The Advent of Freedom

Finding God in a Hospice Room
De Greeff Hospice house in St. Louis (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

Advent is supposed to be a hopeful time of expectation. Liturgical rituals immerse us in a season of light breaking through the darkness, and we meditate on the inconceivable mystery of God becoming human. I participated in a different, unexpected vigil these past few weeks. I sat in a hospice room waiting for my mother to die.

My mother was a good Catholic until the end. Educated by Mercy nuns in Baltimore, she spent her final hours at a Catholic hospice near my parents’ house—Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), an ancient title for the Virgin Mary. Through the fog of exhaustion and grief, we watched as nurses cared for her with quiet dignity. My mom slept and rarely opened her eyes, her pain carefully managed. Close friends came to say their goodbyes. Stories that made us cry and laugh filled the room, where a crucifix hung on the wall. One of the kids who grew up in the recreation center she directed, now a burly New York City cop, drove five hours to see her. Her old basketball coach, still witty and well-coiffed in her 80s, stopped by. At other times, I sat with my mom alone, holding a hand that could no longer squeeze back. Even though we couldn’t communicate, I sensed she knew I was there watching over her, an inversion of the way she watched over me as an infant.

Waiting for someone you love to die is a surreal experience, where the sacred and profane meet. Nothing I’ve experienced in the grandest cathedrals compared with accompanying the person who gave me life to the end of hers. And, yet, even in that space charged with grace, we inevitably got hungry, bored, punchy, argued, glanced at social media. We stood awkwardly between the transcendent and the tedium of daily life. That probably happens to us in life more than we notice, but death clarifies, shatters illusions, helps us see with the eyes of the heart.

I envision paradise as being liberated from the prison of space.

“Emmanuel” means God is with us. We hear that so much this time of year that it almost becomes a cliché. But the Incarnation is subversive and should never fail to shock us out of comfort and complacency; it is not an abstraction, a theory, or a dry theological concept. The divine taking on flesh means our loneliness, anger, sickness, and pain are not alien to God. In a hospice room, at the threshold of death, I thought about that in new ways. When I dabbed water on my mother’s dry lips, I remembered Jesus was thirsty on the cross, and that God knew what it was like to struggle for breath. The friends who lifted us up when they gathered around her bed pointed toward a Messiah who also ate, drank, celebrated, and mourned with people he loved and lost. Those of us who spend our time writing and thinking are particularly susceptible to over-intellectualizing. Ideas are important, but the God who surpasses our full understanding asks us to stop talking and theorizing, and simply encounter the sacred in the sublime and sunken places that make up a life.

My mother died a week after entering hospice. When I told my eight-year-old daughter Sophie that her grandmother was in heaven with God, she asked me how she got there. Along with the skills of an armchair psychologist and a short-order cook, the parenting resume isn’t complete without an advanced degree in theology. I stuttered and stumbled, but told her what I believed, what my mother believed, what my grandparents and many before them believed. I told her our bodies get sick and die, but we have something called a soul, a spirit, that lives forever. Perhaps it’s because my mother had a hard time getting around over the last few years and often was confined to her bedroom—losing her ability to drive especially weighed heavily on her—that my conception of heaven has evolved. I don’t imagine heaven as a place or a destination. I envision paradise as being liberated from the prison of space. I try to hold to the faith that death is an opening into the infinite, an unshackling from the body’s persistent demands and accumulated failings. “Behold, I make all things new,” a beaten and broken Jesus says bearing the weight of the cross. None of this is easy. Doubt is no stranger to faith, like the incredulous Thomas before the resurrected Christ, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta suffering dark nights of the soul when God seemed absent. Confusion usually wins out over clarity. But this Advent, as the church waits in expectation for Emmanuel, I know God is with us in the darkness, my mother is free, and pain can be transfigured into peace.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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