Pilgrim’s Progress

By | October 20, 2013

Sitting next to Jake’s bed as he lay dying, watching his fitful sleep, I noticed the framed sign on the wall near his bed in the adult foster home. It read: “When I was a kid, I prayed every night for a bicycle, but then I found out this isn’t the way God works. So then I stole one and asked Him for forgiveness.”

A hard life of drugs, alcohol, and rock-n-roll had taken its toll on Jake’s forty-something-year-old body. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, living fast and dying young doesn’t always leave a good-looking corpse. Nearly all of Jake’s teeth had rotted out, save the bicuspid on his upper right side. His abdomen was greatly distended (bloated) from terminal liver disease. And Jake was painfully afraid of death.

Jake had some sort of a Baptist background, and had loved to play the drums. Years before, as a result of his addictions, Jake had deserted his wife and daughter. When I first met him, he told me that all he wanted was to see them again, to be given a last chance to “make things right.” Mercifully, his ex-wife and daughter did come to see him, brining along a newborn grandson whom Jake had never seen. It was a beautiful reunion with a lot of love and grace. Before they left, Jake’s family made a collage of family pictures and mounted it on the wall next to the framed sign. Jake was so proud of his family. He would lie for hours on his side, simply looking at the collage and delighting in the pictures of his grandson.

But now, weeks later, he was dying, and I was sitting there praying for him. Several times he woke up in pain. His care giver, Joe, and I repositioned him to ease his way. I moistened his lips and mouth with one of those pink sponge swabs soaked in water.

Looking at the pictures of his daughter and grandson, I thought of how much Jake had missed out on as he wandered the world looking for his place to fit. What if everything his thirsty soul had longed for was right there at home the whole time?

Earlier that morning, I’d read some lines from Antony the Great, the first of the desert fathers. “What must one do in order to please God? Pay attention to what I tell you. Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes. Whatever you do, do according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. Wherever you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts, and you will be saved.”

We’re all looking for a place to fit. We’re all looking for a meta-narrative, a grand story that helps explain our lives, makes sense of our existence, and provides a source of meaning to our days. Often, we don’t need to travel to discover that story. I think that’s why St. Antony tells us that, if we find that place, we should not easily leave it.

I was still lost in these thoughts, when Joe the care giver’s two young daughters arrived home from school and went running down the hallway outside of Jake’s door fighting about something. I said a short benediction for Jake and bade him Godspeed.

As I pulled out of the driveway, I noticed in the rearview mirror two young Mormon missionaries cresting the hill behind me. Their starched white shirts and black ties were a sharp contrast to the gray overcast November sky behind them. Two more pilgrims searching for a place to fit, I thought. Aren’t we all? Aren’t we all?

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  1. Pingback: Stories We Die With (BONUS AUDIO) | L.A. Emrich

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