“Sleep after toil, Port after stormy seas;
Ease after war, death after life
does greatly please.”
It’s likely that not everyone looks upon the end of life with the fond anticipation of poet Edmund Spenser. But there are times when coming face to face with our own mortality becomes more than an inevitable experience — it can become a sacred time, too.
Father Paul A. Scaglione, pastor of St. Barnabas Church, and the Rev. John M. Mulder, former president of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, have produced a book that tells the end-of-life stories of several people — including Father Scaglione’s brother, Charlie.
The book is called The Spiritual Lives of Dying People — Testimonies of Hope and Courage. It’s available on Amazon and will soon by sold in both Carmichael’s and Barnes and Noble bookstores.
Much of Father Scaglione’s ministry has been spent in pastoral care; he organized and directs the Gennesaret retreats held in the Archdiocese of Louisville each year at the Abbey of Gethsemani. The retreats are for those with chronic or fatal illnesses. While they have provided some of the fodder for the new book, a lot of the stories told within its pages grew from the priest’s experiences in his home state of New Jersey.
The stories are compelling. They tell of people who are facing death from cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, all manner of ailment, really. But at their heart, the 15 narratives are more about the patients’ learning that God cares for them. Even at death’s unfathomable door, a caring God is there to help them step through that portal.
“There is a diversity in the way believers (in God) confront their dying and death,” Father Scaglione said in an interview last week. “I don’t like to use the word ‘fear’ when describing what I believe they feel. I think apprehension is a far better word.”
Some people worry about their past, about God’s willingness to forgive their transgressions. Others worry about the effect their passing through the portal will have on their family and friends. And sometimes others begin their journey to the Father with a bit of anger in their hearts. “Why is this happening to me?” they ask.
With all of them, Father Scaglione listens and prays. “Prayer,” he said, “is fundamentally the language of the heart.”
If that is so, then Father Scaglione has an awfully big heart. In the production of this book, the priest related stories of those he’d counseled to the Rev. Mulder, who tape recorded them and then produced a written narrative based on the tapes. Both men edited the transcription, and then Father Scaglione wrote the short reflections and prayers found at the end of each person’s story.
They are some of the most inspiring portions of The Spiritual Lives of Dying People. Consider the first tale related in the book, the story of a woman named Maria who struggled with and died of cancer.
Maria went from being someone angry with God, with her husband and with herself, to someone who told Father Scaglione that she wanted his help “to prepare myself to meet the One who loves me.” She was, the priest said, “a prayer warrior.”
“I learned an enormous amount from Maria,” Father Scaglione writes in the book. “It was the most profound experience of my ministry. Nothing else comes close to it.”
In that same chapter, Father Scaglione wrote about death in words we can all understand. He said:
“Death is a sacred space. I really don’t know what dying is all about. I can’t know exactly what it is, and I don’t have a clue. I can have my head on a person’s chest — be that close — and still not know.
“All I can do is help people fall into the mystery of faith,” he continued. “Death is falling backwards into the arms of the ultimate mystery of God — the reality of love.”
The idea for the book was born two years ago, though Father Scaglione was convinced he didn’t have the discipline to produce it. “But as my friendship with John (Mulder) grew, he kept asking me ‘have you told these stories to anyone? Have you ever thought of writing a book?’ ”
Finally, they hit upon the talking-and-taping way of producing the stories and eventually the book. As mentioned earlier, Father Scaglione created the prayers that end each chapter of the book.
Here’s the one he wrote for the end of the chapter about Maria:
“God, please keep us honest and hopeful in our journey home. Give us wisdom and confidence in your forgiving love, and keep us aware of all that we must surrender in order to meet you face to face. May your love encourage us with the gift of peaceful surrender and grant us joyful reunion with you. Amen.”
At the end of our days we all may come to learn about death in different ways. But in this book, Father Scaglione has assured us of one thing: God will be there.