Unholy Holiness: a Pastoral Memory


          I had heard the stories:  “N” barking on the telephone; “N” making outrageous demands on those who tried to help her; “N” lashing out at the clergy.  A very feisty, very angry woman.  “N” had good reason to be angry at life and the world, reason to be angry at God.  She had been widowed, left to cope alone with adult children who had physical and mental issues.  Added to this burden were her own physical problems that confined her to her home in a wheelchair.  Her mind, however, and her often acid tongue, were clearly not confined.  They continued to function quite, quite well!

          Sigh.  Serving as a new pastor at “N’s” church, I was scheduled to take the sacrament of holy communion to her.  “Be careful,” I was told, but all the warnings I had been given hardly prepared me for the shrill voice I heard screaming for someone to “answer the damn door” when I rang “N’s” doorbell.

          Heart pounding, I entered that “damn door” when one of her adult children opened it and then waited as he wheeled “N” into the living room.  She was disheveled and clearly in pain, her face distorted as she said her “hello”, which sounded much more like “what the hell are you doing here?”, even though I had made the appointment with her just a few days earlier.

          I introduced myself and made some comments inviting her to tell me of her illness and her pain.  She did.  With very few pauses to catch her breath.  She had a story to tell, and she would tell it, and I knew simply to sit and listen. 

          “We’re off to a good start,” I thought, and I was becoming more relaxed, when suddenly a second adult child exploded through the front door and virtually collapsed on the sofa.  Needless to say, I was very concerned and wondered what needed to be done for her.  But clearly “N” was not the least bit concerned, and the shouting match that ensued between mother and daughter quickly assured me that the daughter was quite okay, physically at least.  More okay, in fact, than I was at the moment.  I cannot deny that I was relieved when she slammed back out the door.  “N” simply shrugged.

          I opened the way for her to talk about the distressing episode, but no, she wasn’t at all interested.  She looked instead at my small communion kit, and I knew it was time to proceed to the business at hand.  I carefully opened my kit, filled our two cups with wine, and placed the cups and the paten with the wafers on a clean napkin spread on the table.  I read a passage of Scripture, we shared a few thoughts about it, and then I began the liturgy:  “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks…” 

          Again, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.  Very solemnly.  Very thoughtfully.  Very reverently, “N,” who moments before had been cursing her fate and screaming at her children, brought her gnarled hands together and quietly bowed her head.  And with that simple gesture, I could feel “N” stepping into another sphere, into a holy space.  And the room, which moments before had been filled with such unholy venom, was transformed by that simple gesture into a hallowed, sacred place. 

          Amazing.  I had never before encountered such reverence in all the many home communion visits I had made as a pastor.  I had entered “N’s” home praying simply to be able to survive the visit.  But I left that day humbled by what I had learned.  For what I had seen and what I had experienced was the reality that the simple gesture of folding the hands and bowing the head could open up a sense of the holy, even in the midst of all the messiness of life.   

          All this was far away and many long years ago, but I still think of “N” now and then, resting as she is now in the nearer Presence of God.  And when I think of her, I often find myself bowing my head, folding my hands, and stepping into that sacred space that hovers just beneath, just above, just beyond all the scarred and fractured hours of our days and of our nights. 

          I really must think of “N” more often.  

2 thoughts on “Unholy Holiness: a Pastoral Memory

  1. Good Morning Friend – so wonderful and so true….these ‘habits’ of the body, soul and mind and the different spaces, places and memories they take us! I think your Sunday morning was put to very good use – very fruitful and meaningful writing! Thank you!!

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