Martha’s Sacrament

Martha was one of the older sisters in our branch. We counted a scant dozen of them, singles and widows, making more than half of the congregation and being its very backbone.

When I got to know her, Martha was in her sixties. Huge by nature and strong from her lifelong labors as a market woman, she lived in a modest but sunny apartment, four flights high. Rent and utilities took most of her tiny pension, but she managed. Every Sunday the happy woman rode to church on her big black bicycle, rain or shine. She entered our old rowhouse as if it were a palace, beaming faith and friendship. In the living room, meaning our chapel, she gave talks and testimonies with a stentorian voice, developed during her years on the market place, praising Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon like she had exalted her Jonagolds and luscious tomatoes grown in the summer sun. Each time, at the end of her tribute, emotion would fracture her fluency to a choking whisper and tears would flow. Ah, Martha, what a force you were in our Primitive church!

Then came the stroke, one night. Only hours later a neighbor heard her moanings. Hospital. Next Martha had no choice. Paralyzed from the waist down, incontinent, with neither family nor savings, she was consigned to a social hospice for indigent elderly by the Commissie voor Openbare Onderstand – the city Commission for Public Welfare.

Pitiable place. Located in a murky side-alley of the Nationalestraat, a decaying quarter of the inner-city, the hospice had minuscule rooms for some thirty women.

– How are you doing, Martha?
By then I was the immature branch president, age twenty-three, of our tiny Mormon congregation.
– Could be better. That darn body left me in the lurch.
Crouched in her wheelchair, her jaw nerves slightly crippled, she tried to keep up her jovial look and witty answers.

– How is it here?
She closed her eyes and squeezed my hand.

Indeed. The inside was as gloomy as the alley. Weathered walls. A floor of tasteless tiles, cracked and crumbling. After so many years I still remember details. The dark, narrow entrance hall smelling of sour milk and disinfectants. The musty placard with the house rules, in pre-war Dutch spelling. Visits Only From Two To Four, Sundays Till Five. On the right side of the hall, behind squeaking doors, the all-purpose room — refectory, reception for visitors, smoking area, all in one. Tables covered with specked oilcloth. During the day all tenants, at least those still able to sit, gathered here, from breakfast till after dinner. In their washed-out floral dresses, the old women, inert around the tables, looked like series of worn matroushka dolls.

As soon as I entered, the assembly fell silent. The cragged faces, suspicious of visitors, stared at me. My general greeting triggered no response. When I started talking to Martha in her corner, the women closest by strained to hear, snooping, envious of a visit they seldom or never received.

– Do you need anything, Martha?
No, not really. Though the Commission had sold her furniture and now cashed her tiny pension, she had been allowed to keep some personal belongings, pictures, trinkets, books. She had her Scriptures, yes. And her art print of the Savior on the wall over her bed.

But her paralyzed body still hid a swarm of sensibilities. She longed for the branch and the meetings. She missed the opportunities to preach and testify, to bolster the spirit of her friends. Now she struggled to find her place among tenants who exuded the accumulated bitterness of failed lives. Martha’s mind, still too young, too vivid, was dissonant in the senile decay surrounding her. And, of course, it would be untrue to pretend she accepted her fate bravely without aching questions and moments of despair.

Weeks went by.

– Do you need anything, Martha?
– Do you think it would be possible to get the Sacrament?

I talked to the hectoring principal for permission to briefly meet with Martha in her room. I explained I was a priest.
– Out of the question, she replied. No men allowed beyond the refectory. Except the pastoor — a real priest.

I went to see the pastoor, the parish priest, to obtain his intercession. He said my cause was just, but that he could do nothing. That sounded familiar.
– She should have thought twice before becoming a Mormon, he added.

We did consider picking up Martha on Sunday to take her to church. But even if we had obtained permission to do so, it proved unfeasible. Only two of our members had a small car. Martha was huge and heavy. There was the problem with the catheter and the urine-bag, hanging under her wheelchair. There were issues with insurance and liabilities.

I considered passing her the sacrament stealthily, blessed beforehand. The bread might have worked, the water was more complicated under the scrutinizing looks of the tenants. When I suggested the option to Martha, she considered ways to do it, but the risk of increased mockery afterwards was too great. Besides, how to enjoy the Sacrament under such circumstances?

More weeks went by.

– Do you need anything, Martha?
– I miss the Sacrament.

