After nearly a week in bed, I was again able to walk, but the pain running down my left leg was constant. Neither exercises, nor physical therapy, nor painkillers seemed to alleviate the pain. The only comfort I seemed able to find was in offering the pain up. The prayer requests seemed to come out of the woodwork for a friend who lost his job, for an acquaintance with cancer, for a couple’s pregnancy, for the upcoming election, for the suffering souls in purgatory.
An MRI a month later revealed a severe herniation of one of the discs in my lower back. The herniated disc was pressing on my sciatic nerve, causing the unrelenting telltale leg pain. My physician recommended surgery.
Two weeks later, the day of surgery approached. Having never had general anesthesia or operative surgery, I was understandably anxious. I had questions, with no answers. What if they would be unable to repair the problem? What if the surgery would make the problem worse? Would it weaken my back? Would it prevent me from being a good husband and father? How long would the recovery process be? What if I didn’t wake up?
The last question caused the most angst. Prior to surgery, I did the only thing I knew how to do to prepare for the worst-case scenario: I went to Church to receive the sacraments. Not just any sacraments, but two of the Church’s powerhouse sacraments reconciliation and the anointing of the sick, just in case I didn’t wake up.
On the day before surgery I met our priest, Father Bob, in front of the altar. He led the way into the confessional. Since he knew who would be confessing, I figured the privacy screen was unnecessary and confessed my sins face to face. After giving me absolution, Fr. Bob opened his prayer book and began the anointing.
Those who are not Catholic cannot fully understand the grace that flows from the Church’s sacraments. In reconciliation, one’s sins are forgiven once and for all. One’s soul is once again white as snow. In the anointing of the sick, the priest prays for healing and wholeness. Received together they reveal the importance of being right with God before one’s death. How comforting to know that Christ’s Church has a sacrament for just such an occasion.
As Fr. Bob used the Holy Oil to trace the sign of the cross on my forehead and palms, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. I was reminded of the prayer that I had so often recited as a child “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Somehow, I knew that all would be OK. Even if I didn’t wake up, I knew that I would die being right with the Lord. At the ripe young age of 33, I had just received the last sacrament that lay people can receive.
Just in case of premature demise, I also penned a letter to my family. In it I wrote, “Well, if you’re reading this it means that I didn’t make it through surgery. Please do not grieve for me. Rather, rejoice! I went to confession with Father Bob and you can trust that I am in Heaven where we all strive to be one day.”
“I pray that all of you will remain strong in your faith in spite of my loss,” I wrote. “My entire life has been a gift from God from the start, just as all of our lives are. If God has called me home to Him, there must be a reason.”
The next morning, as I waited for surgery, I experienced a strange mixture of nervousness and calm. I recall the blue-masked anesthetist telling me, “You’re going to be drifting off now,” as he connected the medicine to my I-V. I also recall my sense of relief when I awoke three hours later to a barrage of questions by a well-meaning nurse. Indeed, I had not died before I woke. God had decided to grant me another day.
I continue to marvel at the gifts Christ has given us through the sacraments of His Church. I also continue to be amazed by the tremendous grace that pours forth from each sacrament. The sacraments are a gift that no other Church can provide. How fortunate are we who are able to receive them.