A freak accident seems to most of us not only bewilderingly strange but meaningless, and this was at first my interpretation of Father Ken’s death, which plunged his assistant clergy and his congregation into mourning.
On reflection, though, I don’t believe it was a freak. Several months ago, Father Ken instituted one of the many laypeople ministries at Holy Faith, training some of the congregation to help heal grief. Several were at the meeting of the congregation I attended yesterday.
And, though a vigorous man who biked eighteen miles a day, Father Ken was suffering what would probably have proved to be terminal cancer.
Not can I believe that his death is an unmitigated tragedy—certainly not for him, returned to the Kingdom he believed in so passionately, but also not for his congregation, having begun some time ago a search for a rector.
Perhaps his death was not a tragedy for some in his congregation, not because our hearts are hardened—he was much loved—but because the way his church is handling his loss is bringing new life.
I have never been a convinced Christian, let alone a faithful church attendant, since my early adolescence when a dispute with my mother over whether I should take communion when I believed I was in a state of sin—she insisted I should, I insisted I shouldn’t—broke the already-damaged faith that had so inspired me as a child, when stained glass windows glowing with light and the majestic cadences of the great Protestant hymns had lifted me nearly to transcendence.
The years have passed, with many changes, some of them the result of family tragedies which have brought me to my knees, and back to the church, although still of the wavering faith that compelled one of Jesus’ followers to beg him, “I believe, heal thou my unbelief.” (Mark 2/24)
I believe in the magnificent meaning of Father Ken’s death because of the advice given to us by one of the grief counselors, Camille, who having been through tragedy of her own impresses me with her wisdom and her sense of humor.
She urged the hundred or so people sitting at round tables in the parish hall to stand and reach out to each other with prayer-shaped hands, then to open those closed hands to hold the hands of a neighbor, blessing that person with “May the Lord be with you,” to which the response was “And with they spirit.”
I have visited many counselors of every stripe and description, been to many meetings to address the problems that afflict so many of us, read many self-help books (which did not seem to address this self), heard many sermons and speeches full of good advice. But I have never heard anyone speak of the healing power of touch.
It is, generally, forbidden to all counselors to touch the people they are trying to counsel; doctors touch less and less as their time with a patient is whittled down to a few minutes; group meetings may occasionally stand up and hold hands, but to reach out and touch someone, except for family and close friends, might even be considered an assault. And in many families, there is little or no touching, which seems to carry the taint of sexual predation. When lovers or spouses or partners break apart, the greatest loss for each may be the loss of touch. But even in those relationships, there is sometimes little or no touching except what leads to sex.
It has always been clear to me that words, on which I’ve built my creative life, can’t heal. They can illuminate and inspire, as the last sentences of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway illuminated and inspired me when I re-read the novel a few weeks ago, making me exclaim with excitement and gratitude.
But those same words would be powerless to heal in the face of tragedy.
Since Father Ken loved his congregation, with the focused and unquestioned love most of us only see, briefly, in our young children or, later, in our dogs, he would be delighted to know that his death, so devastating on a personal level to his family and close friends, sealed my bond with a church from which I had been sliding, slowly, away—my habit with those edifices, those congregations, that particular brand of wisdom. And if it had that effect on me, it surely did on others, especially the French couple, new to the parish, who spoke to me in that language I love.
I may never touch anyone in the congregation, made up almost entirely of strangers, except in the Sunday service Passing of the Peace my mother so abhorred; but the recognition of the signal power of touch unites me with a core belief that not only matches this congregation but also the teachings of Jesus, who healed through touch, reaching out to the afflicted despised by his world, touching lepers and adulteresses and the dead.