Thursday, April 5, 2012
Wan Ong Kuei
Today marks the holy day of Maundy Thursday—the dramatic evening of so much regret for Jesus’ disciples during the Passion. There is Peter’s denial, and the fleeing of the eleven at Gethsemane, but the big regret is of course Judas’s betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the Romans and temple authorities. The common belief—taken from Matthew’s Gospel—is that Judas then committed suicide, but according to Luke (as conveyed in Acts of the Apostles), Judas is killed by divine providence, and Mark and John do not explicitly address Judas’s fate. Still, if Matthew’s version is indeed correct—that Judas hanged himself—it is especially tragic, because it indicates that Judas had given up any and all hope of restoring right relationship with Jesus and, by extension, with God and with the world entire.
That sort of despair is profoundly depressing, not merely for the person feeling it, but for any person witnessing it. The belief that an action of yours is so egregious, so beyond the pale that it cannot be undone or mitigated or apologized or begged pardon for is something we have probably all felt—it is what creates regret, guilt, and shame within each of us.
How we reply to those feelings does, I think, speak volumes as to who we are as people. And so in acknowledgement of that reality, I offer to you, on this sacred day of profound and ultimate regret, a short nonfiction story from my early ministry here last year. To preserve the privacy of the persons involved, no names are used, and some identifying details have been changed.
The catharsis for me to write this story comes from the words of Dr. Pauline Chen, in her poignant and heartfelt book Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, where she appropriated her Taiwanese heritage to explain her own regret over a patient’s death, writing:
“The old-time Taiwanese believed that certain souls haunt the world, searching for mollification for their untimely or dishonorable deaths. These wan ong kuei, “wronged spirits,” are destined to wander among humans for eternity. Without any justification for his manner of death, (my patient) became a wan ong kuei of my mind.”
The woman sitting across from my desk looked older than she probably was—a product of a hard life, undoubtedly—and in her state of grief, was slightly disheveled and, I think, still adjusting to her new reality of loneliness and loss. Her common-law husband had just passed away, and he was for all intents and purposes a John Doe—he had nobody left except for her and their caretaker. She, in turn, was casting about for a place for herself and, by extension, her memory of him. Her grief was framed by the crisp autumn colors I could see outside my office window, and I noticed how poetically saddening it was that she was facing this transition as the seasons were on the verge of changing from growth and sunlight to decline and darkness.
She said they had not been to church in ages—she literally just walked into my parish off the street—but she wanted to say farewell to him in a church before he was cremated and his ashes transported upstate. Upon hearing that the funeral would likely be attended only by her, their caretaker, and myself—maybe one or two other people if the stars and planets aligned—I agreed to plan and officiate the service for free. I took her contact information and promised to be in touch. Put at ease that her husband would be accorded a proper farewell, she gingerly rose from her chair and slowly walked out of my office, her walk betraying a slight limp in the process.
The day before I hoped to perform the funeral, I tried to call the number I taken down from her to let her know that the service was on, and to stop by to go through it together. Receiving an automated error message, I tried again. And again. And again. Realizing I had taken her information incorrectly, I got onto the website of the local paper to begin flipping through the obituaries, looking for her surname, before remembering that he was her common-law husband, and as such they had had different names. I couldn’t find her address on Google maps. I tried that incorrect phone number again, even though I knew in my head that I would receive the same emotionless, robotic reply. Putting down the receiver into the phone’s cradle for the last time, I mentally kicked myself over and over for such a simple, but emotionally devastating, mistake.
I never heard from the woman again. To this day, I have no idea if her husband was ever laid to rest as she had planned, if at all. My memory of her, and of her husband’s need for a lovingly arranged departure, became a wronged spirit, a wan ong kuei, in my own ministry so very soon after I had just begun it. I kept a copy of the order of service I had composed in the bottom drawer of my desk, just in case she walked into my office again, and I tried to banish the failure I felt to the darker recesses of my cerebral cortex.
Some months later, deep in the wintery bluster of the holiday season, I was working from home on an upcoming sermon series while the season one Christmas episode of the television series The West Wing played in the background on my computer. That episode, entitled “In Excelsis Deo,” revolved around a plot concerning the passing of a homeless, faceless military veteran who had died on Christmas from exposure while wearing the donated coat of a White House staffer. The staffer, played by Richard Schiff, found the veteran’s likewise homeless brother and arranged for a funeral with military honors for the deceased veteran at Arlington National Cemetery. The similarities between this fictitious man and my flesh-and-blood John Doe—the sheer poverty, the relative anonymity, the absence of any deep network of friends—were not lost on me.
The episode’s concluding scene of the funeral at Arlington, superimposed with the voices of a boys’ choir singing "Little Drummer Boy," played out across my computer screen as I glanced up from my work to watch. From the small group of only four mourners to the honor guard’s mistaking the White House staffer for the veteran’s brother, I saw depicted on the screen the funeral service that I was supposed to have performed for my John Doe: a small, intensely private and intensely profound farewell to a man whose remaining family I might not have known from Adam, but who still cried out to me for help regardless.
Stopping my work completely, I froze, and, in an uncharacteristic moment of pique, I overturned the colossal stack of books that were, just a moment earlier, sitting precariously upon my desk. Seeing them tumble to the floor, I fell back into my chair, shaking, and immediately, I began to weep.
Yours in Christ,