The grey sky hung so low that the stone edifice some people referred to as the church was barely visible. Inside this near-empty bastion, rain slinked through the vaulted ceiling like a snake in an ancient, fallen garden. Silence. Except for the slithering drip-drops dripping into buckets stationed throughout the sanctuary to trap the ruinous serpent.
On the left side of the sanctuary, and through a large door made of oak ornamented with carved names of donors no one remembered, a venerable stairwell ascended to the priest's study. The study sat atop the restrooms on the south side of the church, which allowed sunlight to radiate through the windows and gossip to coruscate through the floor. The previous priest, the one that the children called Pissed Yawn instead of Priest John, had disdain for these ungodly distractions. However, the young priest, fresh from seminary, received these distractions as gifts of grace—radiant sunlight and candid conversation—that illuminated his work and afforded precious insight into the life of the church.
On this specific day however, there was neither sunlight nor conversation—just a pious hush. It was late morning, on Ash Wednesday, and the young priest was in his study preparing to preside over his very first Ash Wednesday service. For as long as he could remember he had imagined this monumental moment in which he would inaugurate a forty-day lenten journey. Oh the growth! he thought. If only I could help the congregation see. If only I could help them understand.
With a sharpened pencil on the stand beside his great reading chair, and the Good Book in his lap, he slowly opened the leather-bound diary with golden-edged pages that was given to him at his seminary graduation. On the first page were a few words written by Priest John:
Congratulations! I honestly didn’t think you could do it. That’s not quite right. I think, I wondered if you should do it. Well you have and good for you. Here’s a book for gathering your ruminations.
2 Samuel 19:4
The young priest smirked as the depraved thought came to him, No wonder the kids call you Pissed Yawn. What good tidings! But it didn’t really matter. That old curmudgeon couldn’t ruin the splendor of this young priest’s day. He abruptly turned the page, picked up the sharpened pencil, and began his first entry:
February 23, 1977
Later today I will remove the palm branches from the closet where Priest John stored them. Nearly one year ago, on Palm Sunday, the children waved these branches while the church sang out, “Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest!” I will take those very branches and burn them down into a fine ash. After that I will place the ash in a bowl and mix in some water. Then, near the end of tonight’s service, I will use the ash that once sang “Hosanna!” and use it to smear a cross on each person’s brow while looking into their frightened eyes and pronouncing, “Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return. Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ.”
He leaned forward in his chair, closed his eyes, and began to pray out loud, “Reveal yourself to them Lord. In their torment, reveal yourself. In their ridicule, reveal yourself. In their death, reveal yourself. Use their Golgothas to form Jesus in their hearts and to increase their hope for heaven.” He could feel his heart throbbing. He wiped away a tear. Sitting back he put down his pencil and reached over to a shelf to take hold of a brown jar. He removed the lid and began pulling shreds of tobacco from the jar to fill his pipe. Carefully, he pressed each layer in perfect circumference until it was full and evenly packed. He lit a match and drew in the flame. A smile crept onto his face. He pressed down the wily tobacco with his thumb. Lighting another match and swirling it above the bowl like cherubim, he drew in the flame again. Lenten incense. He leaned forward and stoked the fire, then sat back in his chair. Puff. Little puffs: puff, puff, puff. Exhale. As he sat smoking his pipe he couldn’t help but appreciate the coincidence of his charcoaled thumb wrapped around the bowl of his pipe and pointing at him, as if it were reminding him of the importance of this day. Yes, he thought, remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return. Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ. He sighed a deep sigh, and said “I will. I will. And in so doing, I live this life for God.” He picked up his pencil and copied down the verses he had been reading from the Good Book:
“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Peter 1:6-7. Oh Lord, teach us, one and all, to rejoice in the blessings that arise in suffering…
There was a knock. “What is it?” An anemic voice replied through the thick door, “I’m sorry to disturb you. A call just came through.” “Yes?” “It’s Billy.” “Yes?” “It’s Billy Barnes. His time has come and his wife is requesting that you visit.” “Hmm.” “What’s that?” “Yes, Thank you. I'll leave soon.” “When?” “Soon enough.” Drawing again on his pipe, he set it down on the Good Book. He then took the Good Book and placed it on the stand next to his chair. As he did this, he again noticed his smeared thumb, and he nodded with assurance. Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.
As the young priest walked from the church to Billy Barnes’ bedside, he basked in providence. I cannot believe the fortune of this moment. My first bedside visit, on Ash Wednesday! He smiled as he walked, until he realized that he was smiling and remembered where he was going. He prayed, “Oh God, help me not to smile.” His thoughts then turned serious. He reflected on a Convalescence and Bedside Ministry seminar from seminary on administering last rites. The lecture was titled “Jesus’ Last Words from the Cross: A Last Rite Ritual.” The young priest appreciated the simple rubric that Jesus’ final words afforded ministry in death.
