A Christian's Recent Confrontation with Near Death
I am posting this very personal account of my intermittent commenter, Theo, who I asked for prayer for in February due to a "massive" heart attack. Thank the Lord Jesus for hearing our prayers and for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction he received at the hospital. He is home now thankfully (this side of the veil) and wrote this to me to describe the episode.
I’ve attempted beginning writing this half a dozen times thus far, only to wipe it out and begin again. Every thought I set to paper (OK, “virtual” paper) falls leagues behind the recollection of the actual events. I suppose any retelling (no matter how prosaic) of any great life event pales in comparison to the event itself, or even to its recollection.
As you know, I suffered a heart attack in mid February. My wife got me to the hospital in time (obviously); however, it was a near thing: I was whisked into the ER, where a team of wonderful doctors, nurses and other medical technicians briskly set about saving my life. As a small whirlwind of activity spun around me, I found myself suddenly surprised to realize a few things:
1. Heart attacks hurt! Seriously, I’d not known one could endure such pain and remain conscious. Now, you might think it odd that this surprised me; however, you must keep in mind that I’ve had to endure very little extreme physical suffering through out my life.
2. Suffering and peace are not mutually exclusive experiences. One can experience phenomenal peace even while enduring phenomenal suffering.
It is the latter surprise that I wish to talk about today. I suppose I need to start by describing more of the ordeal.
In the ER. my heart was on track to ripping itself apart, racing at over 180 beats per minute. The pain in my chest radiated over my entire body. Imagine that you somehow managed to swallow a live badger whole and the furious creature was trying to claw its way back out through your midsection, then you sort of get the idea.
As my wife was escorted to the waiting area I was barely aware of the medical staff removing my clothes.
I think it was around this time that I noticed that I’d not experienced fear or anxiety throughout the whole ordeal thus far. It was not that I was confident in my recovery. In fact, things looked bleak. I’d recently heard that about 70% of all heart-attack victims do not survive their first event. Yes, it could be that endorphins had kicked in: that my body was shielding my mind through God-ordained natural chemistry and shock; or it could have been a peace that “passes all understanding.” Whatever the cause (and I believe it was the latter), I realized with amazing clarity that regardless of whether I lived or died, all was well (or at least, all would be well).
At the same time I also felt deep sorrow at the prospect of my children growing up fatherless; however, I also realized that many children grow up and flourish in spite of such losses, especially when they’ve already set out upon the right path.
Even as these thoughts pooled into a genuine oasis of peace in a parched land of suffering, a man leaned over me, speaking quietly.
“I’m Father C---, a Catholic Priest,” he said. “Do you have anything to confess?” I focused on his calm face. He smiled as if we had all the time in the world.
“Yes, Father,” I answered. Then after a pause of less than a full second, I began, “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been five weeks since my last confession…” I was unable to make the sign of the cross. I was weak as an infant.
Above, I mentioned the slight pause because something extraordinary happened within that gap of mere milliseconds. Usually I must dig deeply to disabuse myself of my own self deceits. Yet in this instance I saw my condition with (I believe) remarkable clarity. Within an instant, I felt my heart laid bare. The choice was mine to heed or ignore God’s call to ongoing repentance.
Father C--- then heard my confession which poured from my mouth with a concision that even the most casual observer will note I usually lack. He conferred absolution, then administered the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick--Some readers might know the latter as “Extreme Unction” or “Last Rights.”
My entire time with the priest likely totaled less than three minutes. Yet, if I had peace before, I now also had something more akin to joy in knowing that I might soon and very soon be heading to my true home.
As the priest left my side, the pain continued building and I lost consciousness.
To the best of my recollection, I experienced nothing until waking up in the intensive cardiac unit many hours later. I soon learned that the extreme pain I now was feeling in my chest was not because I was still having a heart attack, but a side effect of the two electrical shocks delivered to revive me. I had stopped breathing and my heart stopped after the first shock; however, the second did the trick.
It wasn’t long until I realized that I’d been surprised to discover I’d realized a third truth (Remember: 1: Heart attacks hurt. 2: Suffering and peace are not mutually exclusive experiences.), to wit: 3: God is good.
Most Christians (I hope) will deem this a “given,” yet for me, I had not previously realized that I didn’t get it. You see, I’ve always struggled with the philosophical question of the problem of pain in Christianity.
One tends to ask how an infinitely powerful and infinitely good God can allow innocent suffering, knowing that many of us finite beings would do whatever we could to eliminate it. Though I’d never admitted it, this question (whose answer still remains beyond me) was for me a statement of no confidence in God Himself. In my heart I questioned God’s goodness; yet now, having suffered and been close to death, I realize that suffering does not preclude God’s goodness. Then again, how could it when He Himself chose to use His own Son’s suffering for our redemption?
That’s all for now.
March 29, 2007 6:43 PM"
God bless Theo for sharing his story(please keep him in your prayers). We serve a great God who promises to never leave us or forsake us despite the suffering we endure and gives us His peace that "passes all understanding." I hope I have the same experience when my time comes to look into the face of eternity.