NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 10
Tom McMahon's "Polar Express" is a "train of thought" or perhaps a "stream of consciosness". Today he let's rip with a challenging examination of our ideas concerning death and the Sacrament of the Last Rites. What is the meaning of death in our Technological Age?
Last rites and today's celebration of life
Extreme Unction is listed as one of the major Catholic sacraments. Its base is from the Epistle of James, chapter 5 verse 13; "if anyone one of you is in trouble, he should pray; if anyone is feeling happy he should sing a psalm; if one of you is ill he should send for the elders of the church and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again and if he has committed any sins he will be forgiven…" We would do well to appreciate the words "elder", "church", "oil", "confess", "forgive", and "raise up" … discussion for another time.
Our Polar Express train-of-thought has on board a futuristic gadget, something like the transponder used by Captain Kirk in Star Wars; to access this device one need step into the observation dome of car marked IMAGINATION and be prepared to find oneself back in the past or perhaps far ahead in the future. Today, relying heavily on THE BLACK DEATH, a Personal History by John Hatcher (2008) I wisk us back to the village of Walsham le Willows in West Suffock, England, paying a 1345 ce call on Master John, parish priest. Master John gets his title from his thirst for learning and his dedication to aiding his people; his predecessor was skilled at the acquisition of money and landholdings. Shall we join him as he prepares to go to the bedside of a dying parishioner…
"In summer of 1345 William [wealthy landowner] was close to death … a discussion began whether his end was near … Two nephews hurried off to summon Master John … the priest was expecting the summons and immediately started to prepare himself to lead William safely through the crucial and dangerous stages of his last hours on earth."
It is this duty that intrigues me as I recall my being summoned as a newly ordained to a death bed. Master John's preparations are similar to my 1954 readiness to administer Extreme Unction; I did not see my role as leading the dying across the River Styx.
Master John dons vestments… "much like a knight would dress and arm for battle…" and assembles subdeacon and altar boys who solemnly process with cross, statue of Mary, handbells, lights and incense, the priest carrying a piece of the consecrated host in a pyx. William's confession differs in that with the priest he reviews all life as to justice in business dealings and final and equitable settlement of earthly property. Master John is virtually a lawyer who sets up a defensive barrier around William as the devil marshals his forces to seize William's soul.
I was 25, ordained one month, a virtual boy after 12 years of isolated seminary; a stench permeated the room and I was left alone with a dying elderly woman, as her husband closed the door behind him and I never saw him again as when finished I let myself out. We had no training in seminary as to anointing; like a robot I followed the ritual, placing oil on her feet, hands, ears, eyes, the senses through which she could have sinned; the sick woman was comatose. As I write this the trauma floods back … 58 years ago … so mechanical, so inhuman, so frightening and at 25 I had no comprehension or awareness. Today I still feel my anger toward the seminary faculty and the old pastor who sent me; I was a magic man, a stranger doing a strange thing and there was no community. The liturgical practices of the Roman church desperately needed modernization.
Master John accompanies the hired paupers as they carry William's corpse to hallowed ground, over and over again sprinkled with holy water to ward off the devil's legions. William's family has prayed the night through like sentinels remaining around the dead man. William is safe in the hands of Mother Church and is buried in hallow (holy) ground.
1986: As my mother-in-law apprised caskets she turned to me and said: "Tom, you are so right; I'm not looking at a box in which to bury my husband; I'm thinking of what the Italian people are going to say about the way I buried him." and we both smiled. I had been her parish priest before I married her daughter and seemingly some of my sermons came home. I was aware at my first funeral in South San Francisco in 1960 that no men came into the church, they standing outside smoking cigars during the service, the women inside. I questioned German decent Dr. Wald, trusted family doctor friend, who told me of the old Irish pastor who allowed the casket only to the church front door, copiously sprinkling holy water … and when questioned replied: "to put out the fires of hell".
