Leading a Dying Patient to Expressing Forgiveness, Thanks, Love, and ‘Goodbye’

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Though the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer’s Order for the Visitation of the Sick is intended for to be used by ordained ministers, it contains much that can be used by laymen. The psalm selections – from Psalms 3, 43, 77, 138, and 103 – evoke thoughts of forgiveness, thanks, love for others, and committing others to God. For one example, we might begin with a look at the selection of Psalm 3 there printed:

LORD, how are they increased that trouble me! many are they that rise against me.
Many one there be that say of my soul, There is no help for him in his God.
But thou, O LORD, art my defender; thou art my worship, and the lifter up of my head.
I did call upon the LORD with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill.
I laid me down and slept, and rose up again; for the LORD sustained me.
Salvation belongeth unto the LORD; and thy blessing is upon thy people.

Already in the first psalm printed there is thanksgiving to God: against ‘the[m] that rise against me’, the Psalmist says, ‘O LORD, art my defender; thou art my worship, and the lifter up of my head.’ The psalm also mentions the whole people of God: ‘Salvation belongeth unto the LORD; and thy blessing is upon thy people.’ God’s blessing to the one who prays Psalm 3 is a blessing ‘upon thy people’. When a patient is praying this psalm with his loved ones, within the bosom of the Church, I think he remembers that God sustains him through the communion of the Holy Ghost among all God’s people; the same is true of those who are praying with him. The very act of praying together, in the words of the Holy Ghost, in identification with Christ who prayed these same psalms, leads the patient and his loved ones to show gratitude to each other. They feel in the depths of their souls what others have done for them in the very act of praying, and the end of the psalm becomes a time when the patient’s thankfulness toward his loved ones, and their thankfulness for him, overflows in thanks for what they have done for each other and what they been for each other.

‘Many one there be that say of my soul, There is no help for him in his God,’ but those who are there are not those enemies. Instead, they are there to confess that there is help for the patient in his God, and their hearts are joined together in this confession. Were there times when the patient and his loved ones afflicted each other, as enemies afflicted the Psalmist and said (in word or in deed) that there was no help for him? The psalm can be a wonderful way to reflect on that pain, asking forgiveness and offering forgiveness in hope of the Resurrection (‘I laid me down and slept, and rose up again’). Now, those who are gathered by the patient’s side are those who love him, and he has the opportunity then to express his own love as well.

This is also one reason the Prayer Book provides for the Communion of the Sick, that the patient may receive communion together with his family and other loved ones. Those who come to receive the Holy Communion are exhorted,

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

When the patient and his loved ones hear this exhortation together, confess their sins together before God, receive the Lord’s absolution together, and hear his comfortable words together, they have a manifest occasion to reconcile right then and there, knowing that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ Asking forgiveness of each other and extending it to each other at exactly that time is not in the rubrics of the liturgy; but that time is a time for the power of the gospel, declared boldly by a priest in the Absolution and Comfortable Words, to penetrate into the relationships between the dying patient and his loved ones. Who knows? It may even be a time for the patient to experience the healing of seeing two of his sons or daughters reconcile when old wounds have kept them apart. Not all of us, of course, are priests with the authority to administer Holy Communion and pronounce absolution for it; but merely declaring our intent to take it together and readying ourselves for it together has great potential for experiencing what Psalm 3 says, that ‘salvation belongeth unto the LORD.’

When the patient is dying and knows it, the last verse in Psalm 3 also draws out the sentiments of ‘goodbye’: the loved ones, knowing that ‘salvation belongeth unto the LORD,’ can begin to commend the patient’s soul to God, and the patient can give his blessing to his loved ones as if he is giving God’s blessing. Rather than Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, marred by trickery and favouritism, it can be a time of true blessing for all who share in the faith of Christ and confess that God sustains and saves them.

When God raises the dead, then, this prayer will be answered in full, and the now dying patient will be restored to incorruptible health: ‘Hear us, Almighty and most merciful God and Saviour; extend thy accustomed goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Visit him, O Lord, with thy loving mercy, and so restore him to his former health, that he may give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

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