It is when we are most beset that God makes Himself closest to us for the simple reason that we are then most like Him. The Cross shows Him at His most beset, and also yet at His most triumphing.
Every June 7th I have a flashback to the most significant event in my life, over 30 years previously. On that day I caused the death of a severely disabled young boy.
I was a young cocksure heathen anesthetist. This young lad with severe cerebral palsy turned up to have minor surgery. He had been bed-bound since birth. He seemed happy and smiling as he was wheeled into the anesthetic room. He lacked the power of speech. He just clapped his hands nonchalantly. I gained intravenous access without his flinching. I gave the induction drugs and intubated his windpipe without a problem. Then I routinely felt for his neck pulse. It wasn’t there. He was in cardiac arrest.
We resuscitated him for over an hour. Nothing worked, at all. It was as if the anesthetic drugs I gave had extinguished his life suddenly and altogether. I eventually declared him dead around noon and retired to the coffee room to reflect on this tragedy and make copious clinical notes. I felt numb.
My boss tried to reassure me that these things sadly happen, and I wasn’t to blame. She even said to me that morning, “But for the Grace of God, go I.” Memories of personal traumas are burned into memory with photographic clarity and I remember details perfectly even now. I was told that one should climb back on after falling off the horse. This was good advice. I might have become catatonic with self-absorption if I had not taken it.
I reckon the start of my reconversion to Catholicism to that incident. The consecutive numbers of that date (6/7/89) became of enormous significance to me. Was it a message from God? Is that how God communicates to those so immersed in the world and very far from Him, as I was then? The digits (of the date) felt like the fingers of God, prodding me urgently.
I was so far from Him at that time that I had no thing or person to consult for counsel. I went off and bought books from high street shops on numerology, astrology, divination, and other wacky New Age pulp to help me discern the truth. A curious choice surely, but I studied them with relish. I soon became an “expert” on these arcana and started to show it off to people at work. I loved all of their avid attention. I wasn’t the only one looking for answers to life’s big questions, you see.
I had lapsed from the Faith shortly after leaving home for university. Too many girlfriends/parties/drunken nights/possessions had got in the way. I was cohabiting with my fiancée. Even before this time I had been getting steadily more unhappy with our relationship. We saw the world too differently. My parents met her, and my mother intimated as only mothers can that she wasn’t right for me. Her words haunted my thinking. We parted company after one morning I picked up a local newspaper from the front door mat which carried the headline: “Man kills wife and children, then himself”. I had a sudden obsessive thought that if we carried on together, that would be our fate too. The death of that young patient was driving me crazy.
A promotion to the big city was coincidentally in the offing. I had interviewed well at a top teaching hospital and won a three-year rotation through choice postings. My time in Hicksville was over, apparently. I packed all my belongings and moved out of our jointly purchased home. We parted amicably in the end. She had her doubts too.
I moved into a hospital flat at my new workplace. I bought a new car and cleansed myself of my old possessions. I even bundled my old clothes up and took them into the city center to give to the homeless men there. I was going to make a new start! I plunged further into studying my new books, looking for wisdom.
On my first day in the new job, I met a remarkable young woman, who was a junior doctor working in my department. She was great fun to talk to, very intelligent and well-read (far more than I), and very attractive to my eyes. She was also unattached, she told me. We dated, and for the first time in my life, I truly fell in love. You know, 24/7 obsession, composing poetry, my only desire was to be in her company, and so on.
We started discussing deep matters. Like the fraud I was, I drew on my patchy thin Catholic school knowledge for answers to her own strongly held opinions on life and the meaning of it. Very quickly on every occasion, I was out of my depth and I was proven a complete fool in many of these discussions. I had never before met such powerful arguments, so well put, but I was in love, and so at her mercy. I became very confused. My infatuation with her continued only to grow. I was drawn by her mystery.
She did have a mercurial quality though which scared me. Most of the time, she was charming and kind, but without warning or provocation, she could become blithe, vicious, or mocking towards me. I was too naive to understand her inner processes. I carried on regardless, like the lovesick fool that I was. Two or three months this lasted.
Then one evening, when I knocked at her door, she introduced me to her new boyfriend. She had met him at a party, the night before. She signaled very clearly that she wasn’t interested in me anymore. On that doorstep I felt like I had nothing left, at all.
My social circle was already minuscule and rarefied because my job made it very hard to preserve friendships when one is always working unsocial hours. I resolved to do the only reasonable thing:’reboot’. I was going to rebuild my life from scratch, but what with?