1345: Master John buries many during the Great Plague, struggling to teach his people the impotency of "relics" and trinkets for sale, teaching them to pray to a good God and not make the statue a god. Roman Catholicism is a religion of heady concepts, quite unlike the Moslem five-action pillars of faith. In spite of Vatican Two the fears and superstitions of the Middle Ages flourish in modern religion; many of the clergy are like Hatcher's parish priest Reverend Shepherd, predecessor to Master John, whose ability was to amass wealth. The casket story I tell above comes from a 1960's era in which my mother-in-law's pastor died with a million and a half dollars to his name; there are still priests around who can milk innocent people and their fears and superstitions, especially at the time of death. Cardinal Mahony has recently built a multi million cathedral right in the midst of utter Los Angeles poverty; it has a built in cemetery where the hierarchy are buried as well as those with money; one can get a full package deal from death bed to grave, including the priest; the Roman Church is the largest owner of cemetery land in California. People are dying to take advantage of this cash cow. The Digger O'Dells, the last men to let you down, knows how to cooperate with the institution. … tsk, Tomas, such grave humor…
I repeat here the recent death of Sarah. Recall Sarah, a member of my parish 30 years ago, requests my presence as she returns home to die in Hospice. I arrived to a household full of her four adult children and numerous grandchildren; although years had passed we were not strangers. Sarah and I talked about this gift called life and I asked her to look back over the blessings (the sacramental/sacred sign presences of God) in her children and her many friends; we spoke of how we were on loan, mortal sharers in the Eternal Life. Sarah smiled as she graciously prepared to return her gift of life to her Creator and Higher Power. Sarah's Last Rite was a thanksgiving to her God for having lived. I shall use these thoughts as I conduct her funeral, as Sarah requested. I shall wear a new colorful shirt.
I recently went to the cemetery where my mother and father are buried; I saw a young goulish like priest dressed in a black cope (full length ceremonial roman overcoat) sprinkling holy water over an open grave, ceremony book in hand. I passed quickly, pausing at my parents' gravesite and merely saying "thank you, Mom and Dad". There is one grave left in the plot, a small black abandoned child occupies the third space; the fourth will remain unoccupied as my sister chooses to be buried in the convent plot of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, hallowed ground reserved for the vowed.. I could be buried in the 4th slot if I denounce my marriage and reconcile with Rome … I'm smiling as my will calls for my ashes to be buried under the propane tank at our high Sierra chalet depending on the acceptance or rejection by the medical world for use of my body. Hopefully my resurrection will come about in our offspring and writings I leave behind. Like my priest uncle my will forbids my anointing by a church cleric and I ask that I not be dragged into a church mass ceremony against my will. I will not be lonely when I depart, having part of my community world wide and in Australia.
Jean, wife of recently deceased Tim Unsworth, author and writer of National Catholic Reporter fame, has sent a poem that offers meaning as we face death, that unknown experience that only the dead understand. Death to me is the absence of known energy; I firmly believe energy can not be destroyed and with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin I see God-energy in all life. I have lived with this absence and presence since my father's death in 1931.
Jean sends: "In retrospect it all seems very straightforward, you had six months and then two and then three weeks and you had four days to live and then you were gone. We can remember all that, but we cannot know what it was like for you to have such a wealth, however fraudulent, of time, and then see it abruptly and without warning disappear".
"And now you have no time and you have no limitations. I still recognize your face, your unmistakable heart, yet you are now presence so pure and total all the forms fall away. You have become sheer presence, sheer love. You are a beacon of peace. It is something like the perfect smile, the perfect kiss, like the perfection of light." (end)
If the Roman Church continues in existence and claims to be a voice of Jesus in the world I recommend that its clergy be immersed in every day way of life and the old rituals be retired to museums. The institutional church has no clue as to world after death. Jewish prayer at the time of Jesus was limited to thanksgiving and praise. I recommend a review of all those sacramental moments that bind families together. Sarah's gathering is to be a Celebration of Life and hopefully that will be the way I go into the unknown.
Mom often quoted Tennyson to me: "Sunset and Evening Star and one clear call for me and let there be no moaning at the bar when I put out to sea." I shall not meet the Mystery called God for the first time.
Tom the mortal man, grateful for the gift of life. 08/08/2008 … 'tis Friday, son Tommy is to marry tonight.
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?