Without premeditation, prompted from an unknown depth but clear as crystal, my question emerged:
– Martha, you know where you can find the Sacrament prayers, don’t you?
– In Moroni.
– Can you take some bread to your room?
Of course, she could whisk away a scrap of bread from any meal. And in her room she had a little sink and a plastic beaker.
– Yes, yes, she said. And I have my white embroidered handkerchief to put it on.

She accepted the path in full confidence. I held her hands tight, as if greeting her, and whispered:
– Martha, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Priesthood I give you hereby the authority to bless the Sacrament.

It was that simple.

56 comments for “Martha’s Sacrament

  1. My only question is why you couldn’t have given her the sacrament in the common room. I’m pretty sure there is nothing wrong with praying together.

  2. Well Wilfried, I had you tagged to become a seventy, but not with this in the public domain:) God bless you–what a wonderful story.

    I’ve sometimes seen those in authority taking unorthodox measures to care for their flock. Their actions are quiet, known only to those who need know, apolitical in nature, born of a desire to offer sustenance and a conviction that to do so is God’s will. Such acts are possible only at the local level, far from where they might affect policy or reverberate further than their intended beneficiaries. The participants know themselves what is acceptable.

  3. Thank you, Russell. Thank you, Mathew.

    Ian (2), as I explained, all alternate ways were considered. In my description I tried to convey what the situation was in that common room, but I understand none can visualize what it really was, except by having seen it, including sensing the enmity of Martha’s environment. As I explained: “I considered passing her the sacrament stealthily, blessed beforehand. The bread might have worked, the water was more complicated under the scrutinizing looks of the tenants. When I suggested the option to Martha, she considered ways to do it, but the risk of increased mockery afterwards was too great. Besides, how to enjoy the Sacrament under such circumstances?”

    I hope this thread will not become a discussion of what could have been done to avoid what I did.

  4. Well played. I wonder if I will ever have the wisdom of an “immature branch president, age twenty-three.” Not likely, but it sure is something to aspire to.

  5. “But I hope this thread will not become a discussion of what could have been done to avoid what I did.”

    What do you hope this thread will become?

    You just told a story about how you told a woman she had the authority to bless the sacrament(!) Is there something wrong with suggesting other alternatives to that?

  6. I love the simple and true faith of Martha. I hope that I have that kind of dedication to those ordinances which can bring us closer to God when considered with the type of faith she had.

  7. Since Frank has thrown the gauntlet down on the table, I’d like to suggest that, by my reading, Mathew–“those in authority taking unorthodox measures to care for their flock”–has the right take on Wilfried’s post. I do not see in Wilfried’s story a doctrinal argument for extending to women the authority to bless the sacrament. I do see in his story the suggestion that there are times and situations when God will prompt His servants to do unorthodox things….like telling a woman that she has the authority to go ahead and bless and partake of the sacrament.

  8. From Jacob

    Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God.

  9. Ryan, seems like the point is that it _wasn’t_ the branch president’s wisdom. But if what you’re actually aspiring to is the ability to receive such clear, on-the-spot revelation, I’m with you.

  10. DC 1:38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and call a branch president operating under inspiration a servant of the Lord

  11. Frank, I don’t know the answer to your question “What do you hope this thread will become?” But I think I know what I don’t want it to become.

  12. Wonderful, wonderful thread, Wilfried. Wonderful especially because of what it illustrates – God’s love for each of us; and the care of a leader for his flock. It reminds me of many things, particularly of my childhood. I was raised by an army officer, who told us stories of sacrament that consisted of ration crackers and canteen water. The lesson was the the need to partake of the sacrament overcomes the limits that we sometimes put on it for decorum’s sake.

    As for Frank’s question, as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that God allows us more leeway in the ordinances than we sometimes realize. We read of many examples: Joseph Smith and Alma baptizing without the priesthood; Zina and Eliza laying on hands to heal the sick; and so on.

    The priesthood is the normal channel for such actions; 99.9% of the time, such acts ought to come through the normal routes. But at the end of the day, the priesthood is nothing more than the authority to act in God’s name. And God can choose to extend that authority to others, outside of the priesthood, as He chooses to do so. By the priesthood, we have a right and authority to act in God’s name in certain ways; outside the priesthood, He may choose to give us the authority to do so, but we do this at His sufferance, rather than by established right.

