Each night as we head for sleep, my wife and I say together, as a prayer, a couple of lines from the ancient service of compline, an evening devotional used by both Episcopalians and Catholics. (You can find the Episcopal version, along with the whole Book of Common Prayer, here.) The lines we use go:
It's a lovely, rhythmic way to end the day. But almost each time I say the phrase, "watch with Christ" I puzzle over it. For what am I watching? And why does Christ need my help watching? Should I watch for something different tonight than I did last night?
At least partial answers to my questions have come in a tiny (50-page) 2003 book given to me recently by someone with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, on the board of which I serve. It's called Watch With Me, by Cicely Saunders, who helped to create the modern hospice movement and who created St. Christopher's Hospice in south London in 1967.
In her book, Saunders says she has tried to sum up the work of hospice "in the words 'Watch with me.' Our most important foundation for St. Christopher's is the hope that in watching we should learn not only how to free patients from pain and distress, how to understand them and never let them down, but also how to be silent, how to listen and how just to be there. As we learn this we also learn the real work is not ours at all. We are building for so much more than ourselves. I think if we try to remember this we will see that the work is truly to the greater glory of God."
Later, Saunders notes that the "Watch with me" phrase is one Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his death. She writes:
"When first uttered by Jesus it could not have meant 'take away,' 'explain' or even 'understand.' Its simple but costly demand was plainly no more than just 'be there.'"
In some ways, Saunders is asking all of us to follow the advice of our Buddhist friends and, as they say, "be mindful." Which to me simply means paying attention to what is around us. I've quoted previously a Jewish prayer book that says we walk sightless among miracles. The call to "watch with me" is to notice these miracles and, of course, then give thanks for them.
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WAS IT ALL GREEK TO THE HEBREWS?
Bible scholars in England have discovered that a Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures was in use for much longer than anyone previously thought. These old texts helped to shape whole civilizations, and knowing their history allows us to know much more about how faith formation happened then -- as well as now.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Jesus: Man, Not Myth, a novel by Peter D. Snow. I don't normally review or comment on fiction here in the Book Corner, but I thought this effort by an Episcopal priest worth your attention. As the author rightly notes, the four gospels provide just about all we know of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, the Christian church historically has said that the gospels are revelation enough. But our curious human minds inevitably want to fill in the blanks that the gospels leave. And in some sense that's what Snow seeks to do here by drawing on the main outlines of the gospels but then making up the rest of the Jesus story, dialogue and all. It's a sincere and interesting effort, though I think the Jesus he imagines is more iconoclastic, with a more intentional agenda about undermining the Judaism (really, Judaisms) of his day than the Jesus we find in the gospels. The latter Jesus seems to me more of a reformer, a voice seeking to call people back to ancient traditions and truths than one wanting to "destroy the Temple," as Snow's Jesus says -- destroy it and all it symbolizes. Still, that's the freedom of fiction. And perhaps in Snow's work you can meet a Jesus who becomes more understandable to you than the one you've thought you've always known.
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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read "Hope: Demanding the divine words," click here.