Prefatory note: I am Eastern Orthodox, and my wife is Episcopalian. An oddity in her parish church was that the pastor, Father Francis Bancroft (†), would regularly include in the Sunday hymns “The Star Spangled Banner.” Here’s a (true) story about Father B and me.
On August 22, 1997, following an afternoon nap, I awoke in a state of mental confusion and growing panic. I looked at the clock and could not tell what time it was. I wondered what day of the week it was, but I could not remember. My wife, Sherida, was in Michigan, just finishing a vacation there with her mother and her sister. So I tried to call my oldest daughter, Amanda, to tell her that I was in trouble and needed help. I could not remember Amanda’s number. I tried to think of my own phone number and couldn’t. Somehow, I was able to find the speed-dial button on my phone that connected me with my sister, who (thank God!) was home. “Sherry,” I said, “something’s wrong. I think I’d better get to the hospital.” (Actually, I couldn’t speak that clearly. What I really said was something like “Sherry, something wrong, go hospital . . . . ”)
In a few minutes, my sister, who lives nearby, picked me up and drove me to the local hospital. Initially, it appeared that I had suffered a stroke, and I was treated accordingly by the neurologist on duty in the emergency room. I could not see things to my right; I could not pronounce words like “hippopotamus”; I began to say things incorrectly and without context (e.g., that Elvis Presley had died on December 1, 1992, when, in fact, the date was August 16, 1977); my sentence-structure was garbled (e.g., “Has called my wife anyone?”). It looked bad, and I was very frightened.
They kept me in the hospital for a couple of days. On the night of the episode, after my symptoms and the accompanying panic had subsided, I was dozing in my darkened room. At a certain point, I became conscious of a large presence looming over me. I came to full awareness and, with some alarm, I asked, “Who is it?” “George,” the presence said, “it’s Father Bancroft. Sherida called me and told me what happened. I assured her that I would visit you right away.”
Father B then asked me if it would be all right for him to conduct a healing and communion service at my bedside. I told him that I would appreciate that very much, and he proceeded (“O Lord, holy Father, giver of health and salvation . . . sanctify this oil . . . drive away all sickness of body and spirit . . . The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . . ”).
The next day, after two CAT-scans and some other tests (not to mention the prayers offered up on my behalf by Father B and others), the doctors determined that I had not had a stroke after all. It turned out that I had had a brain spasm caused by a hitherto undiagnosed migraine condition. The “event” emulated, but was not, a stroke. My neurologist prescribed migraine-prevention medication, which I have taken daily ever since. The medicine works, not perfectly, but quite well.
The service conducted by Father B was beautiful, meaningful, and comforting. Father B’s coming to the hospital and ministering to me that night, when I was very afraid and with Sherida still in Michigan, was an unexpected and wonderful surprise.
After the healing and communion service, and as Father B was getting ready to leave, I thought I heard angels singing. But what, I asked myself, was the song they were singing? It seemed quite familiar, but I could not at first place it. Can you take the melody of an old English drinking song, write new lyrics to it that are consecrated to a higher but still secular purpose, sing the song over and over again, week after week, as part of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and have the song become a hymn sung in Heaven? I ask this question because, as Father B left my hospital room that night, and as I concentrated more intently on the voices of the angels, I could swear that they were singing (you guessed it!) “The Star Spangled Banner”!