|Painting by Charlie Mackesy|
Sitting at my kitchen table feeling bruised and sore of soul, the prayer of Psalm 31 comes spontaneously and audibly to my lips – “In you O Lord I take refuge, let me never be put to shame…into your hands I commend my spirit.” It’s the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. “With Christ I hang upon the Cross!” – St. Paul locating me, telling me where I belong. The Cross being the bed of the woman ravaged by covid-19, gasping, dying of it; it is the grave by which I stand, the grave of one who died of the virus.
The seasons, especially the spiritual ones, keep arriving before their time. A priest from Scotland says that we are in a long Holy Saturday since the pandemic arrived last year. I feel that I am in a Good Friday, that I am somehow crucified with Christ as a result of my decision to suspend public worship. It’s one thing to obey a decision made by Bishops and Government but it’s quite another to make the decision myself and stand by it. I would like to please everyone. This, however, is not about pleasing but protecting. People had said to me, “follow your gut” but my gut is shredded and I can only discern the right thing in blind faith. I found John Michael Talbot’s version of Psalm 31 and listened to it in the silent turmoil in which I find myself.
I phoned Maureen’s son who told me she was still hanging in there so I went straight away to anoint her. She looked very close to death. Yet when her son told her that I was there she opened her eyes, looked at him first, then at me and smiled. She was radiant! And she joined in the prayers, expressing profound gratitude when we had finished, blessing me in the way elders do. Before leaving it occurred to me that I should remind her that she was created in the image and likeness of God, that I see the face of God in her. She cried a little and said, “what a beautiful thing to say!”
What a beautiful thing Divine Providence is that God brought about such a moment in our lives, a reminder to me that, whatever about my self-doubt, it is God who is guiding me through my days, through closure and isolation, through openness and encounter, through sickness and health, through weakness and strength.
There have been a number of other anointings of people suffering with the virus from as young as 26 and as old as 94. Some of them have died. May they rest in peace and some have made a kind of recovery. Some are serene and surrendered as a result of life-long faith in God. Some are naturally afraid of what is happening to them. And they are all isolated and lonely for their loved ones who cannot be with them. It is an incredibly lonely reality on a human level, that sacred humanity which Christ took to himself.
The nurses are wonderful. It is they who welcome me when I enter a ward and they patiently help me through the process of putting on the protective clothing which I am very awkward with, especially in intensive care. There is an air of calm in them. Someone asked if I am afraid being with patients who have the virus. I am not afraid at all because I somehow lose myself when I am with each person. I become the person of Christ for them which is essentially what and who a priest is. My only fear is that I might bring the virus to others.
And it’s amazing how Jesus touches other people in the ward when they listen to the prayers of anointing and the words of Scripture that are spoken. Other patients who are not Catholics have called me to their bed to thank me for the prayers and say how much it has help them.
What has come home to me very strongly during the past week is the importance of the one person as distinct from the gathering of the many in community at the Eucharist. The ministry of Jesus is very personal as well as communitarian. He calls people by their personal name; He ministers to individuals as well as to the multitude.
He left the ninety-nine in order to find the one who was lost (Luke 15:4-7). One gets lost in all sorts of different ways and I believe that this Word of God in the Gospel is being fulfilled in me at the moment, for the time being. It doesn’t mean that He abandons the rest of the flock but for the present it is the lost one who needs to be found and the finding of the one somehow is for the good of the whole flock who in their charity want the lost to be found and cared for. When one part suffers, all the rest suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12:26). It is not the healthy who need the doctor but the sick.
It is hard for sincere Catholics to be deprived of the sacraments at any time and I am very conscious of the many throughout this parish who have had to live alone without Jesus in Holy Communion for long periods. What is remarkable is how uncomplaining older people are. They have a faith solid as a rock that absolutely trusts God when He is absent in this way, a faith that understands that He has a way of reaching them in whatever circumstance they find themselves. These have learned to wait, to understand that waiting is a call from God and that the spiritual hunger that is deprived of its essential food is one of the best preparations for a deeper and worthier encounter with God. The grace of Baptism is active, the grace by which we were all claimed for Christ and belong to Him in every situation.
What continues to sustain me is the care people in the parish and beyond have for my wellbeing. The children who arrive at the door, standing back a safe distance to give me cards filled with hearts and kisses and of course chocolate and biscuits. The brother and sister who found a heart shaped stone on the beach and decide to send it to me “so that you know you are loved” and the dinners that people have had delivered to my door. In all of this I see the priesthood of Christ being lived out in His faithful.
In the temple of my body, within the sanctuary of my soul I come to the table of the Most Holy Trinity, taking my place there. It is the place from which the sacrifice of Jesus comes, it is the place of spiritual childhood, the child who is fed by the Father who opens His holy hands that contain the blessing that is needed for the day.
“All of these look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it, they gather it up. You open your hand; they have their fill.” (Psalm 104)