Many thanks to my friend and colleague Jim Somerville, who suggested that our recent conversation be turned into this blog entry. Whether or not YOU thank him after reading it is another matter altogether.
I have recently begun reading a book my sister in law gave me called Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I like it so far, which is to say that I don’t hate it and I don’t love it, but I am still open to the possibility of either. Last night I was reading part of the book where a priest gives last rites and anointing to a man who is dying.
Here’s how the scene goes: “Let us ask the Lord to come to our brother with His merciful love, and grant him relief through this holy anointing.” Father Arguedas touched his thumb to his tongue because he needed something wet and could think 0f nothing else. He marked the [man’s] forehead, saying, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Well, I missed class the day they taught anointing in seminary, so I did not immediately resonate with this part of the book. I’ll admit that I feel a little shaky in situations which might potentially call for some kind of anointing.
I was thinking about this last night when, as often happens to me, several different areas of my life converged (or collided, depending on how you look at it). I received a telephone call that a long-time member of the church had been rushed to the emergency room at a nearby hospital.
Now, I am not one of those folks who has to work to overcome nausea upon entering the front doors of a hospital or nursing home, but I do freely admit that the busy emergency room in a large downtown DC hospital is not exactly my favorite place to hang out. Last night, I confess, it was downright abysmal. Patients lined the hallways, many of them in clearly serious medical crises, even to my untrained eye. Moans and cries, retching and weeping were the soundtrack of the experience, along with a few beeping IV machines and approaching sirens. Not the most serene environment.
The nurse said I’d have to locate our church member somewhere in the hallways of the ER, so I spent a good 15 minutes peering around curtains, looking under sheets and surveying gurneys. An experience worthy of a Discovery Health Channel episode (Pastors in the ER!), yes, but not really all that fun, truth be told. When I finally located our church member she was propped up on a gurney under a bright light in the hallway, dozing. It looked to me like she’d had a rough day, lips chapped until they were cracked, blanket bunched around her feet, eyes heavy with exhaustion, obviously still in quite a lot of pain.
As I approached her bed I wondered, as I often do in these situations, what I might possibly have to offer that might give some consolation, ease some pain, bring some resolution. It sure seemed at that moment like a pat on the arm and offer to pray was insignificant, if not laughable.
But I stood there for awhile and held her hand; I listened to her recounting of her harrowing day, I hugged her and rubbed her back and prayed with her, and after I did all of these things I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to lay my hands gently on her head and say something like, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may God’s face shine upon you . . .” because, in the middle of all that pain, it was clear to me some kind of anointing was in order.
But remember, I missed that day in seminary and, anyway, I’m not sure that I am quite holy enough to learn how to anoint someone in the official churchy way. Plus, as my friend Jim asked, “What do you get from an anointing anyway, except a greasy forehead??!” and, frankly, I think he might have a good point.
But last night as I stood there in the middle of all that holy chaos I had a sudden realization (I love those, don’t you?). I realized that, just that very morning I had opened a brand new 4-stick pack of Trader Joe’s mint lip balm and distributed one each to all three of my children with strict instructions to place their tubes in their backpacks because, “You never know when you’re going to need some.” To demonstrate, I had tucked the fourth tube away in the outside pocket of my own bag before we all filed out the door to the bus stop.
Yes, that thought came to mind so I rummaged around best I could in the crowded hallway and found that tube right there in that outside pocket, ready for that very moment that I might need some . . . . Then I cracked the top open, turned the dial on the bottom of the tube and carefully reached over toward my friend. Right then I wondered briefly to myself if there was some ethical standard of clergy lip balm application that perhaps I was violating unknowingly . . . but eventually (some of us take a little longer) I also noticed the almost sacred, holy experience in which I, once again totally unwittingly, found myself.
Yes, over and over I spread it on her lips, smoothing the rough skin and giving some relief to a painful situation. I put it all over until her mouth was soft and shiny, moist and protected. It seemed a little strange to me, but it didn’t seem strange to her; she closed her eyes and lay her head back as I put it on. Then she smiled and rubbed her lips together, “Mmmmmmm, mint,” she sighed with delight, and drifted off to sleep.
Before I turned to leave I put that tube of lip balm in her hand and tucked the blanket up around her chin. I took a step back from her gurney, careful to avoid medical students rushing and orderlies pushing big machines through the hallway.
And, as I turned to go I glanced back and saw everything just a little differently than I had before. I saw my church member, not in the harsh light of a fluorescent ER hallway but warmed in a soft kind of light that seemed to be shining down just for her. Her gurney suddenly appeared to me not a makeshift bed, a cold plastic mat on wheels, but a safe haven for her to rest. The air didn’t seem so cold anymore as I saw her swaddled in a warm blanket and giving in finally to the need for deep, restful sleep.
And her lips, well, when I looked at them I could see that they were curved into a slight smile . . . anointed.