    I will not presume to tell God what He can or cannot do. If He wishes to extend authority to this woman, I do not see what would prevent Him from doing so.

  13. One more comment and I’ll shut my big yapper.
    As I understand the sacrament, it is more than just a formal way of being washed clean of our sins. The sacrament, in all it’s depth and symbolism is an effectual covenant between the partaker and the Lord. What doctrine prevents Martha from covenanting to always remember Him and to obey the commandments. Conversely, what doctrine prevents the Lord from allowing the spirit to strive with Martha or to forgive her of her sins?

  14. Wilfried’s post includes this phrase: “Without premeditation, prompted from an unknown depth but clear as crystal…”

    What else besides inspiration or prompting could Wilfried depend on? He tried all conventional means; they were not ultimately available. I think the most important part of this story is that Wilfried didn’t intellectually analyze the injustice of priesthood gender issues; he did not personally decide that one person’s religious peace of mind was more important than a strict reading of God’s dictates.

    If I understand right, he felt prompted, and he trusted his prompting. We have blogged about the anarchy of revelation, and this post might invoke some of those fears or feelings. Isn’t this one more about the glory of inspiration?

  15. Kaimi,

    What question did I have that you’ve answered? I just asked why he thought it inappropriate to talk about alternatives to doing what everyone seems to agree was an unusual step. I have no opinion about whether it was right or wrong.

  16. Thank you Wilfried. May God bless you.

    It’s experiences like this one that help me stand a little taller as a member of the Church. For the unconquering faith of this dear sister despite the cruel realities of life, and for the careful sheparding of the Lord’s flock you embodied.

    Somehow your response emulates what I would envision the Savior doing in this situation (much to the ire of the scribes and Pharasaical zealots).

  17. By the power of the priesthood women, alone on the western frontier, in unique and dire situations,healed children by priesthood proxy; woman, alone in a hospice devoid of spritiuality should be able to take the sacrament. God looks on the soul, and knows the intent of our hearts and the circumstances in our lives. Wilfred, considering the circumstances, I applaud your common sense and ability to hear the spirit.

  18. OK, so I feel like an obnoxious pedant, but I have to point out that women did not administer only in cases of dire necessity, nor was it only elite women like Zina Young or Eliza Snow who did it–it was a fairly common practice well into the Utah period when male priesthood holders were easily available. Brigham Young set women apart to anoint and bless other women. It’s not clear what was going on, but I’m not sure “priesthood proxy” is accurate.

    And now back to your regularly scheduled lovefest for Wilfried’s post! (which is, of course, utterly deserving of all the praise)

  19. Thank you Wilfried. There are several women in Bishkek who wish they could take the sacrament. If you don’t have a family member who holds the priesthood, you don’t get the sacrament. It is difficult to have them at our house on Sundays and not be allowed to bless the sacrament with them.

    Is it any wonder that we all pray for the church to be recognized here? I wish there were more options (like Wilfried’s) till then.

  20. I want to ‘amen’ KHH’s comment. I don’t claim to understand all the whys and wherefores of 19th century practice, but there is indisputable evidence that male priesthood leaders–who were already present–would call on women to lay on hands, etc. Whatever it was, it was very different from what Wilfried is describing.

  21. Once again, I am blown away by the beauty of one of Wilfried’s posts. Do yall think we could convince him to compile his experiences into a book?

  22. Thank you all. The broader perspective of women having and using priesthood authority is an important topic, especially considering our own Mormon history. I am grateful Kristine Haglund mentioned it (23).

    Next to the simple thing I did (and which I hardly considered “unorthodox” in view of the circumstances), my post also draws the attention to the place of our sisters in building the Kingdom. As I said about the women in our small branch: “We counted a scant dozen of them, singles and widows, making more than half of the congregation and being its very backbone.” In the mission field (in its broadest sense) we often have more women, and very capable women, who could lead our units. That potential is underused. Moreover, there are cases where there simply is no (worthy) man around. Erica (24) mentioned the situation of members in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. With her I wish there were simple and evident options in such situations. I trust they will come in due time. And more.

  23. All’s I can say, Wilfried, is that I wish you were in the First Presidency, telling stories about widows in general conference.

