Times & Seasons used to post, from time to time, something “From the archives”. So is this one.
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 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.
I was reminded of this post when in his recent conference talk Elder Oaks mentioned, talking about men and women: “Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”
At the time I thought I did the right thing. Now I know I used the right words.
Thank you for keeping comments in the spirit of the post.
Fascinating. You honestly think Elder Oaks would agree with you?
What a terrific piece Wilfried. And idea. I can imagine it all–the house-church, the care center, the attitudes, really evocative.
Nathan (2), honestly, in view of the situation, the keys I held as branch president, and the Spirit that prompted me, the person who mattered was Martha.
I remember this was one of the first posts I read on the bloggernacle and it has always stayed with me. The Lord went against rules to heal on the sabbath. Bless you for caring for the one.
I read this and the article entitled “Martha’s funeral“. It has been a while since I have encountered anything as uplifting. Too bad I can’t share with many people … they just wouldn’t appreciate it.
Thanks all, for comments.
Craig (3), when revisiting this post, I thought of yours Bo knows heaven. That was a remarkable piece also centering around the Sacrament in an hospice.
Wilfried, I have never forgotten this post. I still know too many women who need this authorization. There is so much we can fix without radical changes.
Thank you, Amira. Yes, many women need this authorization.
My experience of so many years ago does not imply that only sheer necessity would justify what I did. I refer to three comments by Kristine Haglund, Julie Smith, and myself in the original thread.
I cannot deny that my conclusion “It was that simple” implies much more than the event I experienced.
This was beautiful, Wilfried. In your youth and inexperience it feels to me like you hit exactly upon what the Savior would have done.