Beauty Born of Grief

Paul Palumbo

“Pastor, it feels like people are coming to us to die!” Of course that is true on a number of levels. In our adult catechumenate program, people learn to know and love Jesus and to pick up their cross and follow him. Dying to our selves is a central tenet of the Christian faith.

But Lord, have mercy! For a long stretch of time, our little congregation was facing the death of so many. The last of our charter members were lingering at death’s door, while too many people so young and so alive faced a slow, difficult decline in the wake of chemotherapy and radiation.

At one point, three women in the prime of life were facing cancer. Two of them had come through the adult catechumenate and been recently baptized. When the cancers hit, the catechumenate group simply morphed into a loyal cadre that could accompany people in their struggle to survive.

In the case of one of the women, the catechist and I went to the hospital to console her and her family after her surgical ordeal. With us standing at her bedside, this newly baptized child of God said, “You were the two people who were at my side when I was baptized. It is always death and life, isn’t it?”

Her story, and that of the others, began a new way of being for our congregation. The ministry of accompaniment was born, and we continue to accompany people who are sick and facing death. For some years now, we have assembled a group of mostly church members who go to visit the dying, the sick, and the elderly. One of our company put it well when he said, “I’m completely afraid of being with people who are dying. So I know I have to go to them.”

An Idea is Born

This honest expression of fear, and the “Amens” it evoked from others, sparked a conversation about why people are afraid to visit nursing homes, sickbeds, and the like. Along with having to face mortality, people are reluctant to go into such situations for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. “Should I talk about death? Do I touch the person I am visiting? Should I pray? What do I pray?” People who would like to bear witness to Jesus in the face of mortality do not always have what they need to do so.

From these experiences came the idea of creating a liturgy for the visitation of the dying. Of course, pastors have liturgies at their disposal in their occasional service books,but we wanted to create something that was accessible to anyone and also was touched with a beauty born out of our congregational grief and solidarity.

For several months our group of eight or nine met to gather materials for such a liturgy. Our musician wrote musical pieces, others selected prayers and blessings, while still others wrote material and edited. We chose Psalms by asking members for those they found most meaningful and reassuring. 

Death and Transfiguration

Meanwhile, one member happily noticed that reading certain children’s books to the elderly was a source of great delight to them. This helped shape our thinking that the liturgy should be not only meaningful in its words but visually beautiful.

We believe that truth and beauty rooted in a particular congregation can communicate to the wider church. While compiling the liturgy, we enlisted local artist Wendy Schramm to join our meetings and apply her watercolor craft to our work. Our church has a room dedicated to art, with painting, batik, a loom for weaving, and whatever else an artist might bring. Wendy spent her time in the art room and outdoors, painting and praying over the liturgy, painting the frame for each piece.

Restful and comforting beauty was her goal. Yet not every piece of the liturgy is restful, nor of course is every moment of dying. There are stark pieces in the liturgy that she matched in visual art. Restful, stark, reassuring: It is all beautiful. As the Akathist of Thanksgiving proclaims, ”All true beauty draws the soul to You.”

And this is the point. Beauty is at the heart of the Christian faith. As Alexander Schmemann points out in For the Life of the World, “Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful.’ And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love.”

To me, the liturgy makes clear that this beauty is an expression of extravagant love. It is extravagant love precisely for people in whom the world would never consider investing such extravagance – people who are dying, who are not going to be around to appreciate it for long. We who follow Jesus use this and all kinds of beauty to express the love of God to the least among us.

It might sound like a fool’s errand to create such a work of beauty for dying people. But I also believe this: If the church dedicated itself to just one thing, to accompanying the dying well, it would not be wrapped up in anxiety about whether the church itself was going to survive. It would have no time for such anxiety and it would not need to worry anyway. The world would know where to come to die and to live in the beauty of extravagant love.

The Rev. Paul Palumbo is pastor of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Chelan, WA. In 2012, he and a team from his church participated in the Congregational Project of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. During the week-long intensive there, in consultation with other participant congregations, Lake Chelan church members further developed their Liturgy for the Visitation of the Dying.