I am sitting in hospice. Not much is happening at this early morning hour. Family members have taken a break from the bedside death-watch; so I am alone in this room with a man whose whole live at this moment is given over to the process of death.
The only sound, apart from the mysterious gentle hum of medical machinery, is the laboured breathing of the person dying in the bed beside my chair. I keep my solitary vigil, reading my Bible, praying silently, watching and waiting, until the nurses come to bathe him and I leave.
When I return later I lead family members in prayer and anoint this death pilgrim with oil. Together we commend him to God’s care and release him into another dimension.
I read Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd…
I am here because of one seemingly innocuous word in the fourth verse of this strong steady journey Psalm; it comes in verse four:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
It is the “through” that brings me to this hospice bedside. I am a sign that the valley is not a closed ditch. It does not end in a blank wall. This valley is a passageway, a transfer point; it opens into a realm no less real than the physical plane the person we commend to God is leaving.
As we take our places around his bed to support him on his final journey, we face the ultimate impenetrable mystery of life.
These bodies that carry us through our lives are temporary. All physical things come to an end. The day is approaching when
The eye that beholds me will see me no more;
while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone. (Job 7:8)
I have watched as the last breath ebbed out of many peoples’ bodies. But, in all the departures I have witnessed, I have never experienced death as a time of despair or defeat. Death has only ever seemed to me the end of one thing and the beginning of another. I have always experienced physical death as a process of birth.
It is impossible to imagine that the dynamic living spirit that so vibrantly animated this person in life, should simply stop dead in its tracks and be no more simply because the machinery of the body has run down. It takes more faith than I can muster to believe that the beauty, mystery, and wonder of this person terminates simply because his body is no longer able to bear his spirit.
But, even more profoundly, my faith that life does not end in hospice, rests upon my experience of those who gather to share in this act of dying. The love in this room is palpable as we pray. This invisible force does not depend upon anything physical. It transcends our senses; it exists beyond the realm of the material. It cannot die.
How else can I explain the gentleness that opens in this place of death? How can I explain that, as much as the physical presence of this person is going to be missed, hearts here do not close in bitterness, resentment and anger? Love does not complain or blame the fates that this person’s body should give out earlier than anyone might have hoped. No, as we pray, our hearts open and soften to a mysterious presence of beauty and light that grows and holds us in its luminous embrace.
The “shepherd” is here to guide and receive this blessed human being into “green pastures” and “still waters.”
I have anointed his “head with oil.” We trust deeply that he will now “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He moves into love, supported by that love in which he has lived, and in which he now finds final place of rest.