I was 27. My numerology book told me that is 3 to the power of 3, and 3 is the number of the Trinity. (Mystical significance?) My astrology book revealed I was a Gemini, born in the year of the Tiger. My book of names informed me that I shared my first name with the fourth Evangelist, and it meant ‘YAHWEH is gracious’. My birthplace was Redhill: was this some meaningful coincidence? None of any of that was any help to me, except to swell my delusions and ego. I spent long periods lying on my bed staring at the light bulb in the ceiling of my hospital room looking for enlightenment, or washing myself clean in the shower looking for reconciliation somehow. I was lost at sea. I started drinking a lot, in company and alone.
I didn’t know how to pray, only how to recite the prayers of childhood. I didn’t know a Catholic soul outside of my own family. My mother rang one evening to say she had bumped into an old school friend of mine, at his ordination as a Catholic priest. He had obviously impressed her greatly. My sense of abject failure almost overwhelmed me, as she excitedly told me this news.
In spiritual terms, I was hovering like a midge, in and out of the mouth of madness.
I must have cut a pathetic figure wandering around the hospital with a sad face, and little to say that made any sense. Strangers asked me if I was alright all the time, even the Nuns who visited the sick. I became depersonalized, watching myself going through the motions of life. I was happiest when buried in my work, at which I remained fully functioning, as if gratefully on autopilot.
Helen was an unavoidable daily acquaintance-she lived across the hall from me, and we had to work together from time to time. She was still gorgeous to me, but now not only to me. I remember thinking that if I really loved her, I would have to let her go freely. She was not my possession, and my obsession was not hers. Another strong memory for me is of when we were alone in a room together, lamenting how things had turned out. She understood how hurt I was feeling, and felt sorry for my troubles. She was sitting down and I was standing beside her chair, with my hand resting on her shoulder. Our conversation paused, and in the silence, I saw us both as tragic figures in a painting, and (my spine tingles in recollection) so too did she.
Work was very hard in those days. Without fail, every third day was a 32-hour shift, and every third weekend was an 80-hour shift. It was during one of those duties, covering the intensive care unit, in Spring, that I lay down on the on-call room bunk at work, and pondered my lot, as I was wont to do. It was a sunny, early evening, about 6 pm, and the small window showed the setting, reddening sun through the newly leafing trees. I thought of a wisdom story I had recently read:
One day the Master asked, “What, in your opinion, is the most important of all religious questions?” He got many answers: “Does God exist?” “Who is God?” “What is the path to God?” “Is there life after death?”
“No,” said the Master, “The most important question is: “Who am I?”
Feeling very sorry for my very low ebbing self, I shut my eyes and prayed to the God behind my eyelids: “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” One by one the answers came, but were rejected as clearly wrong (I am John Morrissey, I do such and such, I am the son of …. I am a creature, etc), until I simply ran out of answers. I lost track of time and the only thought in my head was “Who am I?”
I silenced my thoughts, but the echoes of the question “Who am I” persisted.
Suddenly, “I” was nowhere. “I” had ceased to exist. “I” had entered a void. “I” was falling to my doom.
“Who Lord, who is, who is??” I cried out into my interior darkness, silence, and terror, expecting no reply.
“I AM WHO AM”
came golden and kindly the Voice from the void.
His Voice was Human, Warm, Kind, with Power and Authority, and He Loved me. I sensed that He was familiar with suffering, especially mine.
He stayed with me while time seemed to stand still. ‘I’ was in the Holiest place. Absorbed within His All-ness, I arose from my bunk and looked out the window. Everything, even the dirt and grime on the windowpane and the ugly car park below looked Good and Wholesome. Joy and peace and understanding perfused me, and perfused the world I beheld. There was no wrong thing incurable for Him. I felt unworthy to be experiencing this epiphany, but He bade me stay a while longer….
And then I was back in the dingy room. No time had passed. Everything was mundane again but I knew that I had been changed at the deepest level. Years on, I realize that almost everything about me has changed since that moment. I have remained a blundering foolish sinner, but I know with an unimpeachable certainty that the Holy Trinity was that Presence, that He is Love, He Loves me, and He loves us all, in spite of our sins. And this is Faith, and this is Hope, and my telling of it is Charity. Amen.
Image: Adobe Stock
Dr. John Morrissey is a semi-retired NHS specialist in anaesthesia and critical care medicine. He is a Catholic husband and father of four. Born to Irish parents, he was raised in the UK. He is an Oxford scholar and an ex-culture warrior. In the past, his writing has been published in the Catholic Herald and he has been a contributor to group blogs.