Fighting in Vietnam did it to him:
the war’s assault on heart and mind,
the drugs he took to escape
the fear, horror, drudgery…
these and more.
When I met him many years later
he was sitting in the back pew of my church
ready for worship—a moment of promise
in a church hungry for more bodies to fill its space.
Except that he left chewing tobacco on the pew
and was (we came to learn)
mixed up and disturbed.
Walter would gaze transfixed
at the huge stained-glass window
rising up behind the altar, towering over it.
Did its abstract rendering of a cross
—with the angular suggestion
of a crown of thorns—
somehow give him peace?
Often he was not at peace.
At times he enjoyed a moment’s respite,
quoting scripture from memory.
Conversations could be lucid, briefly,
even friendly. But deeper engagement
would reveal anxiety, distrust,
Yesterday Walter was found dead
in his apartment, his surroundings
a scene of filth, roaches, chaos.
If I could have arranged it,
he would’ve died in that back pew,
caught in the light streaming
through the stained-glass window,
through its cross, its crown of thorns.
Michael Pennanen is a recently retired Protestant minister who has pastored several congregations and served as a hospice chaplain. He has had liturgical materials published in worship resource books, and looks for this venture called “retirement” to open up new paths for his writing.