galilee or Capernaum.
Of course, that is a lot to ask of Michael, but I hope-no, I am sure-he understands my needs.
I walk out to my car, my rounds completed. I have just visited with a representative cross section of Catholic America. It made little difference what their level of observance or supposed worthiness might be. The God of the ages, the Christ who promised his friends that he would not leave them alone, had once again fulfilled his promise. He had come to them, and whether they labored in the vineyard all day or for just a fleeting moment, they received the greatest gift my church can offer them.
Once again, I had been given the privilege to see scripture come alive. I had felt the power of the presence of God.