I got one of those calls that comes more than clergy like but probably not nearly as much as we should wish they did. It was one of the local hospitals calling on behalf of a patient that is a member of “my church.” I checked around with some of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Nobody knew who she was. Then I checked in with AA. Nobody recognized her name. I even asked my past and present food ministry coordinators. Nobody knew the name. So, I headed to the hospital blind about the patient that had requested that I come.
I arrived in her room to find “Mary” sitting in her chair. She was a bit surprised to see me. “Are you really a priest?” When I answered “That’s what people tell me.” She chuckled and said that she had never seen a priest in a green shirt. It ended up being a good ice breaker. I explained that I try to wear the liturgical color of the day and wear black only during Lent. “Does it match the altar coverings and the veil and burse?” I knew I had a member of an altar guild in the room with me. “No,” I responded, but maybe some day.” She proceeded to tell me about her home parish and asked me about St. Alban's.
After the chitchat, I asked Mary what she needed. She responded that life had gotten tough. She had fallen a few times too many. People wanted her in a nursing home, but she wanted to stay with her daughter. That, of course, was causing a fight. Her daughter was a good daughter, but sometimes she did not act like herself. I shared that being a child caregiver was a big, stressful responsibility. Some can do it, but many can’t. Mary expressed pretty typical generational sentiments about assisted living and nursing care. I pointed out that much had changed, that there were really good ones in most communities. She asked if I knew any good ones in our area, and I shared their names.
We reached a lull in our conversation as she committed the names to memory so I asked her why she’d had the hospital call me. She shared that her priests had taught her since she was a youngster that one of the great things about being an Episcopalian is that, wherever you go in life or the world, you are probably close to people who will take you in like one of their own. I gathered that she was not affiliated with St. Alban’s. I asked the name of her parish. She gave me the name, town, and state. I asked what brought her out here to the midwest. She replied “Marriage. I married a guy from out here.” “Recently?” I asked. “No, in 1948.”
“Yep. I’m one of those.” “Those?” I asked. “Yep, I’m one of those who got busy in life and sort of got away from God. Truth to tell, I sort of expected you not to show up and kind of hoped you would not.” So I asked why. “It seems sort of selfish to expect a priest to show up after however many years.” I asked if anything else was going on with her other than the falls, the family fights, and the fear of assisted living. “You mean like death?” she asked. I nodded. “No,” she responded, “life has just gotten to be a real burden. I remember a sermon or Sunday School lesson where we were told to throw our cares on God, especially when they got too big for us. It stuck with me I guess.” She laughed a bit ruefully and admitted, "I guess that's where I am in life." So I asked “How can we pray for you?” Mary wanted healing prayers, prayers for her daughter and her, and she wanted discernment about what to do and where to go. “If it is not too much trouble,” she added.
I offered communion. “No,” she stated firmly while shaking her head, “I do not deserve communion. I have been away from God for . . . for . . . for so long I can’t do the math in my head any more.” I supplied the 65 years. “Exactly,” she answered, “far too long to deserve communion.” So I asked, “Do you think we are supposed to wait until we deserve communion to receive it?” I thought my tone implied a negative answer. I was wrong. “Absolutely,” she assented. “Mary, if you wait until you deserve communion, you will never get to receive it. If you have to wait until I deserve it, no one is ever going to get to receive it. It is an act of grace and mercy.” She disagreed. In her economy, one needed to be going to church regularly and paying the church to receive communion. Ah, works righteousness yet again. “Mary, all you need to do is repent of your sins and of your efforts to dodge Him or allow yourself to be led astray from Him for these last 65 years.” “It has to be harder than that. What you describe just wouldn’t be fair,” was her retort. “Fair?” I asked. “Who wants fair? If God treated us fairly, we’d have big problems. As for me, I’ll stick to grace.” “No, you don’t understand, Father. If everybody felt entitled to receive communion, it wouldn’t be as special.” “Special?” I asked. “Special? Could you imagine a world where everyone came to the altar knowing, knowing what God had wrought in the death and resurrection of His Son? Why, it would be glorious! The whole world would be worshipping and thanking God! That’s a vision worth imagining.” “No, no, you miss what I am saying.” she continued. “We need to do things the way He wants to deserve to receive communion.”
