Keeping Vigil

Mark Kelly

The image of astronaut Captain Mark Kelly shown by the hospital bedside touched my heart this past week. It is impossible to know what he is really thinking, but very easy to imagine the love, the hope, the tenderness and compassion as he is keeping vigil over his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, after the shooting in Tucson. Keeping vigil is a holy spiritual practice.

I am keeping vigil this week. Beloved ones of mine are living in what may be their dwindling earthly days: one of my first counselors, who became a colleague and friend; a mentor in the ways of church order and politics; and our beloved dog, beleaguered with an irreparable larynx condition, There are others besides who are suffering, who are ill, who are in despair. And I can only keep vigil.

Keeping vigil is described in some traditions as staying a alert as a devotional exercise in order to discover something. Some hospice programs offer vigil keepers to those who are waiting, for a diagnosis, or an outcome, or closure. Those watchers offer a calm presence, companionship, talking if desired, listening, or keeping silence, touching to heal. And what are the discoveries? Maybe they are known only to God.

I feel called to keep vigil, and I am finding out what a demanding practice it is. There is no predictable schedule, so I feel out of control. There is no road map to show when and how the day will develop, so I feel lost. There are no tricks or sleight of hand, so sometimes I feel ill-equipped to be of use.

But the vigil needs to be kept. This prayer attributed to St. Augustine keeps me on task:

Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give your angels and saints charge over all who sleep. Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Shield your joyous ones, and all for Your love’s sake. Amen.

And so I flex the trembling sinews of my good intention to remain faithful to the call to keep vigil. I pray in the tradition of the Quakers by holding each beloved one up to the Light. I keep touch by phone, e-mail, visit, and take responses with equanimity, not with personal affront, when plans are changed, times are inconvenient, or expectations are not met. I pray for my own stamina to be steadfast and to be elastic in the hours of waiting, wondering, toughing it out. It feels like holy work, this work of presence. I cannot do it with only the skills sets I have learned to order my life. I call on, even presume on, the Presence of the Spirit for my Beloved Ones and for myself.

And I wait, knowing that even as I am holding the hand of this one who belongs to God my other hand is being held by the One who will never let me go.

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  • Paul Phillips

    Dear Spiritual Muser,

    Blessings to you and your loved ones. Thank you for your insights into “Keeping A Vigil.” Really hit home for me. Born in Tucson and on Jan. 8th, I struggled with words to say to the parishioners, but God gave me freedom to be honest, hurt and tearful. I suspect that keeping a vigil is exactly what we do as pastors. This morning I was at a local hospital with family members whose 94 years young father had an emergency appendectomy. I sat with five daughters and 1 son, and just listened to their stories. After an hour and hearing that the patient did well, we prayed and I left, and the vigil keeps on. I am truly grateful and feel so privileged for every ministry opportunity. And Tucson reminded me of something you taught us in EIM class, my first seminary class in the Fall of ’98. It’s okay to ask the question, “Where is God?” in tragic events, in disasters and keeping asking and looking until you find God’s presence never goes away. God is always there, was there! Paul

  • Mary

    Blessed are all those who live under the canopy of your prayerful vigil of your love!

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