Imagining himself at Billy’s bedside, he rehearsed the seven-part conversation:
“Billy, Jesus prayed, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ Are there sins you wish to confess prior to death? There is forgiveness in Jesus.”
“Billy, Jesus declared to the thief on the cross, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Is it your desire to enter paradise after you die? Do you have questions about heaven and hell, everlasting life and judgment?”
“Billy, Jesus spoke, ‘Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.’ Is your home in order Billy? What relationships are in need of mending? Do you have concerns about your family?”
“Billy, Jesus asked the Father a question, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Do you feel forsaken? Are there questions about God that you want to talk about?”
“Billy, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’ Do you thirst? What is it that you long for. What are your deepest needs and wants in life?”
“Billy, Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished.’ Are there prayers that you need to pray or conversations that you need to have or amends that you need to make to be able to say, ‘It is finished?’”
“Billy, Jesus’ last word was ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ What needs to happen for you to speak these words? What remains? What is left? What do you want to talk about?”
Of course, the young priest reminded himself, the conversation wouldn't be so static; it would be fluid. The conversation would take many turns—expected and unexpected. By the end there would be a labyrinth in their wake. And yet, there would be an end. An end to life's labyrinth in which the dying prays in a calm and steadfast spirit, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Arriving at the house, he paused at the stoop to summarize the outline for administering last rites one last time: forgiveness, paradise, family, forsakenness, thirst, finished, commit. “Oh God, help me not to smile.”
Before the young priest reached out to knock on the door, it flung open and out tromped an impressively large woman, dressed as a nurse. The priest tipped his head to her and said “Good day” as she passed by. Without missing a step and continuing right along she replied over her shoulder, “Good luck with the whole bunch of ’em Father!” He turned to watch her go. He then turned back, stepped inside, and closed the door.
The young priest went up a few steps and entered into a living room, intentionally dark. The blinds were closed and only two floor lamps were on. To his left there was a gas fireplace emitting heat as if it were below zero outside, and sitting on the hearth in front of Dante’s inferno was Billy’s mom, Maureen. Maureen had short white hair that protruded more like whiskers than hair. Her large dark eyes, mysteriously close to her smug nose, drooped like molding potatoes, and on her rotund lap slept a bulldog that could easily be mistaken for a sibling. To his right, on a rose-colored davenport, sat Gail, Maureen’s daughter. Gail’s legs and arms were crossed. Her eyes were covered by bangs, but her taut lips and quivering chins revealed a rift. Pacing the room and followed by a toy poodle was Joan, Billy’s wife. In contrast to the others, her petite frame pacing the room gave the appearance of a sardine fleeing from whales. Short curly hair, tiny limbs, and a gait that trotted more than walked, her beady eyes were glistening. Her nose, a little offset to the right, ran with fluid. She dabbed at it continuously as she spoke, “Your son is in pain, Maureen. Pain!” The poodle yipped in agreement. Feeling emboldened by the support, she continued, “I’m going in there, and I’m giving him his pills.” “Do not go into that room with those pills, young lady,” growled Maureen, “they are killing him!” “No Maureen, the cancer is killing him. I’m giving him his pills.” As Joan turned toward Billy’s room, she realized that the young priest had entered the house and was standing in the shadows observing this interaction. Unsure about how much he had heard, and feeling embarrassed, Joan squeaked, “Most people announce themselves when entering a room!” And under her breath he heard her whimper, “Priest John always introduced himself.” The young priest had grown accustom to these kinds of comparisons. The parishioners were certain that he would never live up to his predecessor. But such sentiment didn’t bother him. He knew his calling. He graduated magna cum laude from seminary. He had earned the degree Master of Divinity! His presence in the church was a fortress of pious wisdom, whether they realized it or not. Besides, he wasn’t at this house to help them. No one could! he thought to himself. Eager to avoid more comparisons, and recognizing that he had become the unfortunate sardine, the young priest apologized for his intrusion and asked, “May I see Billy?” “Yes. But not with her!” Maureen pointed at Joan. “She’s trying to kill my son with those pills.” Without responding, he quietly turned and went down the hall to see Billy.
As the young priest walked down the hall, he reflected on his last bedside visit with Billy Barnes, which was several months back. At the time, Billy had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Besides the physical pain he was experiencing, he looked surprisingly young and very much alive. Billy was a large man, easily over six feet tall, and from his frame hung muscle. He had a full head of almond-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, a thick curly beard, and substantial, wrinkly lips that seemed to somehow restrain his booming voice. Billy loved the outdoors. He loved to hunt and fish. His only greater love belonged to his wife and two little children. The young priest remembered thinking at the time that Billy spoke of his family with a delicacy and tenderness that was uncharacteristic of an outdoorsman.
