Beginning of the Watchfulness – Pastor’s Reflection (September 8, 2019)
As I begin these lines Hurricane Dorian has just become a category 5 storm and we wonder how many lives it will effect as it weaves an unsteady course through the Atlantic. I can still hope that Dorian will take a turn east into the open sea, and will be yesterday’s news when you read this. Nevertheless, a singular prayer comes with realizing that disaster impends for someone else. I want to rescue them but I am totally unable. So from my safe distance I watch and wait, and I lift up to God those many thousands who have to sit and wait for a storm to upend the rhythms of their lives. What I experience in the comfort of my room is the mystery of compassion, of suffering with the other.
Of course, my experience is distant and global: for many people compassion happens within inches of their neighbor, and for years at a time. I think of those who consent to care-give for the terminally ill, the chronically ill, the handicapped, and the developmentally challenged. All of these walk in the narrowest of places with a suffering person. To the life of their companion they can bring encouragement and comfort, but never a rescue. Mary-like, they “keep their station” at the foot of their neighbor’s cross. The decision to hold this hard ground makes it fertile for goodness, serving the patient, enlarging the caregiver in empathy, and completing both in patience and hope.
To us who visit, caregiver and care-receiver seem stuck in a daily regimen of feeding and cleaning, pill taking and appointment-going, but beneath the slowly executed routine, both grow profoundly, as God’s love fills the narrowest places of human life. For the patient the inability to do for self can become interior growth through learning to trust and depend. For the caregiver there is a loss of personal freedom that becomes the expansion of self through patience and constancy.
All around us the life of our parish touches these relationships. Just think of the hospitals: in New York Presbyterian, Sloan-Kettering, and Special Surgery, doctors, nurses, and family make the choice every day to accompany people in suffering and dying. Our Chaplains and Eucharistic Ministers join them in this work, bearing the sacraments that can transform this experience for all concerned. At Mary Manning Walsh Home the chaplains will now work with the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm, and a whole corps of lay volunteers to establish an ongoing communion with elderly residents, those in rehabilitation, and those in the Dawn Green Hospice. In apartments all around us caregivers, familial and professional, make it possible for elderly people to stay in their homes.
Think how the Eucharist enters the patient and caregiver and makes of their relationship a Gospel Preaching and an instrument of grace. As a fruit of Holy Communion the one who tends and the one who is tended can each recognize that a situation neither would choose has become their way to Heaven. Together they testify that sticking with it comes from more than will-power and makes for more than stability. Before our eyes lies a covenant of trust and intimacy that will leave both parties more human and therefore further along the way to God. This interdependence shows its loveliness all around us, if only we do not let age and illness hide it. There it is conferring across the rails of the hospital bed or smiling across a coffee cup before the morning rituals begin. Here it is taking a slow walk on Third Avenue, or collaborating in the boarding of a taxicab. All over, we are seeing an odd couple assembled by God across gender and age, race and religion. Just think of how many important decisions this pair reach together as they work through the tiny square chambers in the week-long pill tray.
The complex geography and demography of our parish, patient and caregiver are everywhere and so we begin the parish year by putting them front and center as a focus of prayer. On Friday, September 13 we will watch before the Blessed Sacrament from Evening Prayer, through the night until Morning Prayer on Saturday, September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the Cross we see God’s power to make the most constrictive human experience an avenue to paradise. I hope you will come for some part of this Vigil to support the patients and caregivers who walk this road in front of us. Think of those you know personally and also to lift up the many you see in the byways of our neighborhood. Please see elsewhere in the bulletin for details.
As I reach the end, Dorian has sat over the Island of Grand Bahama for a long time, compounding devastation. So, during our vigil we must practice compassion for those far away, as well as for those often too close for us to see. In our humanity we are shocked by climactic devastation and by bodily decline, and yet we believe in a God who is not defeated by either. He is present to us, in power and in time, in this most wonderful Sacrament. Therefore we adore Him with confidence and confide to Him the many who suffer and the many others who chose to look their suffering in the face.