(Photo of wild geese in flight at sunset courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, February 8, 2012)
May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God
the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and
undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and
bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and
reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
--Blessing for Health and Body of Soul, Book of Common Prayer, p. 460
One of the lifelong oddities of my life has been my penchant for stumbling into the middle of "other peoples' crises" and suddenly being their "go-to girl." (In fact, just now, as I am drafting this reflection, I just got a text message from a friend who wants to talk to me about her dog's emergency surgery. Seems her dog has been eating roofing nails and other metal debris...I rest my case.)
Not long ago, all I did was show up at one of my "country hospitals" for my regularly scheduled visit, which is normally a rather staid and boring half hour or so of signing my name on the various pieces of lab quality control data, and visiting with the laboratory supervisor over coffee about issues in the hospital lab. I knew it wasn't going to be one of those visits when the laboratory supervisor met me in the hallway, hugging me and crying.
The short version was this: One of the employees in the lab had, three days prior, been handed a very serious diagnosis which required immediate treatment if there was any hope of survival. Rather than initiate treatment, he had chosen to return to his home country for treatment--an 18 hour total flight time and probably more like a little over a day's journey, total, and the flight did not leave for another day--putting about five days total between the moment of his diagnosis and his potential arrival home. My supervisor's plea was to "talk some sense into him."
Believe me, I related every single medical reason I could think of--most of them involving the various permutations of how he could die in his untreated state in a five day span--as well as difficulties entering and exiting the various countries en route, the fact that his choices potentially affected the lives of others on the trip, and for the final push, that he could be "too ill to treat" when he arrived, possibly delaying life-saving treatment and putting him further at risk. But he would hear none of it. He was going home and that was that.
All of us have times in our lives where despite our best efforts, our good intentions, and our fears for those we love, they will make their choices and we are left with no other tasks but to let them go, and "pray them home." I realized I had tried my best, and did what I could. As I left to go back to my office, I told him, "God be with you. I mean that."
Over the next several hours, my mind kept being drawn to the prayer cited above. I have found when I am out of words, or my words seem insufficient, our Book of Common Prayer has words enough for me in my times of inarticulate-ness. But as I read it, I started wondering, "Who was I asking to be blessed? Him, or me?" I recognized the answer probably was, "both," and everyone else who was fearing for him on his journey. I then enlisted the help of other friends as co-pray-ers. I've come to realize that co-praying is key to our spiritual health. Let me make it clear that I don't sign on to the notion that sheer numbers of pray-ers have any influence on God, whatsoever--but I do believe they have influence on us and our own faithfulness in prayer. It's easier for me to focus on my own prayers when I can see others praying with me, in my mind's eye.
As time unfolded, so did an image in my mind's eye--the image of a flock of geese, traveling thousands of miles, called by voices in nature that our human brains have somehow become blunted in their recognition. I thought about how every goose in a "V" of geese flies along without question, trusting only in the sense of the lead goose, and with the only view of the trip being the rear end of the goose directly ahead of it. Our gravely ill traveler was responding to the same kind of pull that the lead goose is called to obey, and I was simply a goose in the formation, staring at the tail feathers of the goose ahead of me, irritated I could not see a Google Maps overview of this trip. I had started this journey thinking I was supposed to play the role of lead goose, and in reality my role was just "one of the flock."
Our lead goose in this story did, indeed, find his way home. I may or may not ever learn the ultimate outcome with his diagnosis--but I have to let that one go, too. I imagine geese don't always take the trip North or South with the same flock, and have one-time companions on the trip, from year to year, as well as familiar ones. Such is the nature of pilgrimage.
When we embark on pilgrimages of prayer, we are being invited into an intimate space within "the cloud of unknowing." We fly in formation with familiar faces, new faces, one-time faces, and faces we will never know in this world. We are powerless, not only to the outcome, but to the choices of companions--flocks of geese flying to a home we've never seen. To never be bold enough to fly at all, I believe, is the greater loss.