From: Pray Tell Blog

IN THE FACE OF DEATH: PEACE AT THE LAST

Teresa Berger

June 17, 2017

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.


5 responses

  1. Gregory M Corrigan

    June 18, 2017

    “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.

    • Teresa Berger

      June 19, 2017

      @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.”

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