During their last meeting together, Billy had asked for a verse or passage that would help give him a sense of peace in the midst of his sickness. At the time, the young priest was quick to offer a few verses from Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
As they read through the passage together, the young priest had felt unexpected gratitude well up in his heart. What have I done to deserve this gift of giving such comfort to the sick? It was a good thing to help the dying.
After offering a short prayer, the young priest stood, patted Billy on his shoulder, tilted his head forward and offered that priestly smile that communicated empathy wrapped up in religious certainty. Since then, the young priest had received updates on Billy, but he hadn’t been able to visit. Instead, he had sent notes and prayed prayers.
Upon entering Billy’s room, the young priest noticed that the passage he had offered at his last visit had multiplied like manna. The wall, the door, the dresser, the television, and the bedside table all had the verses from Revelation 21 either taped to them or set upon them. Lying on Billy’s lap was his Bible, and it too was open to the passage. In that moment the young priest was grateful to find that Billy was asleep because it allowed him the opportunity to pause and bask in the comfort that he was able to offer Billy throughout his decline. Unfortunately, the young priest’s joy was quickly interrupted by a malevolent mixture of feces and ammonia wafting in the air. Something was pungent. As the young priest looked around to try and figure out where it was coming from, he realized that it was coming from Billy. For the first time in his life, the young priest was smelling death. Feeling a little overwhelmed, he looked to wake Billy but he wasn’t prepared to see what he saw. Billy’s skin had become sallow. His face and arms were spotted, and the spots were dry and cracked. In a few places the spots were emitting a pus-blood secretion. His almond-brown hair was now gone and lone tufts protruded from his skull like decaying sunflowers. No longer large and strong, Billy had shriveled. His skin hung from bone, which clearly missed the muscle that had once been ever present.
Beginning to feel queasy, the young priest slowly approached Billy, and as he did, he quietly leaned over him, planning to gently tap him and wake him up. But just then, Billy opened his eyes. Seeing the young priest just inches from his face, Billy’s lips attempted to part so that he could speak, but dried saliva was fighting to keep his lips together. And so, rather than speak, Billy oozed what seemed to be the attempt at a single word. It was a terrible exhalation. Dry and putrid, the young priest abruptly stood erect to distance himself from the stench. At first he felt embarrassed. But then he realized that Billy didn’t know that it was his breath that had caused him to stand so quickly. Feeling thankful for that grace he slowly sat down on the chair, beside the bed.
“Hello Mr. Barnes, Joan called and asked me to visit. I’d like to talk through a few questions with you, if that’s okay?” Again, Billy attempted to speak. And again it sounded like the attempt at a single word. The young priest could sense that Billy didn’t have much time remaining. He went right to work, “Mr. Barnes, Jesus prayed, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ Are there sins you wish to confess prior to death? There is forgiveness in Jesus.” Gaining some strength, Billy spoke more clearly, “Children.” “Yes,” said the young priest, “what about the children?” “Yes” said Billy. Confused by this interruption, the young priest soldiered on, “Mr. Barnes, Jesus declared to the thief on the cross, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Is it your desire to enter paradise after you die? Do you have questions about heaven and hell, everlasting life and judgment?” Billy spoke again, “The children.” This isn’t going anywhere, the young priest thought to himself. And so, he paused to try and understand what Billy was talking about. “What about the children, Mr. Barnes?” “Yes,” said Billy. Yes, what? thought the young priest. After a moment of silence, Billy asked, “What about the children?” The young priest began to understand. “You want to know about the children, Mr. Barnes?” “Yes,” said Billy. “Which children, sir? Your children? Are you asking about your children?” “Yes,” said Billy, “my children. Their children. Their children’s children. Your children. What about the children?” “Sir,” said the young priest, “I’m not sure about the children, but I am sure that we have some important matters to discuss before you pass on to a better world. Mr. Barnes, Jesus spoke, ‘Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.’ Is your home in order Billy? What relationships are in need of mending? Do you have concerns about your family?” “Yes. I do.” said Billy. “What about the children?” “What about them, Mr. Barnes?” “I’m dying,” said Billy, “I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. That’s my judgment.” A frenzied energy was beginning to build as he spoke. “But what about all of the children who live on in this sick and sad, and death-filled world?" Before the young priest had time to reply, Billy sat up. His eyes were aglow; his neck was strained; his fists were clenched. He then, with what seemed to be every last bit of strength remaining in his body, erupted, “What about the fucking children?”
