‘Every act of love is an act of bravery…’
These words came to me as, driving to an appointment in the parish where I am a Deacon, I admitted to God that I was afraid.
On the seat beside me were my sacramental robes -a long white alb and a red silk stole for ‘Kingdom’ season, the time in the Church’s year between All Saints and Advent- the run up to Christmas.
I was driving to meet a parishioner and she and I were due to take home communion; pre-consecrated at the main Sunday service; to some of the residents of the town’s Alzheimers and Dementia care home.
I was afraid for several reasons… firstly because I have no very elderly relatives, and I am uncertain at the best of times, what to offer to elderly people in care. Secondly, because these folks are particularly frail in mind, I was afraid that I might not even be recognisable to them… I might make no sense, and the strange offering of dry wafer-bread, wine and prayers, might be alien to them.
And thirdly, I was afraid, because the last time we went -we were apparently unexpected by the management or staff-despite the visit being prearranged and confirmed, and upon entering a lounge where ‘Titanic’ was blaring loudly on a widescreen TV – and many residents were asleep- the Lay Pastoral Assistants and I had felt so very unwelcome that we had left without giving out communion.
‘I’m afraid’ I admitted to God as I set off with a full set of sacramental vestments to enter the alien environment of security-coded doors, magnolia walls and wipe-clean seatcushions.
‘Yes, Every act of love is an act of bravery…’ was the reply in my heart.
It was a book by Eileen Schamy -‘A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia, More than Body, Brain and Breath’ which I had picked up after the previous aborted attempt to take communion to the nursing home… that mentioned that clerical robes –full regalia as it were- was just the sort of bold visual cue which enables dementia sufferers and Alzheimers patients to find context and meaning -a long white robe and stole, so much more striking than just a white dog-collar, says ‘this is church now’.
And so as I stood in the understated and bland lobby of the carehome, I put on my alb and tied my stole, deacon-style, feeling somewhere between vulnerable and determined -like a soldier ‘girding his loins’ for battle, but behind enemy lines. But once dressed -it was the manageress at the front door who appeared nervous- apologetic that she had not offered me somewhere to change and sorry that she did not know how I ‘usually did these things’…The parishioner who had come as pastoral assistant, and I then found ourselves leading the way upstairs to a lounge where THIS TIME, staff were awaiting us and called to residents ‘here they are now!‘
So, taking a small hostess table I placed it right in the centre of the beige room and began to set up a sacred space – dressing it with fair linen and a cross as I introduced us, saying where we had come from and what we were bringing, I set out the elements of consecrated wine and wafers in their shiny chalice and paten. The eyes of several residents had lit up with pleasure and recognition as I had entered in robes and as I explained that we had brought communion, two of them nodded and said, oh yes please – and one of the staff went and switched the television right off. After a bible reading and prayers many recieved communion with startling clarity -one man waking from a doze to ask for communion- and another lady talking lucidly about how she and her husband used to live beside a church near Melksham and were caretakers there for many years, and the elderly priest came and cooked them dinner once. And one lovely young member of nursing staff recieved both communion and requested a blessing too-and the whole thing was light and peace and truth.
On the way out I felt thankful, amazed and glad -I had been so fearful, had felt, after the previous time that I was coming onto hostile territory and would perhaps be recieved as a stranger -instead as I entered, determined to love rather than give in to fear, reliant upon God and admitting my own total weakness… I found myself clothed in God’s strength, and at the heart of a moment of hope, strength and recognition that was quite miraculous.
I think it would be fair to say that the most important things we do, small or big, take acts of some kind of courage, and that the most courageous thing in the world is to love and in fact no act of real love comes without the challenge of overcoming our fear…
So I will not forget those words in the years to come, when I am faced with the challenge of going into places that seem dark and fearful…
For you deliver a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down.
It is You who light my lamp;
the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. (Psalm 18:27-28)