In the Midst of Death we are in Life.
Yesterday, I checked my e-mail and saw a message from an ex-Vestry member, that a building had collapsed at the intersection of Market St & 22nd St, just a few blocks from St Clement’s. I took the Holy Oils from the church and went to the site. It was closed off from all directions, but when the police at the perimeter saw that I was a priest they waved me through.
I stayed for three hours, talking to some of the scores of police and firefighters, some of them filthy and exhausted from pulling rubble and heavy beams from the collapsed area. A building that was being demolished had fallen on a little Thrift Shop, and no one knew how many staff or customers had been inside. The multitude of people milling around looked chaotic, but I soon saw the precision and order that the forces were using. They had been through all this before – and a fire chief told me they were always doing simulations of all sorts of disasters. My admiration for the emergency teams rose and rose.
Then one of the chief policemen quietly told me they had found a body, and would be bringing her out soon. Would I go into the paramedic’s ambulance, which would then be backed up to the corner, as near the rubble as they could get. I did, and shortly afterwards a dozen firemen held up tarpaulins as screens and the body was carried quickly from the shop and into the ambulance. I anointed her and said the prayers of commendation for the departed. Then I got out of the ambulance and it drove away quietly.
This was a most reverent and respectful way of shielding the woman from any over-zealous cameras, and I was so moved by the way all the tough men and women stood silently as I said “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”.
Then it was all action again as they returned to moving rubble, in case there were any more people trapped. (In fact, many hours later they did find five more who were dead.) I sat down on the back bumper of a fire engine and the fire marshal gave me a bottle of ice-cold soda, and then hamburgers appeared out of nowhere for us all. This part was also highly organized, and the sweating firemen needed sustenance. Water was left streaming from a fire truck, and every now and then a fireman would take off his helmet and hold his head under the cooling stream.
And then my phone vibrated, and I read the message, that a member of my Vestry had given birth to an 8 pound baby boy. I had just come from a tragic moment, and this message lifted my heart. I inverted the sentence in the Prayer Book rite for the burial of the dead, which says: “In the midst of life we are in death” and said “In the midst of death we are in life” and prayed for the new baby and its parents as well as the poor woman who had just lost her life.
A priest is privileged to be present at some of the most crucial moments of people’s existence: birth (I have baptized babies with a long spoon inserted into incubators); funerals (including that of a three year old in a little white coffin his father insisted on carrying all the way from the church to the funeral on foot, with a piper playing, and hundreds of people filling the cemetery); a death bed where an old person tells me she is very glad to be “going at last, Father” (she was 102); joyful marriages, from little Highland churches to the banks of Lake Como; intimate and sacrosanct confessions; hilarious family parties. And the priest shares them all, and sometimes goes immediately from great joy to great sorrow or vice versa, as in yesterday’s happenings.
I will celebrate my 45th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood on Tuesday of next week, St Barnabas’ Day. And as I offer the Mass at 7 a.m. that morning I will have so much to thank God for, things sad as well as joyful. But most of all I will be saying Thank you to him for letting me share in so many others’ lives and to be a sacramental channel of his healing grace.