By David Lichter
The articles for this Vision issue are profound and touching. When we are reflecting on unborn, newborn, or very young babies, we are moved with awe and aware of the tender and fragile nature of our human existence. A good friend in our parish, an OB/GYN, shared with us her perspective on her work, which she views as a ministry. Given all that she knows can go wrong in the complexities of pregnancy and giving birth, she marvels at the miracle of every pregnancy and birth. She is in awe when a baby is healthy; and is compassionate, understanding, and ready to help when it is not. It’s part of her spirituality, rejoicing in the “all went well” and being ready for the opposite. She does not fear life’s fragility; she expects and embraces it.
It was Christmas Day, 1985, in our family’s living room when I probably first faced this experience. My dad had been through a round of radiation for his lung cancer. Still very weak, he was about to decide not to accept any more treatments, and instead choose to embrace hospice. My sister-in-law and brother were present as well. She had just learned the day before that her unborn child, short weeks away from birth, had died in her womb. They chose to wait until the day after Christmas to have her delivered. They named her Mary. The family was gathered first for a home Mass, then presents and dinner.
The room was quiet and still as I began Mass. I was so aware of the painful irony of marking the birth of Christ in our living room with Mary and Dad – one dead and the other dying. We were to be celebrating a birth, the promise and joy of new life, while acknowledging death and the waning of life. While we felt the heaviness and heartache of life, we still went through the ritual motions of Mass, honoring the belief of Christ came among us in our darkness and pain. The shadow of the Cross hung over the manger scene on our small table near the window. The hunched postures of the shepherds and kings now communicated the emotions of heavy hearts, as well as homage.
Yet, we gathered and went through the motions and emotions of the Mass ritual, hoping (praying) that the meaning of take, bless, break, and give would somehow provide a divine context for the human grief, numbness, and blank stares that accompanied the sudden news of death and the gnawing knowledge of dying. We recited prayers, ate the bread, and sipped the wine, believing the news of Christ’s birth years ago and his presence with us now.
The next day my brother and sister-in-law had their own private day of birthing and honoring Mary, who was now with the Lord, but who remains present to them to this day, as she is named in every family occasion and marked as family. That Christmas Day she was with us also.
The theme of this issue probably evokes personal memories in all of us. It challenges our feeble faith and strong desire for life. I think chaplains, like my OB/GYN friend, also live in awe of “all went well” but are ready for the opposite. We are with others in those moments, and they need us to ritualize a belief that seems so distant, and as fragile as the one they love.