I recently marked the fifteenth anniversary of my ordination to the permanent diaconate. I’m not typically prone to nostalgia, but the passing years has left me reminiscing earlier times. I remember quite fondly the four years I spent in the formation program, the teachers, my spiritual guides… and my classmates. And I can’t think about those days without remembering Rich.
Rich Vaughn was quiet, one of the quietest in our class. He seemed less approachable to me than the others at first and we didn’t seem to have much in common, didn’t small-talk much, never really hung out. But then that changed when we were assigned a major project together and subsequently were paired for our hospital chaplaincy practicum. By the end of formation, we were best of friends.
While in the program, Rich introduced me to prison ministry. I was intimidated by the prospect of it, but Rich suggested that I face my fears and talked me into trying it. I remember as we were driving there for the first night apprehensively asking him what to do if the conversation faded, if there was an awkward pregnant pause when inside. He said: “Just be present.”
After ordination, Rich and I continued our friendship. I was ever inspired by his quiet approach, by the steady and simple manner in which he ministered as deacon. Rich exemplified humility. “Just be present” sums his style up perfectly. He was an exceptional deacon, but only had that privilege for a few years.
I recall when he started experienced the pain in his shoulder. He tried every treatment possible, but it wouldn’t subside. I remember well the day he called me. I was driving on Route 95, headed north. He told me that his doctor had ordered a different kind of test, a PET scan. In simple Rich style, he told me: “I lit it up.” We both knew what that meant.
I spent many nights at his house. On some, we talked. But increasingly, we didn’t. We just sat together in silence. He told me he just liked having me there. I hoped I was helping him in some way. Later, I came to realize that he was the one who was doing the helping. He was helping me.
Rich told me on one particular evening after one of his daughters had left: “I know I won’t be there to walk my daughters down the aisle on their wedding days. I know I won’t visit them in the hospital when their babies are born. I know I won’t go to Disney World with their families. I won’t be able to do any of those things. But I can show my daughters how to die.”
Rich suffered quietly, in a solemn and prayerful silence. He lived his final days with dignity. And he looked forward through darkness and saw a penetrating, brilliant light. He showed all of us how to die.
I had an opportunity recently to reflect on Jesus’ very last words to his disciples as noted in Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” The greatest gift of our faith is the sure knowledge that Jesus’ promise to his friends and followers is the same promise that you and I receive. A promise of eternal accompaniment. Of presence.
That penetrating, brilliant light that punctures darkness is hope. We all proceed toward that light. And we are not alone. We are never alone.