Why pray for the dying?
Updated: Apr 10
Have I prayed in vain?
Wai’s funeral was yesterday, Ish’s more than a year ago now. Kwan is in a deep coma. There’s very little chance he’ll wake.
Despite the fact that Wai and Ish died, that Kwan isn’t likely to wake up from his hospital bed, prayer helped. It comforted, it left a legacy…
I first began to circling the park with my rosary beads because of eighteen year old Ish. I didn’t know Ish but her mother was part of my women’s prayer group. When she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour it seemed churlish not to answer a request to pray the rosary for her every night at 9.
I am a Catholic, so I feel I can say this without offending anybody: I had/have real problems with the way the Catholic church encourages intercessory prayer through Mary. I know it’s not worship, but often, it borders on it. That troubles me. I also have issues with repeated chanting. I believe/believed that the most effective prayer is an opening to spirit, a direct conversation with the One. How can I hear the divine and communicate my joys and troubles repeating the same old same old? Still, prompted by something I didn’t understand, I dug in my drawers for my long discarded beads and went into the park with them.
The Catholic rosary sequence begins with an I Believe. That first night, I found the I Believe affirming. I said yes to the almighty. I said yes to his beloved son who suffered for our sake. I said yes to the spirit proceeding from father and son. I prayed the Our Father with purpose. I praised the triune god in the Glory Be. But I muttered the Hail Mary’s with disdain, racing through them as if writing lines to atone for something I’d done wrong at school.
The second week, the words of the Hail Mary began to penetrate, and they angered. What god would send an angel to say these words to announce a pregnancy to a fourteen year old in an age when they stoned adulterous women– “Hail Mary full of grace, the lord is with you, blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus”? What god would leave a woman remembering these words as her so-blessed son Jesus lay hanging on a cross? I questioned. I ranted. No it was not my daughter Ish who lay dying, but in this way, I walked the Calvary Road with her mother. In this insignificant way I learnt empathy and gained some inkling of what a mother’s dark nights of anguish might be like.
Ish died. I emerged stronger in faith because I had wrestled through my anger at a god who might allow such things. I don’t have an explanation why Ish died. I cannot say, as her mother cannot, that it is better because Ish is gone. But some bone of stubbornness broke in me while I circled the park repeating a litany I disagreed with. God softened my soul so submission could enter.
All these things I shared with Ish’s mother. And she was comforted by the gift that Ish’s dying gave me.
Shortly after Ish died, Kwan’s wife gave me a set of blue crystals, much more like Buddhist prayer beads than a traditional rosary. A few months after that Kwan was struck by a heart attack. Alone in a hotel room, he did not get resuscitation till many hours later. Severely brain-damaged, our brilliant Kwan is now locked in. He trembles when we call his name but there is no other response. This is how he has been for a year.
Kwan’s wife asks me to pray for him. And so I do. I pray for them both. Not the Hail Mary but simpler prayers: That they will both be well (whatever that means for both of them), that they will be happy (despite the circumstances they are in), that they will be at peace (through the ups and downs of Kwan’s illness), that they will be filled and surrounded by love and kindness (for each other, from their friends). Again, what has struck Kwan is inexplicable. There is learning in it for us all, one of our friends says. But what I cannot yet tell. Still each night I pray. This lifting up of the two of them to heaven is all I can do to share Kwan’s and his wife’s journey; more an act of selfishness than anything, to relieve my own feelings of helplessness.
I do not know. Still, I pray. And it is a comfort to me.
Wai had been in remission from cancer. Prior to our meeting before Christmas, I hadn’t seen her for half a year. Then, she said she was fine. But she did not look fine. At new year, she confessed that things were not going well and so I added her to the people I wished wellness, happiness, peace and loving kindness to on my evening walks.
A few weeks later, unconsciously, I began to pray the Hail Mary for her…
Wai was a doting mother, blessed with a wonderful son. There was no anger this time as I meditated on the words “Full of grace…The Lord is with you… Blessed are you among women… Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” It didn’t feel contradictory either although Wai had never spoken to me about spiritual matters. And I had no qualms reciting the second part of this prayer, “Holy Mary, mother of god, Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” I felt joined with all our other friends of many beliefs who were praying for Wai as she died. Not praying for her to get well, but for her family, and for a peaceful letting go.
Wai asked to be baptized on Mother’s day. When I went to visit her with a few other people the day before she finally left us, she was at peace. Her husband, son and daughter-in-law, calm and able to share some of their happier moments, blessed us with their composure and acceptance.