May the Holy Spirit make you creative in charity, persevering in your commitments, and brave in your initiatives, so that you will be able to offer your contribution to the building up of the “civilization of love”. The horizon of love is truly boundless: it is the whole world!--Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Encounter with Christ by Barbara J. Elliott

Fr. David & Fr. Bruce Noble
by Barbara J. Elliott

I had never been in a hospice before, although several people had encouraged me to go and serve there.  It just didn’t seem like my calling.  Why go to serve the dying, when I can work among the living to equip them for a better life?  It all seemed so depressing. 

There was no one more surprised than I when I found myself walking into a hospice in Houston one spring evening, laden with flowers, fresh raspberries, sushi and champagne to visit Fr. David Noble. He was succumbing after a valiant struggle against cancer. I learned that afternoon from his twin, Fr. Bruce, that shortly after arriving at the hospice, the patient had expressed a hankering for salmon.  And I knew from experience that a drop of bubbly would be welcome, having quaffed several with the Australian priests on a number of occasions. 

Instead of the dreary, weepy atmosphere I anticipated, I walked into a celebration, replete with balloons, a chocolate cake, and cheerful guests bursting out of the hospice room. The nurse had to push her way through the well-wishers to get to the patient.  And while chemotherapy and cancer had made Fr. David visibly weaker, he was the soul of wit and wisdom he had been over the decade I had known him.  This was a celebration of life, in the company of people who loved these identical priests.  Their separation from one another, or from us, was unimaginable. 

Cutting small bites of salmon and spearing them to Fr. David was a joyful task for me.  As I fed him a piece, I remembered the times he had put the Eucharistic Lord into my mouth at Mass.  I helped him lift his head to sip from the champagne flute. 

The love among these two priests and the people who had become their friends was palpable. They had served for years as hospital chaplains and leaders of Marriage Encounters all over the world. These men who had served were now being served, in an ellipse of love returning.  We ate, drank, and prayed, then two young opera singers with angelic voices gave an impromptu performance of Ave Maria to conclude the celebration.

When I returned two evenings later, Fr. David had weakened significantly. He could no longer speak or drink from a cup.  The twin priests had been scheduled to speak at a gala that evening, but Fr. Bruce had been persuaded by cooler heads to forego the grand public goodbye for his brother, leave him in bed, and go alone.  I promised to stay with Fr. David while all the others would be gone. 

In that time by his bedside, as Fr. David drifted in and out of morphine sleep, I took his hand and stroked the top of his head, where hair had been only days before. Is it wrong to be this familiar with a defenseless priest, I wondered, even if he is an old friend? I decided I would treat him like a father, since indeed, he was one.  I poured out prayer in waves of love that transcended words, interceding for the path of his soul and the strengthening of his brother who would be left behind.  Being able to adjust Fr. David’s sheets and pillow to make him comfortable was almost a relief, so great was the desire to do something, anything, to help.  I watched and waited, grateful for the silence to pray, and even more so for the joy of just being there as a presence of love.    

As people began to arrive after the benefit, the nurse posted me as the guard while she completed her work.  One parishioner had brought a rare port from Australia, along with beautiful small glasses – her best, she said, because she knew Fr. David appreciated them.  This was her flask of finest perfume, poured out for the alter Christus while he was still among us.

As the group came into the room, I was surprised at the somber mood and hushed tones.  An inexplicable joy welled up in me as I stood by the bed with a lollipop sponge, putting drops of water, then port, onto Fr. David’s tongue. As the friends came forward one by one to say a few words to him, I hugged the ones who were wiping away tears. I found myself thinking, “We know where he is going now – how can we not be joyful for him?“ but didn’t say it, because it sounds like one of the sappy things annoyingly pious people would say.  But somehow the joy and love that was welling up in me was brimming over into embraces for the others grieving.  And it seemed perfectly normal at that moment, although I had never been in that situation.   I stayed to help Fr. Bruce put sheets on the rollaway bed, so he could spend the night in the room.  We both knew that his brother was close to entering the next realm.

As I got into my car in the dark, I had a sudden jolt of turning a corner in time.  I was at the foot of the cross, touching the feet of Jesus.  As his body was taken down, I was wiping it with a cloth.  Then he was alive again. I heard his words in an interior silvery resonance:  “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done to me.” 

And in a split-second encounter I finally understood what Mother Teresa meant when she said she touched the body of Christ in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.  As she washed the bodies of dying men and women, laid them in fresh sheets, and gave them a drink of water, in some mystical way she was touching the body of Christ himself.

I touched Christ’s body. I sat there stunned.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful reflection, Barbara. I have had to say good-bye to several dear friends the last few years, and I understand the mixed emotions. Yes, they're not going to be with me in a physical sense, but they're achieving their life's goal! How can I be sad? So, during the eucharistic prayer, when we pray for those who have died, I pause and remember them, and remember that they are among the "cloud of witnesses" who gather around the eucharistic table with us.