Covid, Extreme Unction & The Untidy Disruption of Grace

My father died in 2003. Fifteen years later, in a class taught by Miroslav Volf—in an assignment I recall being about JOY—I wrote a poem about my father’s death called “Extreme Unction.”

I was a Catholic in 2003, the orthodox kind which frowned upon any deviation from the Magisterium, one who cared much about every jot and tittle of the Catechism and who was much concerned about the “true faith.” You see, my dying father could not legally receive the last rites, and so all I wanted was a blessing, a prayer asking for God’s favor and protection.

In 2018, when I wrote the poem about asking a priest for a blessing so many years before, I was two years into finding healing from the legalism and fundamentalism of the Catholic Church I knew, and which repeatedly made me feel unwelcome. (The LGBTQ community is feeling the brunt of the Catholic Church’s litmus tests for welcome right now.) When I wrote this poem about my father, I was beginning the healing process in the warm welcome of the Episcopal Church, while also studying theology, earning a Master of Divinity.

And now, it’s 2021. I have spent the better part of the last 7 months working as a hospital chaplain in a level I Trauma Center which serves 26 counties. I applied for the residency position in the fall of 2019, envisioning, were I to be accepted, a placid year of education and spiritual growth and of refining the art of kindness that is chaplaincy. Instead, we resident chaplains entered full-time work in the hospital as COVID-19 began its second surge.

We chaplains moved from bedside to bedside in endless procession, in a sort of fox-hole religion where lay men and women like myself, some Quaker (a decidedly ritual-less bunch), one laywoman questioning her faith, myself an Episcopal laywoman, and a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, (in addition to three permanent staff chaplains, a Buddhist, another Episcopalian, and a Catholic priest) blessing and saying end of life prayers and anointing the dying with oil because the dying, and often their families, find comfort in the ritual marking of the dying person’s final passage.

And here we were, in this foxhole, anointing the Christians who wanted anointing, often after they died, not because at that point their souls needed it, but because their family’s needed to witness it, the ritual, even when the families themselves were not religious. We anointed whomever asked; we extract no formal professions of faith from those on their deathbeds. Families often need the solemn acknowledgement that a specific life has ended. And for the faithless, a colleague taught me secular blessings of reassurance, inviting into the room all the love the patient has ever received and has ever given, swaddling them with peace as they pass.

So this poem about a death in 2003 and written in 2018 was published last month. I barely noticed its publication because of all the terror of the hospital, all the fatigue and nightmares and renegotiation of faith that this terrible pandemic has required of me and of many. The sentiment of this poem seems quaint to me now, that as a young Catholic woman I was terrified to ask a very kind priest to say a word or two of good will over my dying father, and that I was stunned by how that tentative request turned out. And that a pandemic years later would send me room to room, donning and doffing full PPE, trying in some small, ill-equipped way to offer the same good words, the same good hope, despite my unworthiness.

Jesus was a radical disruption. Jesus was eternity breaking into time. Christianity isn’t tidy. Everything is grace.

You can read that poem, published in Earth and Altar, HERE.