Delirium: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
When I found my mother crumpled on the floor this summer, she could no longer speak clearly. All I could see was the fear in her eyes. She had passed out earlier in the day. We later found out that she has a low-grade infection. She was dehydrated. She could not understand what had happened to her or what was now taking place around her. I helped the EMTs strap her into the gurney and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. After being stabilized in the Emergency Room, she was moved to a geriatric unit of the hospital for extended care. As she was being settled into her room, I spoke to the doctor who, thankfully, was a friend. He went in to examine her and to read the results of her lab tests. When he came back, what he told me was not good news. While he thought that she had a good chance of recovering physically, she was suffering from severe delirium. He then gave me the prognosis. One day of severe delirium and there was a seventy percent chance she would recover her faculties. Two days of severe delirium and there was only a forty percent chance. Three days and it was only ten percent.
It was devastating.
I asked my friend what I could do. He answered that I should cancel my plans for the next several days and plan on spending eight to twelve hours a day with my mother in her hospital room. My job, he said, was to be present, to talk with her and “to remind her of who she is…”
I drove to my home to shower and get some fresh clothes. I then drove to my mother’s house. I packed a bag with some of her favorite comfortable clothes, jewelry and makeup. I then found a few of her favorite books, some CDs and a player, her address book and, finally, a stack of photo albums. Before leaving, I took out my iPhone and photographed every room in her house.
Returning to the hospital, I started the task which I had been assigned. By turns she was unresponsive, frustrated, and even angry. She had trouble even speaking. Her eyes darted from side to side. She was disoriented and was not even sure where she was or, on occasion who I might be. So, I read to her. I played music for her. I asked her about the names of the people in her address book. Together we went through seventy years of photographs. We did “virtual’ tours of her house on my iPhone. We said the alphabet together and practiced counting. We drew the face of a clock and, with practice, placed the numbers on the face. With a hand mirror I helped her with her makeup and lipstick. Slowly… very slowly, she began to respond. By the second day, she knew her name and she recognized me. I would think we were progressing until I would ask her where we were, and she would name a city where she had lived fifty years ago. So we would begin again. Doctors and therapists would come and go as we did the work of remembrance.
The delirium passed, but the “shadow” of the delirium remained for some time. Yet, over the course of a few weeks, my mother, I’m glad to say, substantially returned. She knew who she was once again.
At this time in my life, I have often wondered what value I might have as a church historian. It has been my work and calling for decades. This episode with my mother has given me at least part of an answer…
As I look around, it sometimes seems to me that the Church is, in many quarters, almost suffering from a corporate delirium. Much is disoriented. There is fear. There is lack of clarity. For some, only issues of sexuality seem to be of importance. Others, including friends of mine, are exalting and, indeed sanctifying, political leaders who clearly have nothing to do with the faith or historic Christianity. We now have churches that look like nightclubs, clergy who do not know the rudiments of the faith (apart from wearing skinny jeans) and worship music that in content and lack of depth is simply an embarrassment. If I had to make an ecclesial diagnosis, I would say delirium has set in and that we have forgotten who we are.
So, as a church historian, I gather together what were once our favorite books – Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Newman, Temple, Lewis, Ramsey and all the others. I read and I share what I read looking for a flash of remembrance. I comb through our scrapbooks and photo albums covering 2,000 years and try to share vivid pictures of the Desert Fathers, medieval monasticism, the Reformation, the missions movement, the Great Awakening, the Holy Club of John Wesley, the Tractarians, the Jesus Movement and all those varied times and places which have contributed to what it means for us to be the Church. I hope for some sign of recognition, for to remember where we have been is not to go back in time, but rather it is to reawaken to who we are now, or, at least, who we should be now.
“Remind her of who she is…” Show her what her home looks like…
To be who we should be now may mean going back to some basics – like reading the Bible, regular times of prayer, attending church, Sunday School, hymns and hymnals, adult Christian education, sanctuaries rather than stages, altars instead of drum kits behind plexiglas, participants rather than spectators, listening instead of reading a screen, actual one on one pastoral care, talking to one another. It’s the return to a paradigm in which each person has a place and each person has value.
As with my mother, I should point out that time is not on our side. The longer we remain in this delirium in which we are divorced from our past, the greater the chance that we will never return to who we really are…
We hear much these days about contextual ministry and contextual worship. It should be said, however, that if the context to which we adapt is unhealthy, the ministry within that context will likely be unhealthy as well. To have allowed my mother’s delirium to rage unabated, would have resulted in a life lived out in the context of continual care and, on her part, confusion. It would have been life, but it would have been a diminished life divorced from her past and with an uncertain future. I believe that the Church faces this very same danger.
It is time, and past time, to remind ourselves who we are… and the time is short.