I spent my summer completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is an internship meant to educate and train chaplains. At the closing ceremony for my program, I gave the following brief reflection:
You probably wouldn’t have any occasion to go looking for him, but I know where you can find The Angel of Death. I have it on good word. One of my mentors told me. There’s a minister who works as a hospital chaplain in Detroit. And he’s earned himself the nickname Angel of Death because from time to time he will visit the room of a patient who’s in the process of dying but not quite there, still holding on. He visits, he prays, and then a short time later the patient will die. You could chalk it up to coincidence the first time, but then it happened again, and again, and a couple hundred times again. So they call him the Angel of Death, this chaplain, and if you went looking for him you could find him.
I wasn’t in any hurry, but I knew at some point I would have to meet the Angel of Death. It’s part of the Chaplain’s job description. You listen, hold hands, you pray. Someone wants to see a priest so you call the priest. Someone left their Bible at home so you fetch one of those blue ones from Gideons International. And sometimes you roll out the welcome mat for the Angel of Death.
I waited with a patient for about 3 weeks. We were expecting the Angel but he was late. The doctors said three, maybe four days and the Angel of Death will show up. People usually don’t last more than a few days in renal failure. I waited one week, two weeks, almost three weeks with that patient and her family. Everyone was ready, but the Angel never got the memo. Eventually that patient was discharged to a nursing home and I couldn’t tell you whether or not the Angel found her.
That patient—the one in renal failure—she had a couple of sons, and one of them helped me to better understand the Angel of Death. He said Sometimes you’re expecting him, the doctors say any minute, any day now, but the Angel takes his time. Other times you do your very best to keep him out of the room, you barricade the doors and stand guard but somehow he weasels his way in. He said Only God knows when the Angel of Death will come, but when it’s time—it’s time.
I remember expecting to meet the Angel of Death when I was paged into the ICU. The family was asking about last rites, so I figured The Angel would be arriving any time. But when I entered the room I could see that the Angel had already delivered his message. The patient was alive but only with considerable help from medical technology. He was on a ventilator, along with all sorts of IV drips—there must have been eight of them. The Angel had brought the message and he was already on his way as the medical staff tried to barter for a few more hours. I saw Death that day but I did not meet Death’s angel.
At some point, though, at some point I realized that I had already met the Angel. I didn’t recognize him, he wasn’t what I was imagining, but I had already met him. That chaplain who works in Detroit—the one they call The Angel of Death—that chaplain is misnamed. His presence is never unwelcome or feared. No one tries to keep him out of the room. He’s nothing at all like the grim reaper, if that’s what you were picturing when I said Angel of Death. The Angel brings words of life, comfort, and calm to those who are clinging to this world as if they could put off death forever. Call him the Angel of Death if you must, but you could just as soon call him the Angel of Life, because those words that give us permission to die are the same words that bring us life:
I forgive you,
I love you,
I’ve met the Angel of Life this summer. I’ve seen the Angel’s work in the ministry of my colleagues and mentors. Whenever someone brings a human touch to a hospital room, whenever we provide competent and compassionate care—The Angel of Life has a hand in that. Chaplains may spend a lot of time with sickness and death, but our ministry helps to bring the signs of life when we help people to say:
I forgive you,
I love you,
If you start to feel gloomy about your practice of ministry, if you feel like an Angel of Death, remember those things that we need to live and remember those things that we need to die. And then remember that they are the same. Chaplains bring life and life, eventually, brings death. We are learning to be present for it all, to take it all in, and with the help of God to call all of it good.