Ministry at the nursing home that occupies the former vicarage just next to Church in the Valley is a comparatively new development.
When I first arrived here, two years ago, I included it in my rounds of "Hello, I'm the new vicar - just called in to introduce myself and see if there was anything I could do"
and received a response marginally less polite than
"Don't call us, we'll call you".
Shortly afterwards, the niece of one of the residents contacted me to arrange Home Communion for her aunt, and M., our wonderful Reader, adopted this ministry and has been visiting monthly ever since....but despite her best efforts, it seemed impossible to build further relationships with that community.
Then, early this year, came a change of management. Suddenly the church was not just tolerated - we were positively welcome. A monthly Communion for residents and families was requested, and launched, and I've found myself called on a few occasions to pray with someone close to death. Today, when I arrived for Communion, I was invited to join the welfare committee.
Yes, I agreed.
You saw that coming, didn't you?
Before anyone explodes with protective horror - this is a community of some 40 housebound souls, living on my doorstep.
Because they can no longer engage with the outside world, the outside world pretty much fails to engage with them.
Isn't it a good thing that the church should be the exception to that rule?
I know that it doesn't have to be the vicar who does the engaging, though I'm recognising the value of the collar as I try to communicate who I am to those wandering in the confusion of extreme age and infirmity. My thought is that I serve on this committee (4 meetings a year, lasting about an hour) for a year or two then pass it on to one of the lovely pastoral group that has emerged from our visiting course...but that at this early stage it's quite good to be as officially visible as I can.
But none of this is actually what I wanted to think about.
After the service I was asked to go to visit a lady in her room, as she was too weak to move from her bed.
Indeed, she is so very weak that she can barely muster the strength to speak.This makes for uncomfortable visits. I'm unsure on what basis the staff decided that she would like to see the vicar...I've not encountered any of her family, though when I signed in this afternoon her visitors had just left, so I have no idea whether she is a person of lifelong faith or someone seeking reassurance in a world where everything seems to be falling away.
This afternoon when I arrived, she was being given tea...
A nursing auxiliary spooned soup with infinite care and tenderness, teaspoon by patient teaspoon into a mouth that opened reflexively until C decided that she had had enough. As I watched them, - the carer, perhaps 18, possessed of a tranquil, unconscious beauty, the cared-for in her 90s, her features collapsing into themselves as can happen with the very aged, - the whole world seemed to shrink. Here life, potential, hope, confronted age, weariness, diminution...C seemed almost oblivious of the girl's presence. Only the opening mouth suggested that she was in any way involved in the process...but she seemed to draw strength as much from the attentive gentleness as from the food. The whole transaction was life-giving, to those involved and to me, the observor.
But then tea was over. "She's all yours" said the carer, departing.
C was silent. She usually is, though her mouth works constantly. Mistaking the situation, I offered her a drink and, laboriously, she whispered "No thank you" - but it cost her so much effort.
I was at a loss.
The staff had been sure that a visit from the vicar would be welcome, but now I was here I was unsure what I could offer.
I murmured a few soothing inanities, suggested that we might pray, then launched with some desperation into the Lord's Prayer, then a few words of intercession and blessing. Through it all, C appeared disengaged...no eye contact, no change in her demeanour, either positive or negative.
Would anointing be welcome?
Should I try to find a hand to hold, somewhere beneath the bedclothes? Should I touch her head in blessing?
Harmless gestures, - expressions of love and care in the right context, but as she lay there helpless, impassive, it seemed to me that they carried the potential for violation.
Amid the joy of broken relationships restored, and the wonder of a resurrection breakfast on the shore, John 21 carries this bleak little verse, the shape of things to come
"I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."
With the best intentions, longing only to companion someone as they draw close to the end of their journey, I was mindful of becoming part of that process.
C., if I trespassed in your life, in your space, I'm so sorry.
Thank you for helping me to reflect a little on age, dependence, and the shadow of death.