The words rang in the silence. The young priest was stunned. Joan came running into the room. Maureen and Gail stumbled in after. Joan was shrieking, “What in God’s name is going on in here?” Maureen, the first to look at her son, began to cry, “Oh God. Oh God. He’s dead. Joan, Billy’s dead.” At this, the young priest turned his attention back to Billy. No longer sitting up, he was lying on his pillow. His eyes were open, and his mouth was agape, but he was most certainly dead. Looking at that open mouth the young priest could not stop hearing his question, “What about the fucking children?” He looked from Billy to Joan, and then to Maureen, and then down at Maureen’s legs, around which two little children appeared out of nowhere. The littlest one, a girl, said, “Mommy, why is Daddy yelling?” And then looking toward the bed, she asked, “Is daddy okay? He looks funny.” Before Joan had time to answer, the young priest stood up and said, “I am very sorry for your loss. I must be going.” He quickly brushed by the women and out of the room. They were aghast. Joan yelled out, “Where are you off to in such a hurry?” Maureen, more matter of fact, inquired, “Where the hell are you going in a moment like this?”
As the young priest approached his house, a soft wet drizzle was falling. The grey sky still hung low, which made the glow from the front windows all the more radiant. Walking past the windows toward the door, the young priest paused to look inside. A small fire was burning in the fireplace, and a single lamp was on beside the couch. On the couch sat his wife, cuddled up with their son. They were covered by a blanket and reading a book together. The young priest, who had been trying hard to remain steady since leaving Billy’s house, began to lose his composure. He started to cry. His wife looked up and noticed him standing outside. She could see that something was wrong and began to stand, but the young priest waved at her to stay seated. He then walked to the door, slowly turned the knob, attempted a deep breath, and went inside.
He must have been quite a sight to his young family. He was always so orderly—so measured and put together. Not now. Wet from his walk and his hair all askew, he stood before them, trembling. His son was confused. He had never witnessed his dad like this. To make matters worse, he thought that his dad’s crying, which had now built to outright sobs, was laughter. Beginning to giggle with delight, he jumped up off of the couch and ran to the young priest asking, “What’s so funny daddy? You look so silly in your wet clothes. What happened? Why are you laughing so much?” Before the young priest’s wife had a chance to hush him, the boy asked again, “What’s so funny, daddy? What’s so funny?” The boy’s laughter grew. “Not now, son.” managed the young priest. And quickly again, between gasps, almost like a prayer, “Please, not now.” “But daddy,” said the son, “please tell me what’s so funny!” The son’s sheer delight had the effect of turning the young priest’s anguish into rage. He dropped to his knees and began to convulse. Raising his voice, he begged, “Shut up, son. Please, shut up.” The son had never heard words like these from his dad, which had the effect of making him laugh even harder, so that now, he too was crying. As the young priest’s wife got up off the couch to intervene, the young priest began to shout, “Shut up! Shut up right now!” while the son continued to laugh and cry, and scream, “What’s so funny, daddy?” Unable to control himself any longer, the young priest reached out and grabbed his son by the shirt with one hand, and with the other he placed it over his son’s mouth and squeezed. Looking into his son’s eyes, he growled, “Shut. Up.”
Suddenly, the son realized that his dad wasn’t laughing. He heard his mom cry out, “Let him go. You let him go right now!” The room became blurry. He felt his dad let go of his shirt and uncover his mouth. He heard him walk across the room, open the door, and leave the house. He felt his mom wrapping him up in her arms as she whispered, “Everything is okay. Everything is okay.”
The young priest burst into the stone edifice some people referred to as the church. He ran past the water-filled buckets in the sanctuary, through the large oak ornamented door, and he ascended the venerable stairwell to his study. Upon entering, he slammed the door closed and moved quickly toward his leather-bound diary sitting on the stand where he left his pipe atop the Good Book. As he reached for the diary, his knee bumped into the reading chair, which bumped into the stand and knocked everything onto the floor. He cursed, “God damn it.”
Kneeling on the floor, he took hold of the leather-bound diary. It was covered with ash. He cursed again, “God damn it.” Opening the diary to his first entry, his eyes were drawn to the words, “… smear a cross on each person's brow while looking into their frightened eyes… ” He cackled as he turned to Priest John’s note. Placing his forefinger on the first word, “Congratulations!” he slowly dragged his ash-covered finger down to the reference at the bottom: 2 Samuel 19:4. “2 Samuel 19:4, 2 Samuel 19:4,” he murmured to himself as he picked up the Good Book. Finding the chapter and verse, and placing his forefinger on the first word, he slowly dragged his ash-covered finger across the page as he read:
The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice,
“O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!