Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Spiritual discipline?

Next to valley church stands the old old vicarage - a huge and impressive building which must always, surely, have been too much for the clergy family to manage. It hasn't been church property for decades. The house that is now home for me was built on the site of a more recent old vicarage, a 1920s building that was much loved by the local community but less popular with those who lived there, and had to deal with the astronomical heating costs - and maintain the huge garden. That house was demolished in the vacancy before my appointment here - and I thank both God and the diocese that someone with my domestic and horticultural limitations does not have to live in it.
Meanwhile, the original vicarage still stands, a testimony to the days when the vicar really was Somebody - and, (cynics might say) its fortunes perhaps reflecting those of the church, the building is now a care cum nursing home for the elderly.

I've been a regular visitor there for some time, since a new regime decreed that the local vicar was not, after all, persona non grata, and among the residents who most welcomes Communion there is, amazingly, the daughter of the last vicar to actually LIVE in the old old vicarage. She moved away from the area sometime in the 1930s, married, but had no children, and now in her 90s, struggles with short-term memory loss, though she always knows who I am and why I am there. She lights up as she talks about the many parish children who knew her as Auntie H...and shows a childlike delight in the trinity of teddy bears that are her close companions.
Always, even on her bad days, she recognises and responds to the Sacrament - but yesterday she brought me close to tears.
You see, H is almost crippled by arthritis. Hands that once worked hard knitting and sewing for the struggling families of her father's parishes can now barely manipulate the mechanical grabber that made life manageable from her chair for some time.
She also has a tremor, which was particularly bad yesterday - but she has a will of iron.
She was not going to let anyone, but anyone, prevent her from receiving both the sacred elements herself, in her own hands even though the journey from hand to mouth involved copious false starts and took, to an observer, almost a lifetime..
I hovered, desperate to help but desperate too, not to intrude on this personal battle - wishing that I habitually brought intincted wafers, so that she might be spared going through the whole ordeal twice.
But, I suspect, H would have felt cheated if things had been any easier.
When the host had been consumed, it was time for the chalice.
No compromises allowed...
Could she close those pain-wracked fingers around the cup?
If she could, would she be able to tilt it to allow herself to sip?
She brought her head as low as she could, and laboriously brought the chalice to her lips.
Swallowing, too, cost her so much effort - but it was clear, even while I wept inside, that every second of this painful journey (which must have lasted a couple of minutes) was precious to her, somehow a spiritual discipline in itself.
I could bring the sacrament to her,(even this an unwelcome surrender as she always laments that she is not strong enough to be brought to church) but yesterday I began to understand how hugely important it is for H that she takes an active part in receiving, expressing by her efforts her longing for the One who, when we were still far off, met us in His Son...

One day soon, I think, she will have to receive under one kind...and that tiny spoon that nestles in my Home Communion set will finally get an outline. That, I think, will hurt...and we may have to do some revision of theology. For now, though,  H. will continue to "Take, eat"- and it is not for me, or anyone else, to attempt to make things easier.


Still Breathing said...

Beautiful. Jesus offers us bread and wine but we have to move towards him for it to become His body and blood. Our movement to accept His gift is part of the liturgy and this wonderful lady is right that even going to church is part of the liturgy. However even when our bodies prevent us moving physically our loving God still lets us make the same journey in our hearts.

Penelopepiscopal said...

How wonderful that she understands this to be something she does, not something that is done to or for her. I hope she will be able to keep doing it herself for a while yet, no matter how long it takes.

Richard Gillin said...

Yet again you make me look anew at something so familiar. I guess it's one reason I enjoy small services as well as big ones - the large ones can feel a little too much like a production line at times, rather than "whenever two or three are gathered together..."

Anonymous said...

Dearest Kathryn, I pray that when I get older I have some like you to bring me communion who understands. As someone with a mild tremor I know the enormous determination needed not to drop the chalice. Thank you for resisting the urge to dive in and 'help' too soon no matter how painful that is for you.

margaretkiaora said...

A poignant and helpful post for us all , not only those like me who have aged parents but for all of us in fellowships where there are people struggling just to reach the altar rail. Thank you -I have been urging a friend to let the Priest bring the elements to her , and she is insisting that she still can get up our long nave (and down a step)to stand to receive. I realise now that her struggle is part of her sacrifice of praise. A lovely post.