  24. This post strengthens my testimony of the beauty of Heavenly Father’s wisdom. It’s not all about the rules all the time.
    I don’t understand why the women in Bishkek can’t partake of the sacrament at your house, Erica? Legal reasons?
    This post also reminds me of when I was in a small branch in Turkey. The priesthood holders were all out of town or sick one week, and the branch basically forced this one very inactive member to come in and preside over the meeting and bless the sacrament for the sisters who were there. He was unwilling to do it, but did so casually and begrudgingly. (I think his opening remarks were something to the effect of “I don’t really want to be here, so let’s get this over with.”) It sounds like Martha’s blessing of her sacrament had much more of the spirit than our situation in our Turkish meeting.

  25. Wilfried,

    This was beautiful. It was one of those stories where at the end, the result is so surprising, so unexpected, but then just feels so _right_ to the reader, that the emotions well up. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

    As I started reading the comments, my emotions ran dry suddenly. So I didn’t finish reading the comments and the ensuing, tired, expected conversation. I think I will hold onto the unexpected ending of your story and the feelings of peace and love that I felt.

  26. Wilfried, you have both a tender heart and a pair of big brass ones.

    I am strongly inclined to praise you for both. But I also tend to think that I can only do so from a standpoint of skepticism with regard to centralized and exclusive divine authority, and that something essential to Mormonism is lost in the process.

  27. Wilfried,

    I’ve been lurking here for a week or two since stumbling across this blog. During a testimony meeting I attended while serving in the Osaka Japan mission quite a few years ago, a fellow missionary pointed out that “unspoken gratitude never did anyone much good”. Well, I’ve remained quiet long enough. Thank you for ALL your posts (I’ve gone back and read all the ones that I can find here), for your wisdom, for your kindness and gentleness, and for being willing to share.

    I’m a new branch president myself in a (bigger than yours!) small branch in Iowa. If ever I am tempted to feel overwhelmed, I will remember you.

  28. Legal reasons, meems (32). Kyrgyzstan has trouble deciding who’s really in charge since. And church leaders are understandably very careful after the many difficulties the Church has had throughout the former Soviet Union.

    Still, even though it’s understandable, we’re all working on patience.

  29. Fr̬re DecooРThank you so much for sharing these anecdotes with us.

    I am touched at how profoundly this story conveys a woman’s ardent love for her Savior and her need for the special connection with Him that only comes through the Sacrament. And I personally see nothing wrong with Bro. Decoo’s actions. While giving a woman the authority to bless the sacrament might not be a common occurance in today’s Church, following inspiration received while one is in a valid position of stewardship is in complete harmony with the order of God. No one can really judge the situation and understand all of its nuances like Bro. Decoo, Martha, and the Lord. That said, I am grateful to have been priviledged enough to read about this very tender moment in a person’s life. I know how she felt, longing for the promises of the Sacrament prayer, yearning for the peace and the strength that come through participating in the Sacrament. Thank you Martha for your example.

  30. #34

    But I also tend to think that I can only do so from a standpoint of skepticism with regard to centralized and exclusive divine authority, and that something essential to Mormonism is lost in the process.

    Well, maybe. OTOH, one of the most central things in Mormonism is the Holy Ghost, and the responsibility to follow that guide inspite of rules and policies to the contrary. [i.e. Nephi and Laban]

    I’m just one generation removed from those who remember a very different church — one where the bureaucracy wasn’t so ascendant. One with, perhaps, more leaders and fewer managers. These older members [Wilfried’s generation, I believe] can tell you of a time where even missions were run with more sprirt and very little of the Mosaic ‘white handbook’ tradition we see today. I know [personally] people who witnessed miracles and horrors, who were sent without purse or scrip to preach, who were involved in raising the dead and healing the sick in ways that my generation doesn’t seem to experience.

    “The Sprirt listeth were it will” is a powerful, yet frightening concept. Such spriritual anarchy appalls those who would manage and control and keep statitics in order. But sometimes the spirit says ‘follow the rules;’ othertimes it says ‘give Martha the authority to bless her own Sacrament.’ And we would be wise to heed it in either case.


  31. I need to acknowledge all those previous kind comments and thoughtful additions. Thank you, all. The topic is of course somewhat delicate and I hesitated to tell about this experience. But it’s interesting to see that when one moves to a concrete case, with a profound human dimension, the readers’ perspective changes and controversy is more difficult to start.

  32. So, is it too soon to nominate this post for post of the year at next year’s Bloggernacle Awards? Quite honestly, I think this is, bar none, the finest blog post I have ever read. Simply wonderful, Wilfried.

