The first time I met David, he had just returned from the radiation therapy unit of a hospital. He politely asked me to microwave his coffee, which had grown cold while he was in treatment.

When I suggested a fresh cup, he replied: “The coffee is still good; it just needs a boost.” I smiled as I took the cup and headed toward the nurses’ station and the microwave.

David later referred to the coffee as his “spiritual brew.” This became my task throughout the summer months; whenever David had a cold cup of coffee, it was transformed into a hot, steaming “spiritual brew.” David commented that he was like the spiritual brew — he was “still good, he just needed a boost.”

EXPLORING BUDDHIST TEACHINGS

In the weeks that followed, I learned that David had been raised in the Lutheran faith. While the details were unknown to David, his family left the Lutheran Church in the ’70s for reasons associated with the Vietnam War. At this point in his life, he told me he was not “attached” to any church but considered himself a spiritual person.

David’s wife was raised as a Buddhist, and she continued to practice in the tradition tied to her Asian ancestry. During his illness, David began to explore the teachings of Buddhism. He became fascinated with the concept of transformation and the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

During his hospital stay, David became interested in Buddhist spiritual practices. He soon found comfort in meditation and in prayer beads. While my knowledge of Buddhism was limited, we shared thoughts and reflections on his spiritual practices.

David began to journal his experiences, and he created a special prayer journal. He would write spontaneous prayers in his journal and, at his request, I would often bring him traditional prayers from other faith traditions to add to his journal.

LOVE OF FRANCISCAN SPIRITUALITY

When I first met David’s parents, they were apprehensive about a Roman Catholic woman visiting their “formerly-Lutheran-turned-Buddhist” son. I learned that some of this apprehension reflected their own faith struggles and their anger toward God for their son’s illness.

That summer, our relationship evolved and unfolded along with their son’s spiritual journey. David’s parents were often present when we prayed, and sometimes they joined us. In addition to a deep appreciation of the Buddhist tradition, we discovered a mutual love for St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi and Franciscan spirituality.

As David’s condition worsened, he began to review his life by writing stories and drawing pictures in his journal. He shared these life stories and thoughts about the afterlife with me. During the last month of his life, David had the opportunity to share his thoughts and feelings with his wife, his parents and his brothers.

David helped his family members find meaning in his impending death. He was able to reconcile his beliefs grounded in the Lutheran faith with his new Buddhist spiritual practices. As a result, he provided a great example to his family and those providing care to him.

VOICING LIFE’S EXPERIENCES

David did not seek out many of the things that people wish for at the end of life: meaning, purpose, hope and companionship. He experienced these things throughout his life, and they continued to be present to him at the end. In the end, he was able to provide a voice to these things.

David suffered much in the last month of his life: His left leg was amputated and he experienced much discomfort from treatment, but he never gave up hope. While he rarely finished a cup, he continued to ask for his spiritual brew. This brew became a metaphor for his life and his journey.

David died on the last day of my summer clinical pastoral education unit; we had said our goodbyes. While I was sad at the thought of the world without David, he seemed spiritually prepared to die, and in the end, he died a good death.

 

Teresa Schulz is a spiritual director, lay theologian, retreat facilitator, lecturer and volunteer chaplain, and co-founder of mainespiritus and Tools for Intentional Living.