Human Mercy

She had been a strong but self-effacing member of our parish for many years. Her husband had died a few years earlier. Now she was at the end of her days.
    Beloved of many, she was now on a hospice-arranged bed in the living room of her daughter’s home. From time to time, people would come in, stroke her forearm, squeeze her hand, perhaps put some ice chips to her lips. We would speak words to her, even though she could not speak back. Perhaps she was able to hear us. It is possible—there are reports of people who were in a full coma and yet could hear everything.
    Out of her hearing, in the hall perhaps, or out on the porch, we spoke about her and how much we had loved her, how much we had learned from her. We saw her distress. We saw that she was dying. We wondered if we should pray God to take her.
    And someone said what was on the minds of so many of us. “We wouldn’t let our dog suffer this way.” It is true: we would have a dog “put to sleep.”
    So why aren’t we doing that now?
    It’s because my dog is not my equal. I am responsible for my dog in a manner that is like God’s responsibility for me. So over my dog, I do have, in some degree, the power of life and death.
    But for another human being, no matter who that being is (relative, friend, or stranger), I am not God. I am an equal. And that means I have not been given the power of life and death over that person.
    There are special situations where the political society as a whole does have that power, and so it can, through its agents, mete out punishments and even use lethal force. I am thinking, for instance, of police work and military action. It is important that such use of force be limited by law and subservient to true justice. But, for our good, it exists. Which is to say, no one of us is equal to the human city as a whole. The agents of political society have been given a measure of authority by God, for our good.
    But, to return to the person who is dying, we are equal to her. No human being has the authority to “put her to sleep.”
    What then is human mercy? It is a hard thing. We cannot escape from painful situations nor may we terminate them. Human mercy is to live into such situations. We hold the hand of the dying person, we speak lovingly, we offer a cooling washcloth.
    We stick with the dying to the end. That’s real mercy.
    It is said that sometimes a medical practitioner will tell a patient, “There’s nothing else we can do for you.” This is not an accurate thing to say; it is in fact not true. Better to say, “There’s no feasible use of medicine that can cure your illness.” And then best to go on to say, “But let me assure you, we will not abandon you.”
    For there is always something else we can do. We can stick with the dying.
    Out & about. This weekend I will be at St. Matthias Church in Athens, Texas. On Saturday, March 11, I’m leading a retreat that starts at 9:30 a.m., giving some talks on “How God Is Love in Suffering, Caregiving, and Dying.” The retreat ends by 3 p.m. Then on Sunday I’ll be preaching at the 10:30 Eucharist.
    Monday, March 13, is the concluding session of my class on Losing Susan at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The class is at 6 p.m. in Room 119 of the education building. You’re welcome even if you’ve missed the earlier classes. We will be discussing Part III of the book, “The End.”
    My Ash Wednesday sermon at Incarnation can be found here and here. 


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   Here’s a piece adapted from my book, Priest in New York, that I’d like to share with you as we enter Lent.
    New to Saint Thomas Church in New York City, I was warned. “On Ash Wednesday, people will be coming in here all day. For ashes. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
    Indeed I hadn’t. Along with the other clergy, I was assigned a couple of hours during the day to sit in a chair at the front of the nave, just below the chancel steps. Beside was a small table with a bowl of ashes, and an old worn out chalice purificator to wipe my thumb—not clean; it will take a couple of weeks before all the black ash comes out of the ridges of the thumbprint. For this, the clergy wear cassock, surplice, and purple stole; the surplice too needs washing when it’s over.
    And the people come, about a hundred, 150 an hour; not a steady flood, but a continuous ebb and flow. I recognize only a few of them. Most of the congregation will want to come to a service, where they can receive ashes and the Eucharist, and hear the choir. These folk want the ashes.
    They enter from Fifth Avenue through the Narthex. Some go immediately to a pew and kneel. Others walk slowly up the center aisle, then turn into a pew. The church is silent and awesome, the only sounds those of feet on stone and kneeling cushions sliding and the squeak of wood.
    And, when someone comes to me, my voice. When they get close I stand, mark the cross on their forehead with ash, and say, Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
    But just to say those words and nothing else seems both to them and to me unbearably impersonal. And so many of them, before I say anything, greet me with a “Hello, Father.” And after the words of imposition, they’ll make a sign of the cross and I’ll say “Peace” or “Peace be with you,” and they often say “Peace.” We do not hug or shake hands, however.
    I think the oddest response to the words of imposition—which are, after all, a reminder of our mortality—is one that is surprisingly often given: “Thank you, Father.” I’ve just told someone that they are going to die, and they thank me! You wouldn’t say that to your doctor, would you? Yet they come, single people, pairs, families, groups from work, blue collar, executive, artsy—throughout the day they come, without ceasing, to receive this dirty mark on the head, the sign that says to the world not the forbidden boasting “I am fasting; I am a good person” (cf. Mt 6:16) but rather, “I am a Christian; I acknowledge I am going to die.” Sometimes the ash falls from my thumb onto their nose or cheek or their dress or shirt. That too is a sign: mortality is not neat, not to be controlled. To a hundred, 200 people I say: Remember, you are going to die.
    Some of my friends think it superstition. It even may be that most of the people who “get ashed” in this way do not understand the meaning of “dust thou art.” But I wouldn’t stop doing it. Brian, a Dominican friend, once told of distributing ashes beside an old tottering priest who couldn’t remember the words. He was going from forehead to forehead saying, “This won’t hurt, and it might do some good.”
Out & about. On Ash Wednesday, I’ll be preaching at the traditional services at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, which are at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.
    Sunday, March 5, I’m preaching at St. Paul’s Church, 420 S. Coit Rd., Prosper, at 8:15 and 10:30 a.m., and teaching the adult class at 9:15. The class will include some over-all reflections on Losing Susan.
    Monday, March 6, will be the second session (of three) on Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away. This will be on Part II of the book. The class meets at 6 p.m., for one hour, at Church of the Incarnation.
    Tuesday, March 7, I will be giving a talk on ancient notions of friendship, both Greek and Christian. This is at St. David of Wales, 623 Ector St., Denton. The talk is at 7 p.m., preceded (at 6) by stations and soup.
    Saturday, March 11, I visit Athens to lead a retreat, “How God Is Love in Suffering, Caregiving, and Dying.” It begins at 9:30 a.m., at St. Matthias. Details are here. 

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: