Martha’s Sacrament Revisited

In these challenging times, an experience I posted fourteen years ago on Times and Seasons comes back to mind. How would I draw a conclusion now? This was the experience:

***

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 moaning. 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.

***

In April 2014, almost fifty years after this experience, Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk which I felt justified my gesture. I felt it reinforced by President Nelson’s talk at the October 2019 conference.

But today, in light of changed circumstances, I feel I did not even have to touch her hand and say the words. Would the Lord mind if a secluded woman (or women) read the Sacrament prayers from D&C or from Moroni, with bread and water on the table and then partake of it? Whether it is “duly” blessed or not seems besides the question: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

9 comments for “Martha’s Sacrament Revisited

  1. March 27, 2020 at 7:13 am

    Thank you, Wilfried. I have never forgotten this story, and I agree with you.

  2. JR
    March 27, 2020 at 8:03 am

    Wilfried, Your approach does not seem to me to have been so very different from that of Joseph F. Smith. See here.
    Thank you for your story.

  3. ji
    March 27, 2020 at 11:26 am

    I remember the original posting, too. The advice was given privately for an individual situation, and seemed sensible to me based on the circumstances. But we still need to respect the general pattern of things, and one shouldn’t use an example of private advice given to another as reason for his or her own decisions.

  4. Jon miranda
    March 27, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    I agree with ji in respecting the general pattern of things. Remember authority is paramount. I can be the nicest person in the world and decide to open up a McDonald’s franchise. But if I don’t have the authority or permission from the corporation then it’s no good.. this was a lovely story but I think if you presume authority you take the risk that happens on Earth won’t be recognized in Heaven.
    No matter how nice or well-meaning you are.

  5. Razorfish
    March 27, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    God bless you Wilfried! This story inspires us to be the best version of ourselves. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Craig H
    March 28, 2020 at 9:33 am

    That is a great story Wilfried. In my neighborhood, like many others, there is much well-meaning concern about everyone getting the sacrament, especially in the proverbial homes without the priesthood, and a long, long checklist of safety measures to follow in order to let priesthood-holding and potentially illness-bearing people inside, which on the one hand shows the depth of belief among the devout who are willing to take such risks, and on the other makes you wonder how meaningful the rhetoric about women and priesthood is if it can’t officially accommodate something as basic or “simple” as this. If somebody wants to do otherwise, they are basically left to do and don’t tell (or like you, tell much later). Which might be fine. Maybe that’s how life is in any culture; maybe the stress and worry lead to the sort of creativity that breathes new life into any culture, once it’s talked about. So thanks for sharing.

  7. Clyde
    March 28, 2020 at 2:47 pm

    An interesting and heartfelt response.

    What would be the difference between authorizing her to partake of the sacrament, and authorizing those who couldn’t access baptism prior to 1978?

    I very much understand the emotion and desire behind the actions. If passing, preparing, and blessing the sacrament are priesthood functions that can only be authorized by a bishop, how is it possible to make that authorization without the authority of the bishop for administration, or the authority of the prophet to confer the priesthood necessary for the sacrament?

  8. DavidH
    March 28, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    I believe the Lord prompted you to say that on that occasion to that sister and it was a great blessing to her. And I believe God, who looks on the heart, accepted her eating bread and drinking water in remembrance of Jesus, and continued to send God’s spirit, just as much as God would have if the Sacrament had been blessed by one holding ordained priesthood. Thanks Wilfried for following God’s promptings and for sharing with us..

  9. meems
    March 29, 2020 at 3:40 am

    I have remembered this story many times and was recently thinking of it with the quarantines in place. Thank you, Wilfred for sharing it again! I have always loved it.

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