A nasty respiratory infection leads to a spiritual epiphany, just as news arrived of the Boston Marathon terror attack: Life on Purpose by Eileen Benthal.
I felt the cough take hold of me as I steadied my coffee, careful not to dump it all over the floor or the person standing next me in the deli. I thought if I could just inconspicuously cover my mouth with my elbow and walk out the door, I would be fine. But it gripped me like someone was holding a hand around my neck. Thankfully the bathroom door before me was unlocked and I slipped in quickly just as the coughing bout escalated, causing my whole body to convulse. This episode continued for a few minutes. All I wanted to do was get outside so I could breathe.
This virus hit me very hard the day before, as I struggled to lead song at Mass last Sunday. It seemed to me that after I hit the last note, my voice gave out. I couldn’t speak, was struggling with coughing fits and felt generally unwell. My chest was tight and it was painful to breathe.
I got up Monday morning and went straight to the doctor. The exam and x-ray confirmed bronchitis and some severe swelling in my throat. I was given a breathing treatment in the office and a script for antibiotic s and steroids to reduce the swelling. On my way to the pharmacy, I decided to kill time and hit the deli for a coffee.
Now, I found myself in the deli bathroom, struggling to breathe. I thought this would resolve quickly, but it didn’t. I could feel my airway closing in tighter with every cough. My mind raced with scenarios, as I considered opening the bathroom door and signaling for help. Whether it was limited oxygen supply to my brain, panic or both, I don’t know. But as I was choking strange thoughts were going through my mind. In addition to trying to triage myself (I have just enough medical knowledge to get me into trouble), I pictured my husband getting the RiverheadLocal text alert about a woman collapsing in the bathroom of a local deli as customers struggled to resuscitate her. Would he know it was me? In keeping with my tendency to over-dramatize events, I imagined someone would have to do an emergency tracheotomy and insert a straw into my throat so I could breathe.
More thoughts raced through my mind as well, as I tried to focus on taking deep breaths. I thought, “Am I ready to die? How will Johanna live without me? Have I done all I was called to do? Then the deeper more pressing thought crept into my consciousness as my breathing slowed; “Is my heart right with the Lord and those I love? Am I really ready to meet the Lord face to face?”
Maybe it was the unsettling answers to those questions or the thought of breathing through a straw that gave me the control I needed to relax my throat. Either way, I was able breathe enough to get outside, without spilling the coffee or collapsing on the floor of the deli. Greeted by the cool moist air, my airway opened and the spasms in my chest relaxed.
I took my medicine when I got home, poured a cup of tea and a blanket and cuddled up on a lounge chair outside to allow the beauty of spring to heal my weakened my body. Just then, I heard that familiar whisper in my soul; “Well, ARE you ready to die?” I tried to ignore the voice and claim a sick day. But the words persisted. “Are you ready to die at any moment? Have you done all I created you to do?”
As tears rolled down my face into my cup of tea I whispered back, “No, I am not ready, Lord. I am sorry. I love you with all my heart. But you know better than I that I have not yet completed the work you created me to do. I am not yet the woman I know I can be; the wife, the mother, the daughter, the friend who loves and forgives as I am loved and forgiven. I have much to do. Give me your grace that I may live this life in fullness, to love as you love and forgive as you forgive.”
It was 3 p.m. last Monday afternoon when I sat in the sun reflecting on the strange events of that day. I began to pray a familiar prayer in honor of the mercy of God that commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. I repeated the short prayer; “For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” The rote simplicity of this truth reminded me that the deeper repentance and conversion I needed in my life was not based on my own efforts, but on God’s grace won for me on that cross in Calvary.
I went back inside the house, just as the news of the Boston Marathon hit social media. I heard the kids talking about Boston in disbelief. As the images of the bombings and the blood splattered streets flooded into my living room, I realized that there may be others who didn’t get the chance of reflection that I was offered that morning.
As the week unfolded with this terrible news of terror, I struggled to pray. I felt the weight of grief as I considered the agony of those who lost their lives, their loved ones and became permanently disabled in the blink of an eye. I wondered if others heard the voice I heard in my simple and momentary struggle.
“Are you ready to die?”
These aren’t very consoling words to hear. But they are important words to reflect on for each person, at some time in our lives. The young terrorists, who committed this crime, seemed ready to die for a horrible cause and take anyone with them who stood in the way of their heinous acts.
Thankfully, the two terrorists intimately connected to the crime cannot hurt anyone again. But warped ideologies and hatred has existed in the souls of men from the beginning of time. We have been blessed to live in a country of freedom where we seldom fear bombings and mass killings, unlike our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.
Maybe that blessed way of life has lulled us to sleep. But maybe now it is time to wake up and assess our lives in light of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Evil lurks in the dawning of each day, but so does God’s love and mercy.
We need to defend our way of life; to rebuild, to strengthen and conquer our enemies that seek to destroy our lives. But think of the transformation that could occur if each of us considered our own end and reflected on that question; “Am I ready to die?” Think of the exponential multiplication of forgiveness, love and mercy that could happen if each one of us begins to change our own hearts first.
In the next few weeks and months and years, we will surely need to reassess our security, our policies, our strategies and defenses for protecting and defending our nation against those who intend on doing harm.
Let us also prayerfully reassess our own hearts so as to effect a change that will endure the test of time, terrorism and tragedy. Let us each courageously answer the question; “Am I ready to die?” and then take a good hard look at how well we have loved and forgiven and seek to make amends. Let us set out to find the purpose we were created to achieve and boldly pursue that purpose without fear and with reckless abandon.
For though evil lurks in the darkness, the scriptures promise; “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His Mercies never come to an end. They are renewed every morning, so great is His faithfulness” (Lamentations 2:22-23). Let us begin each new day, open to the Lord’s steadfast love, trusting that His mercies never end.
In the words of that simple song; “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
Photo credit: AP/Boston Globe
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and facebook.com/40DaysToFocus.