I’m one of the liturgical nuts who gets chills on my spine when I have the opportunity to be in a large cathedral, where the procession is a big, grand affair, and the pomp and circumstance of things conspire to remind us of the big, majestic, holy God we worship. I like processions, from parades (even boat parades!) to Palm Sunday processions to…funeral processions.
One of the memories I have of a liturgical procession is in the Cathedral at Durham; it was Palm Sunday many years ago. Terry and I had been invited to join CEB Cranfield and his spouse for tea that afternoon at the urging of Jim Cook. We had plenty of time to revel in the worship space of Palm Sunday. The whole day has been prominent in my memory, from its pronounced procession to an awesome afternoon with the Cranfields.
During that Palm Sunday procession, EVERYONE processed. We followed from behind the priests and choir, stepping on tombstones that were the floor of the cathedral. We waved palms, and held our BCPs (Books of Common Prayer) and sang, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It was a glorious procession.
The processions I have most frequently led in my ministry have been funeral processions, particularly the procession from the hearse to the graveside. We are often deadly quiet as pallbearers grip the handles on the caskets containing the person they’ve loved, and now want to honor, and soon to leave in this cemetery. These marches are sometimes lined by military members, saluting stiffly. The people in the procession step carefully, walking over bumpy terrain, respectfully sidestepping grave markers, and trying to be dignified.
Interestingly, this kind of procession marks an end, a leave-taking. It feels symbolic and formal, perhaps one of the most formal things many people have done.
The processions I lead now are the processions from the intensive care waiting room to a conference room to meet with medical staff. We gather to review a patient’s condition and care, to give information to family members, sometimes several times over as they soak in the significance of what we say. I lead folks from the space they’ve created in an often chaotic, large, waiting room, to a very quiet, anxious space and a closed door. Usually, by this time, I’ve come to know a family enough to sense their need for the information we’re about to hear. I often have some idea of the news and updates that will be shared, but how those two…news and hearers…come together, is the sacred space we’ve processed to.
The family meetings I attend tend to be the grim news ones–the updates that leave families few options because there aren’t many choices about what to do next. In the ICU situations, we often have done every possible intervention before this point, because the urgency of the patient’s condition called for “heroic” measures. We are so good at making our interventions seem routine that many families are caught off guard when we explain how much life support their loved one needs. In other words, we normalize the machines and medicines and interventions we use, which can catch family members off guard when they learn that this is the maximum life support, without which the person likely would die. Expire, in clinical terms.
In anticipation of such processions, the item I most often take with me is not a Bible, but boxes of Kleenex. Instead of the usual pastor’s role of reading scripture and praying, I try to get us to introduce ourselves, and to have the freedom to ask questions, even very difficult questions. At the end, along with the other hospital staff, I offer to let families “kick me out” of the room so that they can talk among themselves. Sometimes, they invite me to pray with them. Sometimes, they invite me to stay with them. They need time–time to be themselves and talk through their reactions.
One family followed me in procession to the conference room a few weeks ago to hear a more integrated report on their loved one; a more integrated report because there had been some disparity over what they understood about what to hope for, and what may need to happen. This is an incredibly common feeling in the ICU waiting room–family members feel they’re hearing different stories about the patient’s condition. Sometimes, they are hearing different things, as some folks focus on what aspect of the patient’s care, and others “read between the lines” about a physician’s tone or a resident’s facial expression.
I asked the family to join me in meeting with the physicians who were caring for a very young woman. The family had been hopeful, faith-filled with a fresh sense of faith and yearning for good news. They had been incredibly conflicted, as the various factions in the family tried to negotiate authority and claims of how much their camp cared for this dear one. Who would hold it against them that they want to hold on to this young woman for a short while longer? Who would dismiss their frantic yearning as selfish, when she had only just begun her adult life?
They also had been kind–kind to us and to each other.
I was thinking about how a family was so obviously grieved as they came to terms with the awful prognosis of someone they so obviously loved so deeply. They had been staying at the hospital non-stop for four days; they looked weary, weighted down, and robbed.
Of course, they’re being robbed. Their 21-year old cousin, friend, sister, daughter…whose very young son was handed from one family member to another…whose significant other couldn’t lift up his head to talk to the doctor…this young woman was dying. There weren’t very many options for them to choose from. We made mementos, we gathered around her bed, we talked about her life, and the qualities of her living that made her so alive. I heard about her dreams, and some of her mistakes. I listened to her family claim their memories, their endearment.
For as many times as I walk up and down the hallways on the hospital units I cover, I am most conscientious of my pace, appearance, and purpose when I lead a family to a meeting room to confer with physicians about their loved one. I usually try to picture a radiance of grace for them as they listen, as they ask questions. I pray for clarity, if that’s appropriate, so that feel they can respond in a way that is true to the patient’s life and choices. I try to listen to the updates in order to ask questions they might not be able to ask. And I check with families later to see if we need to do this again, so that they have the information they need to respond as best they can.
If all of this sounds morbid, intensely serious and grim, I remind myself that this is the nature of the work and ministry that I’m involved in. Chaplains don’t often get called to join families for the good news events; we’re called to help families find their way in sticky, sad, awful situations. As one note on my bulletin board reminds me, chaplains serve as a reminder of the presence of God.
Annie Dillard, delightful writer that she is, wrote about a different kind of procession that has stayed with me. She invites us to think of sidelines of angels, and angels leading a procession before each of us, saying, “Make way for the image of God!” While I might credit Annie Dillard, she borrows it from Hasidic sayings. Nevertheless, that exhortation fits every procession, from worship’s beginnings to life’s endings. Make way for the image of God…as we process from cradle to grave, living with an eye toward how to honor the God who is present in us and through us.