Lately I have been going to the Casita, our seventeen foot travel trailer parked in our driveway, as a retreat for writing. For some reason, it is not the same experience as sitting at the desk in the cluttered study to think or to write. The Casita has become for me, as its brand-name states, my “little house.” There, for a reason I am not able fully to access or to describe, I am more attentive to my muse.
As I was writing in my journal in mid-afternoon, Jane “radioed” me, using the little hand-held that we use to communicate when I am thus “away,” to say there was someone who wanted to talk with me at the door of the house. I was more than a little surprised when I left the trailer to greet them and they said that they had come to ask me to officiate at the funeral of their Dad, who was now in hospice care, a request they were making at their Dad’s request. It was John Clark and his brother.
Since I have known Dwight (Dick) Clark and his wife, Phyllis, for at least fifty years, it was much more difficult than I supposed it would be to tell these sons, “No, I cannot do that. I have fully retired as a pastor and if I say ‘yes’ even once, I will never be able to say ‘no’ again.” I said, however, “Since I’ve known your Dad for years, I will come for a visit, as a friend.” “That would mean a lot,” they replied as they left to tell Mom and Dad that I would drop by the house yet today.
Now I have just returned from visiting Dick on his deathbed. He was alert and cheerful, apparently confident that he would “pass” in peace. Although he is now in hospice care and is not expected to live but a few days, he was quite able to carry on a conversation.
We talked of old times and Milford Center of yesteryear. Dick has collected historical memorabilia of the Village for years and years. He is probably the single person with the most encyclopedic memory of Milford Center’s past. His collection of photos and authentic postcards of Village scenes is vast and the envy of any collector.
Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, Dick asked me to pray. I explained that I had come prepared to anoint him so that his “passage” would be the easier. I told him that in the time of Jesus, oil was not only used for healing but in the “games,” where wrestlers rubbed themselves so as to slip from the grip of their opponent.
When I said that the oil wouldn’t be to make him better, but to make it easier, he replied “It’ll be a better place,” in the same tone and with the same confident observation that it was a bright day. And so with the reading of Psalm 23 and my olive-oil-dipped thumb making the sign of the Cross on Dick’s forehead, we commended him to a comfortable and easy journey. A short time later, I took my leave by giving both Dick and Phyllis a hug and a “God bless you.”
It was not easy to say “no” to a man’s face, on his deathbed, when he had asked me to bury him. Both Dick and his whole family though, expressed their understanding of my reason for saying, “No.” As I left, every member of the family expressed their gratitude that I had come for this visit.
The truth is that I did not do a thing that they could not do or had not already done. They could reminisce with Dick. They could pray with and for him. I did not doubt that much of both had already been done, many times over.
There was though, an ineffable something, that my being there brought to the situation that would not otherwise have been there. Reading the Psalm, words from a sacred text spoken by a “holy man,” the oil, blessed for special purpose, the anointing, the prayer of thanks and commendation – all these religious acts and artifacts served to allow Dick and Phyllis and their family to better deal with the mystery of death and the loss it brings.
There is not anything magical or especially supernatural about that half hour we were together. The acts and artifacts of the Christian tradition are patterns of experience that triger the responses of the human brain so that a sense of participation in Reality (with a capital “R”) is realized and recognized. By being in the midst of those acts and artifacts, those present experienced a suspension of time and place and a union of each with All.
To be able to practice those acts and use those artifacts appropriately is a great honor and an even greater responsibility. I am very grateful to have been allowed to stand in the millennia-long line of shamans and medicine men. That vocation is without doubt the oldest of uniquely human activities. At least since our ancestors lived in the Neander Valley, if not ages before, that is, fifty-thousand years, my fellow holy-men (and women) have offered access to the Mystery.
Evidently one does not retire the “vestment,” nor lay aside the eagle feathers, of a holy-man. They are imprinted to one as though indelible.