From longing to belonging

Prayer is that bridge from longing to belonging.

– Irish poet, John O’Donahue

As a hospice chaplain, it is pretty much part of my “job description” to pray with my patients. Most of the time, those prayers are so-called “free prayers”(prayers not written down). There are other occasions, especially when a patient has died or is actively dying, for which I use liturgical prayers from various worship books, i.e. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran Occasional Services, the United Church of Christ Book of Worship , and the Roman Catholic Pastoral Care of the Sick.

I must admit that as a “professional prayer-giver,” it is easy for my prayer routine with patients to get a bit stale. In fact, I am certain that my verbal prayers have a uniformity about them. I think that this is probably true for anyone who regularly prays in a public setting.

I grew up in the Churches of Christ, a tradition which vehemently rejects the practice of any kind of written prayer. “Your prayers must come from your heart, not from the words of other men,” I remember a Sunday school teacher exhorting us in a humid Ohio church basement. So why did almost every prayer I heard during worship – from the Elders’ communion prayers to the preacher’s weekly altar call sound virtually identical to one another?

During my years of sojourning within the more “High Church” expressions of Christianity (Lutheranism and Catholicism), I developed great appreciation for the grace, spiritual depth, and beauty of liturgical prayer. Especially during moments of crises and tragedy, it is a gift to be able to utilize the words of petition, lament, and consolation from holy men and women through the ages rather than try to “make up” something meaningful to say.

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I vividly remember keeping all-night vigil with a two year-old boy and his parents as the boy – “Luke” – lay dying in the hospital from cancer. “Daddy, I am scared,” were the last words his parents heard Luke say. Over the course of the night, Luke began to die from internal and external hemorrhaging, the horrors of which I could not begin to describe. When Luke’s little lungs breathed their last, I can assure you that I was bereft of any and all words as his mother cradled the body of her only child and his father let out a blood-curdling yell of defiant rage.

Still, the medical staff – choking back their own tears – came around the bedside to encircle Luke’s parents with as much support as they could muster. Suddenly, all eyes were on me – as if I were supposed to say something – anything – to bring a sliver of light or hope or comfort in what had become an unbearably oppressive sarcophagus of despair. At that moment, I was never so grateful for the endless “sword drills” (contests to see who could look up and shout out certain Scripture verses the most quickly) of my fundamentalist childhood.

Spontaneously, words from the eighth chapter of Romans began to flow from my trembling lips:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies…the Spirit helps us in our weakness…and intercedes for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.

The truth is, NO words, Scripture passage, or pious exhortation could make sense of the horrific tragedy of a child’s death. And yet the family and several staff members told me later that St. Paul’s simple reminder that the Holy One dwells within our screams of abandonment as much as in our shouts of thanksgiving brought one, tiny drop of solace into a room awash with grief.

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Before Luke’s mother allowed herself to leave his room, she made me promise that I would accompany her little boy’s body down to the hospital morgue and remain with him until the funeral directors arrived. Thus at half past four on what was an unseasonably balmy March morning in Minnesota, I processed alongside Luke’s sheet-draped stretcher into the bowels of the hospital to keep watch over the mortal remains of this beautiful, little boy.

Shell shocked and numb beyond tears, I felt the scoured tiled walls of the morgue beginning to close in on me with a tomb-like grimness. Although I had seen my share of morgues and been around death most of my life (I grew up in the funeral business), I experienced an overpowering urge to abandon my commitment to Luke’s mother and bolt from that basement.

More from desperation than faith, I fetched from my pocket a book of “pastoral prayers” and began frantically turning the pages. The first prayer I landed upon was the “Salve Regina,” a 10th century hymn honoring Mary, the Mother of Jesus. According to this strain of ancient Christian piety, the act of remembering the steadfast, faithful witness of Mary’s fidelity to her son Jesus – even unto the foot of the cross – helps us see beyond our “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” With Mary as one of our guides and examples, we are called to look “homeward” upon the merciful face of the Christ who is our Resurrection and our Life.

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To you we cry, the children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; lead us home at last and show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus: O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is sung nightly in Cistercian monasteries before the monks retire for bed. During my college years, I went on several week-long retreats at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky – the home of Thomas Merton. The last formal liturgical act of the day was to sing this hauntingly beautiful hymn in the darkened abbey church. On one side, surrounded by a halo of candles, stood the Byzantine icon of the Virgin of Vladimir and the Christ child (see above).

The hymn served as a nightly reminder of the reality of death as we prepared to surrender ourselves unto sleep. Even more significantly, the image and the prayer were signposts that death, sadness and crying in this “valley of tears” are not, indeed, the final sum of our existence, but only way stations on a far more mysterious and wonder-filled pilgrimage.

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So it was that I found myself in that tomb of a hospital morgue praying the words of a tenth-century hymn with every ounce of energy I had left in me. There were no flashes of lightning, no choirs of angels, no visions of glory. Luke’s lifeless hands, which I held in mine, grew colder by the minute. The valley of tears which was that night seemed as deep and foreboding as ever.

And yet in the repetition of those words, I began to inch my way onto that bridge from “longing to belonging.” I know the longing part well – longing for a society free from violence, suffering, and injustice; longing for relationships characterized by intimacy and forgiveness; longing for a Church which showers people with God’s grace and blessing; longing for a world in which two-year olds don’t bleed to death in front of their mommies and daddies.

It is getting to the “belonging” side of the river with which I need great help. This is where, for me, prayer isn’t merely a bridge; it is a lifeline. As a hospice chaplain, I have the privilege of watching people almost every day use prayer to make their journey from this vale of tears unto the great “Undiscovered Country” where mourning and weeping will be no more and where we will be known fully by that Love which has no beginning and no end.

In the creeping of Lent towards Easter, the bridge from longing to belonging seems a little less foreboding, a few steps closer to home. Whether it be shouts of ecstatic praise, groans and sighs of anguish, the silence of sitting on a pillow, the chants of monks in a darkened church, the whispers of an old preacher, or plain, boring words off a page, I am thankful for prayer and the Love and Life and Home – the Belonging – to which it beckons.