Death as Preparation for Life
Fr Steven Voytovich
Twenty-one years ago, as a young man and newly ordained priest, I began a year of residency Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This is a full-time year-long program yielding three units of CPE. It was my hope that this opportunity for clinical training would be formative in shaping this new role that in two months had barely moved beyond the wonderful and new sacramental experience of grace and joy! My father died from complications of cancer three years before in his fifties that I am just now entering, and at the time I had been married for about two years. All of these were new experiences awaiting deeper meaning through God’s timing in terms of reflection and integration.
In shaping my rule of hospital visitations, I had two groups of patients simultaneously calling out for attention: all the patients on my assigned units, and the Orthodox Christians who were hospitalized in this community where numerous Orthodox parishes were located. One such patient was Anthony (who happened to bear the same name as my father). He was a young man who was just a year older than me. He had come in for surgery for difficulty swallowing. While in surgery he was found to be filled with cancer. He was referred to me as a patient on one of my assigned units, in need of pastoral care after being told this difficult news. I additionally discovered he was an Orthodox Christian. Somehow God’s hand was in our meeting.
Anthony struck me as a fairly typical young man. He was single, had recently moved out of his house that was shaped by strong ethnic identity, and was pursuing career advancement with all that goes with it. In terms of faith, he was like many our age, moving beyond childhood faith and beginning to explore his own relationship with God. For Anthony this meant some disconnection from the rhythm of Orthodox Church life, although he enjoyed family gatherings where he spent time with nephews and nieces. This news hit him very hard, especially as he had only been given months to live. His family was unable to hear any of what they were told, continuing to push Anthony to eat in order to get well and come home. So there I was, sent to journey with this young man almost my age through the remaining time of his life.
In the course of our visits, Anthony was incredibly moved to frame his illness as a call from God. He so readily spoke of the important dimensions of his life during our time together, and was anxious to “put things in order” spiritually, re-enkindling his faith. When he requested to receive communion, I sought permission from his priest from another jurisdiction who readily agreed in the midst of his own struggle to come to terms with Anthony’s diagnosis. Our pastoral visits from then regularly included his receiving Holy Communion in the midst of deep spiritual exploration. The time came when Anthony shared being scared about dying. Though I had witnessed my father’s death, what could I say to this man my own age? Instead I listened intensively and journeyed with him in the midst of his questions.
Our journey was so rich and meaningful that we became less focused on the day-to-day physical deterioration unfolding. Occasionally I would visit when his family was present. They continued to deeply struggle with the reality of Anthony’s life ending before them, and Anthony himself was upset that his efforts to share with them his journey were met with interruptions where they sought instead for him to take food to get better.
Anthony was prepared for the end of his life. By this I refer not only to being sacramentally prepared, but he had made peace: with his terminal illness abruptly hastening the end of his life, with his relationship with God, and with the inability of his family to be an integral part of his end-of-life journey. I do not claim any real credit around the depth of his preparation, though I marveled at the depth of this spirituality as his final days drew near. Anthony had become a gift to me in so many ways about the resiliency of the human soul even in the midst of such overwhelming circumstances. Without ever having stopped to think about it, my priestly role was being shaped and formed in numerous ways during these months.
Anthony’s death was peaceful. The parish priest cordially invited me to concelebrate his fortieth day Pannikhida, having heard from Anthony that I had been sojourning with him, and I readily accepted. His family, however, still struggled with their denial of his terminal illness and death even after his death. They could not be consoled in having lost their young son. By now from my training I was aware that they needed their own time and space to eventually let go of their denial.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have journeyed with Anthony as person and as pastor. My pastoral presence with grieving families continues to be informed by my experience of journeying with Anthony and his family. I commemorate him regularly along with family members at Proskemedia. As person, I too was diagnosed with cancer just a few short months after Anthony died. Anthony’s courageous journey now became inspirational to me on another level in coming to terms with this diagnosis that had taken two young men named Anthony. This is the twentieth anniversary of Anthony’s death. Later this year, God-willing, I will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of life following my diagnosis. Memory eternal: to my father Anthony, and to Anthony who became my brother in Christ. Thanks be to God for all things.