The Reality of Wounds

by John D. Golenski

The call came from a professional acquaintance, a psychiatrist who worked with medical patients at a local hospital in San Francisco. She told me that a client of hers lay dying from AIDS in her hospital.


When she visited him he told her he wanted to see a priest. Since I was the only priest she knew, she phoned me and asked if I could see him immediately. She was sure he would die within 24 hours. I returned early from a speaking engagement at Lake Tahoe and drove directly to the hospital, stopping only at my local parish to gather the holy oils and viaticum, a special Communion intended for the dying. It was October 1984.

In those early days of the epidemic, without diagnostic tests and with no understanding of how the virus spread, aggressive precautions against infection were the norm with AIDS patients. I was required to don mask, gown, and gloves before entering Doug's isolation room. His nurse gave me the usual 25-word summary of a human life that passes for "history" in hospitals - "gay man in his early forties; symptomatic for less than a year; in a relationship with another man for eleven years; on aggressive, experimental antibiotic therapy for PCP that is about to kill him." She reported that he was anxious to reconnect with the Roman Catholicism of his youth.

When I saw Doug I thought of a concentration camp inmate. He was utterly emaciated and covered with sores, which I presumed were Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, and his skin was a greenish gray. Raspy breathing was the only sound in the room. When I spoke his name, he turned his head toward me very slowly and tried to orient. His speech was slow and unclear. His attention seemed to move in and out, so that our conversation was actually a series of unrelated interchanges.

I gradually came to understand that Doug wanted me to hear his confession and give him viaticum. To this day, I have no idea what he "confessed," but I am certain that he was trying to find his way back to the God of his childhood. I did everything I could to reassure him that he was forgiven and gave him the Host with a bit of water. This calmed him a good deal, and he soon fell asleep. I anointed him and prayed over him and left believing I would never see him again.

Through the next week, I phoned the isolation ward several times each day to see whether Doug had died, and the nurses described an improvement in his condition. The following Thursday, I visited him again. Going through the same elaborate precautions, I knocked and entered the room. He was still horribly thin and drawn, but sitting up and reading. He had no idea who I was or why I was there. We had a brief and very unpleasant conversation in which he refused to believe that he had wanted to see a priest and gave me his opinion of the Church. I told him that as a gay man, I agreed with him, but I didn't believe that his anger at the Church should come between him and a loving God. When I asked if I could visit him again, he agreed.

This was the beginning of a nine-month relationship until Doug died in July the following year. Over that short period, Doug taught me that my theological concepts, my clinical training, and my psychological theories were no match for his simple notions of God's power. He survived, I believe, primarily on strength of will through those months when he succumbed again and again to -pneumocystis pneumonia infections, only to be rescued by experimental antibiotics.

Our visits, which he allowed only when he was in the hospital, were always under Doug's direction. Rage was the general undertone of our conversations. He wanted viaticum each time, and he wanted the ritual to be what he remembered as a child. He insisted I wear clerical garb when I came to see him, even though he could not see what I was wearing under the gown, mask and gloves I had to wear when I was with him. I doubt he ever really saw my face, except through the window in his hospital room door.

Late that Sunday night, when the -disciples were together behind locked doors… Jesus came and stood among them. "Peace be with you!" he said, and then showed them his hands and his side.... Jesus …breathed on them, saying "Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone's sins, they stand forgiven; if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain."

JOHN 20:19-23

When Doug finally died, I was stunned. At that time, I was just finishing work as the executive director of a children's hospice program. I had been awakened that morning by a call from a family whose young son was dying of leukemia. After anointing the child, who died within an hour, and baptizing his older brother, I was paged again as I drove home. This time, it was Doug's partner, who told me that Doug had just died at home. It was still early morning when I reached their house in the heights above San Francisco's Castro District, the gay ghetto. His partner allowed me to climb the stairs to their bedroom to spend some time alone in the room, where I prayed over Doug's body. It was the first time I had visited their home, though I had met his partner several times at the hospital.

As I entered the room, I saw Doug's body laid out flat atop the bed. He had been bathed and prepared for the arrival of the undertaker. I suppose the absence of the anger that seemed always to be on his face in life allowed me to see the rest of him for the first time. The Kaposi's lesions stood out like wounds all over him. His body was a record of his physical suffering. And yet, for the first time, there was a sense of peace about him. From years of experience of death and dying, I was accustomed to the completion and finality of death and how the body, whatever is going on around it, seems calm. There was that usual atmosphere of quiet in Doug's room, but, I suppose because I was alone with his body, I really saw his "wounds." As I moved to the bed to bless his body and pray for him, the end of John 20 crashed into my mind.

This passage describes Jesus walking through the locked door of fear and showing himself to the disciples. He wishes them peace, shows them his hands and his side, breathes on them, and sends them into the world with his Spirit to forgive sins. Standing at Doug's bed, praying over his dead body covered with the sores of Kaposi's sarcoma, I "saw" the wounds of Jesus and understood the forgiveness, the true Resurrection, that flowed from them.

I believe that every moment of rejection Doug suffered, every insult and act of -violence, all the self-loathing, every self-destructive pursuit, the moments of terror and despair - all these were contained in his lesions. Doug dragged me, visit by visit, through the story of his suffering; he shared his anger and terror with me; and he made me acknowledge that ritual and words do not take away pain, disease or death. When he allowed me into the story of his life and accepted whatever the Church could offer at my hands, he gave me his forgiveness. He gave me the gift of the Spirit, the ever-present forgiveness and love that is the true Resurrection. What divine irony that I, a minister of the Church's forgiveness, received the Divine Love through the -forgiveness of this dying man.


John Golenski was a Jesuit for 24 years, and a priest for 12. He became a member of St. Gregory's in 1997, and an Episcopalian in 1999. John has worked as both chaplain and psychologist at the Children's Hospital, Oakland. He also founded a children's hospice program called "Harvey's Gift" with Judith Dunlop, RN.

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