  33. Wilfried,
    You give me hope. In the future, when I am weighed down by frustration with some aspects of the institutional church, I will remember this post. I will remember that there are those who will act by the spirit, even if it is unorthodox and goes against tradition. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  34. Wilfried, thank you very much for writing this post — for sharing Martha’s story with us. I think if we heard more stories like Martha’s we would realize that there may be more flexibility to follow inspiration to effectuate sacred ordinances than the current practice seems to dictate. Thank you for this beautiful story.

  35. Thank you Wilfried, for another beautiful story. Although the sacrament is an ordinance, taken down to it’s grass roots the Saviour blessed and broke the bread and gave the cup as a symbol to remember Him. IMHO Martha’s ordinance would have every bit approval from Him as she sought to ‘remember Him’ and keep his commandments in the best way she could at the time. How non-chalantly I sometimes accept the fact that I always have the priesthood to bless the sacrament. I’ll be thinking of Martha this Sunday during the Sacrament and try harder to appreciate my blessings.

  36. Thanks for catching the spirit of what I tried to convey, Kevin, Caroline, Elisabeth, ukann – and many others in previous comments. Like I said, I was hesitant to share this experience here, realizing it might seem inappropriate for some. At the time I didn’t think much of it. It was simply the thing to do.

  37. re #23 and #25.
    In talking about laying on of hands, healings, and other gifts of the Spirit, the Lord said in Mark 16:17-18 “them that believe,” not elders, not leaders, not men, not priesthood holders, not grown-ups. “Them that believe” is also mentioned in Mormon 9:24, DC 84:65.

  38. Thank you Wilfried. I held off reading your post until today (Sunday). I knew I would be missing church because of a sick kid and minor surgery I had this week. Thank you for the lovely lesson. Thank you for the reminder of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

  39. Wonderful post and thought provoking story. Many years ago, a favorite uncle was suffering from typhoid fever after drinking from an unsanitary water source. In his autobiography, he related that his father gave him many blessings while his life hung in the balance. My uncle’s mother also laid her hands on her son during the blessings. At first my reaction was very narrow, even provincial. How could she do such a thing. And then came the light. What stronger feelings than maternal love for her son? And what could be more appropriate than a mother participating in that otherwise priesthood ordinance? Ever since, I’ve been open to different solutions depending on circumstances.

    My thanks to Wilfried for another exceptional and insightful story.

  40. Embarrassing! It feels a little awkward to continue to thank you all, but it would also be improper not to acknowledge your kind words and thoughts, Bookslinger, Maria, fMhLisa, JA Benson, Lawrence. Merci!

  41. thank you, Wilfried, for once again warming my heart and bringing tears to my eyes. like Roy Grant, I visit often, and comment rarely. mostly stupidly. but thank you.

    (and to save you the embarrassment of acknowledging more fawning–No Thanking Me Necessary).

  42. Professor Decoo,
    Merci for this beautiful story. Martha reminded me of my dear grandma who sits days after days in her little room at the retirement home of Bully, France. The living conditions are much better, but Mamie is becoming deaf and blind. She misses her husband even though she has never told me. We do not talk about the dead at home. Pierre passed away in 1982. Renée has never heard of the Church, but I was able to be baptized for my grandpa a week after I joined the Church in the Cardston, Alberta Temple in 1999. I then finished his work a year later. I am so grateful for the Gospel and the eternal perspective that it gives to us–sometimes so hard and painful for our dear ones.

  43. Merci, Baptiste. You draw the attention on a particular dimension of the Church membership of converts, which I believe has not yet received much thought and study in Mormon sociology, i.e. the evolving relations between family members, some Mormon converts, some not, as they grow older and face peculiar needs and challenges in that process. There is the case of the aging Mormon convert, confined in a hospice where he or she is the only Church member. There is the case of a lonesome aging parent or grandparent, when the children, Mormon converts, have emigrated and where there is no possibility to relocate that parent or grandparent too (or, if it happens, the transplant is seldom a happy one). Small branches in the mission field, with more older members than young, do not always have the resources to cope well with such challenges. I presume those challenges have always been part of the life of converts in foreign countries, but they would deserve more study — an invitation to Mormon sociologists. Meanwhile, as you pointed out so beautifully, we can find comfort in the eternal perspective, which the temple in particular impresses on our minds.

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