“Mary, in your absence, you have forgotten the true meaning of grace and of the Eucharist.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “Why do you think I came today?” “You had to,” she chuckled. “Really?” I asked. She nodded a bit. “Are you sure?” I pressed a bit. She thought and then said, “Well, you had to because my priests said you would.” “Do you really think I came this afternoon because some priests 65, 70, 80 years ago said I would? I don’t even know their names. I bet big money they are dead. Why would I feel bound by their promises?” She thought for a second and said, “but that has to be it. You had to.” I chuckled with her and reminded her that she was not a part of my flock, nobody on my Vestry was going to get on my case for not coming, and that I was probably safe in assuming that she would not have called my bishop had I blown her off in need. She thought about that for a minute or two and then asked, “Then why did you come?”
“Mary, that’s my calling. I am supposed to be a herald of grace. We all are, but clergy especially. That’s what your priests were telling back when you were young. It wasn’t that anyone had to try and help. It was that others would try and help you in thanksgiving to God for what He had done for them. How would you have felt had I not visited or came in and said something along the lines of ‘Mary, I would love to pray with and for you and to give you communion. Unfortunately, I can’t do that until you have joined my church/tithed to my church/worshipped my church/or sone whatever you think you need to do to be able to earn God’s forgiveness.’ How would that have made you feel?” “Probably a mixture of mad and sad and a bit deserving. I can tell you this, though, I would never have called a priest ever again.” Exactly, I thought. She continued, “Wow. I guess I never really thought about it. I kinda thought communion was our reward for doing right by God.” “Mary, did you ever go through a Confirmation class?” She laughed, “You know I did, but we called it First Communion back then.” “Ah, that might be our problem, that and that you have been away so long.”
“What did they teach you about communion?” She thought and thought. “It’s been a long time, Father. . . .” Words like pledge and memorial and sacrament stuck in her mind, but they were a jumble. So we did a bit of a refresher course about the Eucharist. The lightbulb moment was, of course, when we got to the sacrament. She had not learned the “outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace” in her classes, but she had heard it many times. As she mouthed it a few times, it dawned her. She started chuckling and pausing and laughing and pausing. “I have heard that lots. How could I forget it?” “Mary, “ I responded, “you have been wandering apart for 65 years. Part of why we celebrate the Eucharist is to remind ourselves of His promises and of His ultimate act of grace. It’s like your arm, what would happen if you did not use it for 65 years?” “It would probably fall off or disappear, “ she answered, “If I wouldn’t use it, I would lose it.” Then panic. “Father, how do I know I haven’t lost His promise?” “Mary, who do you think made you remember those lessons from 65, 70, 80 years ago and caused you to call me?” “Whoa!” Whoa was right.
I would love to say she took communion. I would love to say that we prayed, she took communion, and her injuries from the most recent fall were healed. That would have been the happy ending I would write. She did ask for my prayers and asked God to forgive her for wandering for 65 years. She asked if I was absolutely sure He would forgive her. I asked if she remembered the story of the Prodigal Son. As she shook her head yes, I replied, “Welcome home, prodigal daughter. Dad is happy you came home.” I sat with her as she cried about the things that weighed on her. As she composed herself, I offered the bread and wine one more time. “No, I need some time to think about all this. I know why you came now. But I need some time to figure it all out, you know?” I did. “Besides, maybe my first communion in 65 years needs to be with people in church. Am I making any sense.” I replied, “Of course. And I’ll be back in case you change your mind.” “Green shirt and all?” she teased. “At least until Monday . . . Peace be with you.” “And also with you, Father. And Father?” “Yes,” as I stood in the door. “Thanks for taking that call from the hospital. I’m not sure what I wanted when I had them call you, but I am so glad we met. It’s almost like you were in my classes and my church back then.” “Mary, it’s almost like that because He was.”