Death and Dying

There is a word of Scripture for every time and season of our lives. The more we know and explore; the more we will have to draw upon when we need.

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In the 1990s there was a popular mnemonic: WWJD. It stands for ‘What Would Jesus Do’. I still have the cloth bracelet attached to my keyring and, more importantly, it is a phrase that still comes readily to mind in moments of choices and decisions. The New Testament gives copious examples of what Jesus did in the variety of encounters he experienced. It also provides insight into what Jesus was like and therefore what we are called to be like too.

Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, offers a wonderful resource to help us navigate through life. For Christians, it is more than just a library of wisdom, stories and historical data; Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Further, St Paul describes it as “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12). In other words, if we allow it, Scripture is the way that God can speak to us today, as Church and as individual in the normality of our everyday life.

In this article, I would like to consider two points: firstly, accepting the Word of God as gift and secondly the value of learning by heart. Their importance has emerged for me during my experience as a hospital and hospice chaplain. It is a privileged role that allowed me to be alongside many different people, often at the most challenging times of their lives and at times when God can seem both very near and very far away. Scripture, the Word of God, has the power to speak into every situation in a personal and sometimes surprising way. Its familiarity can bring comfort, healing and peace. Familiarity, when we need it, demands that we take opportunities, now, to become familiar with our Bible and with the wisdom it contains. We hear Scripture proclaimed at Mass, we might join a study group in our parish or subscribe to one of the many publications that offer a programme of short passages of Scripture to reflect upon each day; we meet Scripture, and especially the Psalms, in the recitation of the Daily Office; and we can mull over Scripture by using the technique of lectio divina so that the words sink deep into our consciousness where they can resonate with and relate to our current circumstances.

The Word of God comes to us as gift, I would suggest, when a verse of Scripture pops into our heads seemingly quite unbidden. As a hospital chaplain, there are often moments where spontaneous prayer at the bedside is called for. It would be cumbersome, and break the atmosphere, if I were to pause, bring out a Bible and leaf through for an appropriate reference. (Although the Gideon Bible does provide suggestions of passages for many different situations and moods when we can’t find the verse we need for ourselves.) In these spontaneous moments, the Holy Spirit seems more than willing to provide. Words of comfort suddenly take on a very intimate tone, as if spoken directly to the person in front of me. For example, the words of Jesus himself, “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29). It never ceases to fill me with a spine-tingling sense of awe when the person I have been praying with says something like, “How extraordinary that you should choose that passage; it has a particular meaning for me.” Other times sick people have asked me to sing with them. Then, it is wonderful to find the words of Psalm 23, or the Magnificat spilling effortlessly from my lips.

Leaning by heart is something that people of a certain generation will remember from their schooldays. Now, in our data-rich age, education tends to favour knowing where to look an item up, but in times of ministry as above, in times of illness and especially as death approaches we do not always have the facility or ability to Google. These are the times, I believe, when we will be grateful for the store of Scripture we carry in our minds and hearts; the words we have learnt by faithful repetition over the years. The Lord’s Prayer is a primary example. It is an extraordinary privilege to sit with someone suffering from dementia, who rants and writhes during general conversation but, as the spoken words of the Our Father begin to sink in, becomes still, quiet and peaceful. It is a powerful reminder of the presence of God at the centre of the encounter; as Jesus promised when he said, “For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them” (Matthew 18:20).

There is a word of Scripture for every time and season of our lives. The more we know and explore; the more we will have to draw upon when we need. I believe that God longs for us to hear him speaking to us; Scripture is the language that he often chooses to use. Let us listen more intently to his Word.

References

The Jerusalem Bible (1968) Ed. A. Jones, London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 

Lynn Bassett was a healthcare chaplain in the Diocese of Westminster from 2001 – 2015. She ministered in acute and palliative settings in four hospitals and two hospices. Her doctoral research explored the nature, meaning and value of silence as an element spiritual care at the end of life.