Last Things

We arose very early and drove toward the airport. Under normal circumstances this would have been the beginning of a cross-country trip to visit friends or relatives. But we passed the airport entrance without turning, and as rose-colored sky crept over the hills, we drove on to Providence Medical Center.

At 5:30 AM I checked in with a sleepy clerk and was escorted to a reception room where a nurse put me in a gown, propped me up on a gurney, and covered me with warm blankets. Blood pressure, temperature, and blood samples were taken, followed by a brief chat and prayer with Fr. Jim, my former pastor and now hospital chaplain. Then I kissed Alice goodbye, wheeled off to a chilly holding room for a moment before coming to the operating room. Individuals in surgical masks and blue caps moved in above, faded into nothingness, until I heard a voice saying it was all over and I had done just fine. Alice was beside me as I glided in a happy fog on gentle wheels. It was mid-afternoon and outside the long glassed corridors the sun was shining brightly.

Providence Hospital
A hospital, just as the parish church, is a meeting ground of ultimate realities. Providence Medical Center, Medford, Oregon.

There are always plusses and minuses to anything, prostate surgery included. Certainly the doctors and the wonders of modern medicine did well, the medical prognosis was positive, just a matter of healing and time. As a medical procedure the steps taken, the constant questions as to identify yourself with your full Christian name, date of birth, and reason for being in the hospital, showed enormous care. They did their job well.

But despite the best precautions, such things have their risks, and these can go beyond the merely physical. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the “anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair” that come with serious illness. But, in this new world of minimized pain, and non-invasive surgical techniques there is also the more subtle risk of denial. Certainly this was my case. Explaining away the anticipated four hours on the operating table, I described my impending surgery to others as something routine, an outpatient “procedure.”

Meanwhile all around me alarm bells were suggesting that this was a big thing. People I barely knew promised to pray for me. Others successfully encouraged me to receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. After the surgery, I spoke to Fr. Jim, three times during my short stay in the hospital. The lady chaplain’s assistant brought me communion, viaticum “food for the journey.”

It is said that through infirmity we learn of our limitations. I had always assumed that in such circumstances my personal faith would show itself. But in the numbing rush of hospital events it never happened: there were in fact no little prayers that I said, and no private moments with God.

My hospital experience reminded me that for good or for ill we are creatures of habit. The dancers practice steps until their muscles develop their own kind of memory. Emergency teams endlessly rehearse and critique themselves. In our prayer life, however, we also need good habits.  Leaving things to the inspiration of the moment is not the best approach. Certainly this was true in my case.

At earlier times in my life, my response to these medical circumstances might have been different.

I grew up in a Catholic boarding school environment where the spirituality treated death in a very open manner. Practiced monthly, the exercise began with an evening talk on death, and confessions were heard. The following morning, we gathered in chapel for the litany of a good death. This prayer, was written by an anonymous young woman and evoking the folk piety of the time. It was adopted and popularized by St. John Bosco, the apostle to the young, in an 1847 prayer book written for his schools and oratories. For many years this  religious “exercise” was an important part of my own spirituality.

“When my feet benumbed in death, shall warn me that my moral life is drawing to a close,” the litany begins, “merciful Jesus have mercy on me.” And so it went: “Hands cold and trembling,” “eyes dim and troubled,” “face pale and livid,” until the prayer reached its climax. “When… my soul, admitted to thy presence shall behold the immortal splendor of they majesty…where I may forever sing thy praises.” For all of its morbidity, the exercise was enormously impactful on our youthful minds. We looked to our own death, when these same prayers would be around us, and with the hope that we would have the strength and faith to invoke the merciful Jesus.

As I got older, things changed, and the practice of reciting the portion of the Divine Office known as Compline in a religious community was part of my daily routine. “Keep us O Lord” the prayer leader intoned, “as the pupil of your eye. Shelter us under the shadow of your wing…you have redeemed us Lord God of truth” The assembly, recalling Christ’s last words on the cross replied “I commend my spirit.” And so it went. With its focus “a peaceful night and a perfect end,” this selection of Scripture-based prayers was a rehearsal for sick bed and death.

Suffering mixed with hope are elements of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

In more recent years, this too was no longer part of my daily practice. I still had the rosary (“pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”) but the focus and intensity were gone.

As Catholics we believe, that our faith community “supplements” our individual shortcomings. Through my illness and recovery I was particularly blessed by the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. In treating serious illness as a component part of the sacrament, the Church reminded me that there is a holiness to sickness and death. “By the sacred anointing, “ Pope Paul VI tells us, “the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord… She exhorts them…to contribute to the welfare of the whole People of God by associating themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ.”

My recent experience was a graced moment that helped me understand that illness, pain, and death are integral to the Christian’s life. I do not wish to see the hospital again for some time to come. But should this happen, I want to be better prepared to follow my suffering savior commending my spirit once and for all into the hands of a loving God.

Larry Mullaly

June 2, 2011