I spent most of the past four years as the primary caregiver for an elderly relative who was a devout Catholic. I helped take him to his church each week, and sat through the Mass with him. I know part of the reason he insisted on attending was the hope his wayward family would see the error of their ways.
I understood that my function was like that of a chaplain. My role was to be of service; not to denigrate his religion, not to assert the supremacy of my own beliefs, not to try to change his mind. My confidence in my own path is such that I was able to offer comfort to him in ways he could accept. And again, our personal relationship was richer for the experience.
When his pastor came to the hospital to annoint him, I repeated the words of the prayers that were offered that day because I sincerely hoped his god would grant him comfort and assurance. When he was on the verge of losing his faith, I found an inspirational article on the subject on the internet, printed it in a font large enough and bold enough for him to read, and discussed it with him after he read it, because I truly hoped he would find peace in his heart. When he was hospitalized and couldn’t attend to his household shrine, I offered incense to his god, and spoke to Christ frankly, reminding him of his servant’s dedication and service over the years. I sensed that the offerings were received in the spirit in which they were offered.
I became aware that the god and I were engaging in a form of diplomacy. Christianity was my first Mystery religion, and I admit that much of the animosity I had been harboring over the years towards that religion was tempered by my kind intentions for my family member, so that I was able to present myself before the god with feelings of goodwill, and make offerings with a heart free of anger.
And while all this was going on, I continued to pray to my gods, asking them to bless his physicians and caregivers with wisdom, knowledge, skill, and compassion, and grant patience to my family member.
After his death, I arranged for the prayers and masses he’d requested. It didn’t matter that I don’t believe in the efficacy of those things; I had promised to do them. He received the funeral rites of his religion, and was interred in a Catholic cemetary, next to the remains of his wife. And I also addressed our ancestors, asking for them to welcome him to their company, wherever that might be.
I believe that the things that bring people together deserve more attention than the things that hold us apart. As a polytheist, there is nothing barring me from making prayers and offerings to a different god on the behalf of someone else, in helping that person find solace in their own beliefs, in listening and offering emotional support, in reassuring someone that I support their religious choices – as I hope others will support mine.
I feel that what matters most, at the very end, is being able to freely offer our presence, and to assure one another of our enduring power of love.
The photograph used above is by