In the Face of Death: Peace at the Last

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about a brief ritual, created by the Diocese of Speyer, Germany, for those accompanying the dying and present at the moment of death.  Different from the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, this blessing ritual (Sterbesegen) could be used by anybody, lay or ordained.  Today, I write to draw your attention to another resource, quite different from the above-mentioned blessing ritual, yet equally – if not more – compelling: its language is English!

I first encountered the ideas behind Peace at the Last: Visitation with the Dying (Augsburg Fortress 2016) when a pastoral team from Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Chelan, WA, introduced their ministry of accompaniment of the dying at the Yale ISM Congregations Project a few years ago.  The team included a musician who was composing music for the developing liturgy and a visual artist who created watercolor images to be included in the book.

Rooted in the deep experience of accompanying the dying in this one congregation, the now published ritual book includes some precious features.  Among these is to gather the Church Visitation Group in the sanctuary first, by the font, for a brief prayer, reading, and blessing.  Those appointed to actually visit then follow a simple ritual in the room of the dying person of greeting, prayer, song, and psalms.  Ample room is given to meditative silence, as needed.  Communion may be celebrated.  Toward the end, there is a ritual moment described as “sending” that includes making the sign of the cross (oil may be used) on the forehead, ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands, and feet of the dying.  It is essentially a ritual permission to “let go and let God” (my words).  For the signing of the shoulders, for example, the text suggests these words to be spoken to the dying person as they are signed:

“Receive the cross on your shoulders,

that you may lay down the yoke you have borne

and put your burdens to rest.”

A simple, sung Nunc Dimittis in English and a concluding prayer bring the ritual to a close.

There are many things I appreciate about this ritual.  First is the commitment to stark truth-telling:  There is no hiding the fact here that someone is dying.  The second is the depth of ecclesial accompaniment:  Someone is dying, and the church – its people, prayers, songs, and images – are there, drawing close in accompaniment at this crucial point in a person’s life.  Note that this is not a visit by the minister alone, or a gathering of the family, but a visitation by a small group of parishioners.  Third, and most importantly, there is a strong, compelling Christian faith here: in a God who created us and at the end of our lives calls us into God’s own eternal presence.

And for those who do not envision themselves as part of such a ministry of visiting the dying, I encourage you to get this beautiful little book nevertheless.  All of us, after all, will be in the role of “the dying one” someday, and whatever a convincing ars moriendi might look like in our day (we desperately need one), Peace at the Last is an excellent start.

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5 comments

  1. “Christians have a remarkable propensity for missing the mark.” Aurelius Boberek, osb (former) Director of Liturgical Formation at The American College (Louvain).

    Teresa Berger has a remarkable ability to point to realities that are rich in spiritual potential. It’s as if there are doors to the sacred, which, to the ordinary passer-by, seem unimportant. But Berger knows that treasures are found by those who seek. And the results of her seeking are treasures she shares with all.

    Having opened doors that have yielded extraordinary insights into gender theory, feminist liturgical history, and even, liturgy in Cyberspace, her current blog provides an invitation to a place of ministry and liturgical promise that has been “left to die” for far too long.

    A religion founded upon the experience of a person’s death is surely a place where one would hope to find abundant research, scholarship, and pastoral innovation in the “ars moriendi.” But such is not the case. The Roman church seems content to keep the doors closed to the many grace-filled possibilities that human dying and death represent. Death in the catholic culture is regularly entrusted to the ordained few and their stereotyped mumbling of “last rites” prayers in a room full of grieving family members.

    Berger has opened a door and those, with eyes to see and ears to hear, would do well to explore, to consider, to collaborate, and yes, to create and implement.

    In truth, when a Catholic funeral is done well, the Church is at its best. Perhaps, with an expanding vision and an openness to implementing this developing liturgical form, rising up through and ministered by, members of the faith community, we may well hit the mark for both the living and the dead.

    1. @Gregory M Corrigan:
      thanks for the flowers… Here is a quote from the booklet that I think you will appreciate. It’s the pastor of this congregation, Rev. Paul Palumbo, writing: “if the church dedicated itself to just one thing, to accompany the dying well, it would not be wrapped up in the anxiety of whether or not the church itself was going to survive. It would have no time for such anxiety. It would be too busy ministering to people who knew where to come to die and to live in the beauty of extravagant love.”

  2. I would like to add a note of caution about this ritual of sending.

    Despite our tradition of Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo, I am very wary of assuming that all dying persons are in the same frame of mind.

    Like the rest of us, I know and have known elderly or injured people who actually want(ed) to leave. They have had enough. Modern medical science has prolonged their life beyond its allotted span. They are in pain, they crave relief, they desire to meet Jesus. Telling them to leave is a blessing, a mercy, for them.

    But I am also aware of those who do not want to go at all, who feel that telling them to leave is tantamount to telling them they are no longer wanted, even no longer loved, who desperately desire to cling on to life even if the quality of that life would be minimal, who cannot “let go and let God”. In such cases, I think that something else is necessary. Certainly something less specifically telling them to go. Something more generic, more supportive.

    Although some are able to talk openly about what is happening, others are actually not capable of talking about what they are going through, or are in denial. They are so busy struggling with the business of staying alive that they keep it all inside them.

    We need to be sensitive when people are clearly dying, and not assume that one size fits all.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      ah yes, the caution. I am unsure about this, Paul, although this deserves a longer blog post. I think we have come to a point liturgically, where we try and speak to too many individual conditions explicitly (I said to a composer last week that I was waiting for a hymn that named persons with intersex conditions — roughly every 2,000th human birth qualifies, after all). The “Proficiscere” would probably never have been prayed very much if we waited until every person is ready, in the face of death. I think the prayer itself is performative: it creates the space to let go, where there may have been none before.

  3. Speaking as the composer of the first hymn to explicitly mention those who are dying of AIDS, http://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=4624, eventually published by GIA in 2001 but written in 1996 when the crisis was at its height, I venture to suggest that sometimes being explicit can be a blessing.

    One of the great contributions in this field is the music of the Iona Community, especially the original work of Graham Maule and John Bell, whose texts often do rather explicitly name realities that we should be praying for but often do not know how to find the words to name. The grace that their songs bring to the Church is precisely that by singing about uncomfortable issues people are enabled to talk about them to each other after the liturgy, and thus build up the Body of Christ by supporting each other. Similar benefits derive from rather explicit invocations in litanies of sorrow at penitential services or more explicit songs of farewell at funerals (for example http://www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=4625 ). There is no hiding behind the anodyne, generic hymns and songs that we often use to mask our real emotions and paper over the cracks. In this way we are enabled to ritualize the truth about what is going on and pray communally about it.

    I agree that a hymn naming persons with intersex conditions may be a step too far, but I still feel that saying “Begone!” to someone who simply doesn’t want to go yet may not be appropriate. It’s pastorally very delicate. At the very least, you would want to know the person well enough to have a good idea whether or not giving permission to go would be helpful; and that is not always easy. Some people are so scared that they hide their true feelings. They are not ready to face the realities.

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