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Thursday , 18 August 2022

Spiritual conversation with a frontliner

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By Neil Daculan

She called and wanted desperately to take an hour’s walk.  Smelling the fresh air through the surgical mask she had on, at times stopping and stretching her back, with a heave of sigh I heard her mumble underneath her breath: “My back hurts, my neck hurts…”

I could only muster a hushed “are you ok?” reaction.  What else is there to say?  Maybe advise her something vaguely positive, like “everyone’s in the same boat and you’re no exception?”  I chose to bite my lip and opted to listen instead.  

And observe.

Silently.

She proceeded to take a few strides and vacillating between halts and runs, I saw her pursed quivering lips as she held a tear halfway on the left side of her cheek.  Reflective, she pondered and shot through a question like an arrow to a bullseye: “is my faith even strong?”

“Why?” I responded, as if in a myoclonic jerk.

“If my faith is strong, then why am I anxious every time I report to my work to care for our COVID-19 patients from St. Basil?  Why am I afraid to go, afraid I might get the infection when I don’t even have co-morbidities?  Why do I keep on waking up at night?”

Momentarily pausing, I composed my thoughts and told her the story of the apostle Paul in the Bible, particularly when Paul wrote the Second Letter to the Corinthians. Like her questions, Paul’s faith in the resurrected Christ was also the highlight of my favourite epistle. Paul must have tossed himself in his sleep like her, lie awake in the wee hours of ungodly mornings about his request: “About this, I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me…” (2 Corinthians 12:8).  His plea was not one-off and his sleepless nights resemble hers.

“What was Paul pleading,” she enquired, “that reflected mine?”

“A thorn in the flesh,” was my outright reply.

“What do you mean ‘a thorn in the flesh’?  Is it the same thorn as my fledgling faith?” 

I believe it was the same category, that “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) of Paul and her COVID-19-tested faith. Like Paul, she asked that her fear and anxiety be taken away in the name of the faith in Jesus Christ that she claimed. But, as she concluded, her faith is not enough because she has those “thorns” of real fear and inexplicable anxiety every time she stepped in trepidation into the COVID-19 ward. In some cases, she witnessed patients with tracheostomy performed on them; but at each shift, she was led like a lamb to stare at death an inch from where she stood. The aura and stench of the inevitable…the weeping relatives who could only look on from the outside touching the window with their open palms that feel like a chasm between heaven and purgatory, offering their tears as prayers for a mortally sick but utterly loved one.

These are all real. She disclosed about always feeling weak physically and mentally. But most of all – and this she unreservedly disdains – spiritually. She has an unwavering belief that she should be the strong one like “the lady with the lamp” of the Crimean War, even though swamped with uncertainties around her, including the uncertainty of getting an infection.

Again, I reverted to the story of Paul. I told her that God answered Paul’s question to take away “a thorn in the flesh.” This was God’s reply: “My grace is enough for you: for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).  Paul, upon hearing this, immortalised his response to God: “For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  

“If Florence Nightingale were here, she would have echoed the same faith that Paul had,” she concluded serenely.

It is quite ironic that our faith – however supernatural it may appear – has to involve tackling the natural, this crippling fear and that unconscionable anxiety. For perhaps, in that seemingly natural weakness, is the germination of supernatural strength. Faith in her simple way is not a perhaps but a certainty: she is certain of her faith though ironically uncertain of its subtle workings.  Faith blooms as gratis, otherwise known to us as ‘grace’; to be more specific: God’s grace.  

Grace is given to us for free but never cheap. It costs so much for her as for every healthcare worker of goodwill:  grace walked through the COVID-19 ward with a thorny rose in one hand and an oil lamp in another; grace passed through the grateful heart of a frontliner nurse, albeit crying in weakness; her eyes feeble with tears of fear, but the whole of her an oblation to mercy; her sinewy hands open to offer help, and though trembling, are clasped altogether in prayer.  

To this woman belongs grace.

(Neil Daculan is a married deacon of the Archdiocese of Melbourne since 2014 a theologian and graduate of Philosophy. He is an AusAID scholar from 1998 to 2000).

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