Friday, June 1, 2012

Mamma mia!

The phone rang. 1am. Groan! Could I come to the hospital? Sergio (not his name) was dying. I'll be there in 15 minutes.

It was not an unpleasant walk to the hospital - a warm night, the street busy with students going to or coming back from the pub, heading to their respective colleges. I made my way through the night entry door with my swipe card - silent corridors, a lift which immediately responded to the press of the button, another silent corridor on the 8th floor. I walked quickly to room 18 and knocked, pushing the door open.

Suddenly a hand on my chest - Sergio's wife, pushing me back out. 'Oh, Father, thank you for coming. You can't go in.' 'Oh?' 'Yes, you can't go in, Sergio will think he's dying'. 'Really? So I can't go in? But you did call me, didn't you?' 'Yes, I did, I panicked.' 'Ok, so what do you want me to do? Let me go in and give him the Sacraments.' 'Oooh, no! Please, Father!' 'Ok, so what do you want me to do?' 'I'm sorry, Father, please just go home.'

[I know, you think I'm making this up, don't you? Well, I'm not!]

It was an equally pleasant walk back to the presbytery and I imagined my bed was still warm in parts. Soon I was back in slumber land.

Ring! Ring! Oh no. Hello. The nurse put Maria on. 'Yes, Maria, I'll come at once. Sorry to hear that Sergio is dead.' The clock showed 5am.

Now the street was different - colder, some traffic, no pedestrians except for me.

This time I was met at the door. Maria was in tears. About 15 family members stood around the bed. I gave Absolution and the Plenary Indulgence and anointed Sergio's strangely cold forehead.

On the way out, curious, I asked the nurse to check the chart for time of death. 3am!

Whose sickness is it?

As a hospital chaplain I see sickness all the time. In every bed I visit there lies a story of discomfort, suffering, or even death.

To a certain extent one needs to detach, actually - to a large extent - and tell oneself: this is not my sickness, this is not my suffering, this is not my death.

I have spoken to various people who can't do this, who can't detach. Some of them feel guilty and imagine some sort of 'obligation' to suffer along with the patient. Others just won't go into the room for a visit because it causes them too much distress to see someone else's pain.

After all this time I've come to recognise that I experience most distress when called to visit a couple who lose a child before or at birth. This defeats my best efforts to detach and I often find myself weeping along with the parents.

Having said all this let me share with you an experience I occasionally have when celebrating the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

After all the appropriate prayers are said there comes the time for the priest to anoint.

I dip my thumb in the oil and then reaching out my arm and placing my thumb on the forehead of the sick person I sometimes feel I am 'claiming' him as my brother. In fact, more than that, I sometimes have the impression I am anointing myself. Isn't that curious?

It's as though the two of us were really 'one' body and my arm, the healthy part of the body, were reaching out and anointing him, the sick part of my own body.

For a split second the sick person and I are one. For a split second his sickness is mine and my health is his.

St Paul had a lot to say about us all being part of the one body and maybe this is just a little glimpse into the truth of this reality which is usually hidden from us.