I go to a patient in a side room. This elderly lady, about whom I know nothing, is dying and, as it turns out, has less that 24 hours left to live. She is unconscious, lying on her side, one eye and her mouth slightly open, breathing softly, unresponsive to my voice or gentle touch.
One of the amazing privileges of the hospital chaplain is being able stand and stare. I am, perhaps, a kind of voyeur, but a voyeur who sees himself, one day, on the bed, dying. She is another I. Today I am fortunate to be able to gaze and gaze. I see this body that is simply worn out.
I stand by her bed and as I look I feel a peace settle over me after this morning’s rush. I am not a very loving or compassionate person, but in this moment I feel overwhelmed by tenderness for this scrap of life unable, to my senses, to respond to God in any way, at least consciously. Who knows what goes on in the dying?
I ‘see’ God still loving her, still giving her grace, which seems to me now like a persistent, heavy snowfall softly, silently falling on her, grace piling upon grace. Whatever her goodness or lack of goodness, despite her seeming inability to respond to God or bring her consciousness to bear on this reality – despite everything that we usually think of as necessary for a person to be in connection with God – at this moment, I ‘see’ that God’s giving and desire to give to her is not – will never be – checked.
God cannot help it. Irrespective of our ability or wish to respond, the torrent of love and grace that flows from God continues unabated. We indigents can never step outside God’s desire for us and this gratuitous, intemperate outpouring. I can feel it now, on the surface of this body, this skin, the snow falling and falling on me, on all of us. This dying woman was my teacher and I can feel these lessons still.
God’s love and grace is not dependent upon anything I do. It is not earned by achievements, by duty or by goodness. This is completely different from how things usually work. We are exhorted to study, pass exams, work hard and then we will get the rewards of money, security, happiness and being well thought of. We are expected to go to church, to study the scriptures, to spend time in prayer and then we will grow close to God and become holy. With God, all these efforts are unimportant; they are important for us, perhaps, but they are not how things work with God. There is nothing we can do to improve our standing with God.
The very places where we expect God to be absent are where God is most present. In the irresponsible near-death coma, in the self-forgetting of dementia, in the places that terrify us the most because we seem to be least like the selves we have come to know over a lifetime, there God is, comatose, demented.
It seems to me that our job, and the work of prayer, is simply to put ourselves in the way of – to crack ourselves open to – being drenched by that love and grace. There is nothing more important in life than this.