One of the roles I have as a parish deacon is to be a visiting hospital chaplain. I get the opportunity, under ‘normal’ circumstances, along with other chaplaincy volunteers, to visit people who find themselves in hospital and be the link with the Church for them during their stay. Most times this will either involve bringing them Holy Communion or praying with them and giving them a blessing. But, also on most occasions, it is the chance for them to have a chat with a different face. This is a real privilege, and I find myself being let into the lives of people I hardly know.
Being in hospital often gives people time to think and contemplate many parts of their life. It is not uncommon for me to hear the line, “I’m sorry, but I don’t go to church much these days.” They are obviously relieved when I tell them that I’m not there to check up on their Mass attendance, or how many times they say their prayers, and we soon move onto talking about the situation they find themselves in. In their times of thought, many tell me that they think about God and what that actually means in their life.
Sometimes it is the thought of our own mortality that guides our wondering about God, and many times the subject of dying arises. A while ago, whilst on my regular visits to the hospital I got to know a gentleman quite well over a period of about a month. He was in hospital after having had a fall, which further exacerbated his existing medical conditions. Consequently he was receiving palliative care, knowing that in the not too distant future he would die. After a couple of weeks of our visits, he asked to be anointed with the Sacrament of the Sick and to go to confession, so I duly arranged for one of our priests to attend.
A few days later I visited him again, and his health was markedly deteriorating. We sat and chatted, during which he told me how much he felt at peace now with God and his life. Admittedly, he still felt as if he didn’t want to die, but now felt less apprehensive about ‘the next step’, as he put it. His biggest fear was no longer his future, but he was afraid for how his family would cope and come to terms with his not being there. He told me that he was trying to do three things to put his mind at rest:
1. Make a written list of instructions for all the things that were his jobs in their household.
2. Talk to his family and actually express his love for them in words, rather than it be unspoken.
3. Pray each day that God would look after them.
Now two things really stood out for me about his actions. Firstly that he was able to come to terms with the fact he had no control over what was going to happen to him, and secondly, he had gone from a place of not really being concerned with his faith, to a point of almost total trust in the love of God.
When I reflected on all of this, it struck me that although his faith had effectively been dormant for some considerable time, this was a living example of the unconditional way in which God loves us. The image of God sitting patiently waiting for us to realise how much we need Him is really quite beautiful. It very much reminds me of the priest sitting in the confessional in an empty church – just waiting in case someone wants the Lord. There is no limit to God’s patience.
But I also believe there is a message for us all in this experience, and the many hospital chaplains that I speak to will be able to tell a very similar story. We don’t have to wait for the reality of nearing the end of our life to be seeking to be close to God. Waiting patiently for each individual is a God who responds to all who call to Him, whether in times of need or not.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t go to church much these days.” isn’t a measure of how God’s infinite love is given to us. Going to church obviously brings us closer to Him because we are nourished by Word and Sacraments, and helps us to live as part of the family of Christ here on earth. It also gives us an opportunity and focus to experience the love of God firsthand.
Just over a week after our conversation, I received a call from the ward at the hospital to say that this man’s family had asked if I could come and bless him as the end was very near. I felt very humbled and privileged to be able to take Holy Communion (viaticum) to my dying friend. I shared the prayers of the dying with him and his family around the bedside, and later that night the Lord took him back to Himself.
In those moments when we feel lost, let us always remember that waiting patiently for us, whatever the circumstances, there is God whose love for us is infinite.
Deacon Ian Black