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Imperfectly Human Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Friday, 11 April 2014

Please indulge a little recent autobiography, leading to a theological point.

I’ve long suffered with painful attacks of biliary colic (when a gallstone gets stuck in the cystic duct as the gallbladder contracts to expel it along with the usual secretion of bile). I decided early on that I’d endure the sometimes-debilitating attacks, rather than opt for surgery.

And I’d had no attacks for a decade – until, that is, the last Monday of March, at which point they returned with a vengeance. Two came the next day, at which point I called my doctor. I saw him first thing on April 3rd (after more attacks the day before), and he said: “There’s no treatment and no cure. Have the surgery!” But before I could call a surgeon, another attack landed me in the emergency room; an attack so intense – radiating from the upper right quadrant of the abdomen into my back and finally to the left side of my chest (I saw two colors: black and red) – I realized had not known what 10 on the pain scale is.

Having balked at surgical removal for so long, I was ready now to do it myself with a pocketknife. The pain had already receded (as it so often does with biliary colic) – aided by morphine injection – when a surgeon arrived, and we agreed to let him do the cutting and removing.

But . . . blood work indicated a stone had not, as it should have, moved into the small intestines, but was in the common bile duct poised perilously near the pancreatic duct. Acute pancreatitis, caused about half the time by gallstones, can kill you.

“So,” the surgeon shrugged, “we’ll do an MRI to confirm the stone in the common duct, and then an endoscopy to remove it. Then I’ll take out your gallbladder.”

“An MRI, as in one of those tubular coffins?”

He nodded.

“No,” I said flatly. “I’m claustrophobic.”

The surgeon shrugged.

“Then we’ll just go ahead with the endoscopy, which is what we’d do anyway if the MRI found a stone, although if there’s more than one and the GI doctor misses it . . .”

I had the endoscopic procedure (ERCP) the next day (a single stone was removed from the common bile duct), followed two hours later by the laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

The serial gallstone attacks, subcu morphine for pain, the endoscopy and the cholecystectomy, four days of two powerful IV antibiotics, the absence of food and sleep for thirty-six hours, and a later decision that I should have an MRI (I didn’t) – all subjected my mind and body to serious stress. I lost ten pounds in less than a week. I have four painful slits in my abdomen where the implements of cholecystectomy were inserted. I’ve paid a price in terms of post-op pain and fatigue.

So now a PSA: I urge anybody diagnosed with gallstones to have a preemptive cholecystectomy. Do consult a surgeon; don’t use a pocketknife.

        The Empyrean (Paradiso, Canto XXXI) by Gustave Doré, c. 1880

But all that’s not really what this column is about.

Claustrophobia, my anger over the “failure” of my body, and the emotional letdown I felt when liver enzyme levels after the surgery forced me to stay an extra day in the hospital were all actually theological problems. I know, of course, that severe phobias and medical emergencies are neither moral nor theological by nature. One’s reaction to them, however, well may be.

I lay in bed the night after the surgery thinking of martyrs who underwent not only death but torture as well. Stories of martyred saints often describe their cries of joy – of hymn singing – even as flames devoured their flesh. Our precious Lord endured three hours of unspeakable agony on the cross, yet I can’t take twenty minutes of Magnetic Resonance Imaging?

Why not? Because my faith is weak. Lord I believe, heal thou my unbelief!

For me, tight spaces and confinement equal hell. When visited by a priest from our church, who anointed me before the surgery, I told him: “Claustrophobia is the dark hole at the center of my soul.”

A phobia is by definition irrational.

I’d tried listening to Gregorian chants on my iPhone, but shut it off quickly: too funereal. I turned to a superb German movie, Vision, about Hildegard of Bingen, but it’s flagellations and other mortifications of the flesh were suffocating.

So I grabbed my Kindle, which my wife brought to me on the second day, and continued reading Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Paradiso, and to Tony I owe such calm as I had for the rest of my confinement.

In his introduction, Tony writes beautifully of what, for me, is a much under-appreciated aspect of the Christian promise, to wit: our bodies come with us into the afterlife. As Esolen writes, the holy souls Dante meets in Paradise, “though robed in bliss, will become even more blessed at the resurrection of the body.” This is because saints become, in that blessed reunion, more perfectly human.

All the clearest Christian thinkers renounce the heresy that Christ was only spirit, his body an illusion (Docetism) and that the human body – indeed, the material Creation itself – is inherently evil (Catharism). Bodily resurrection also refutes the old saw that “you can’t take it with you,” which is true about other earthly possessions, but not about the most important one.

Paul says that the dead body, buried, is a seed:

Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. (1 COR 15: 42-43)
I must strive to live without fear, God willing, but if with fear, then also with faith, hope, and love. 

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio and as an iPhone app.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Myshkin, April 11, 2014
I have felt your pain, Mr. Miner, having had my own gall bladder removed after attacks. The repeated attacks were indeed the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced. Yes, the word "excruciate" derives from our Savior's death.

One additional thing: Christian martyrdom is accompanied by special grace appropriate to the person and the circumstances. I'm relatively certain that neither gall bladder attacks nor MRI procedures fall into this category.

Well, one more: the question of the resurrected body has a vexed history. Jesus, after the Resurrection was recognized sometimes, and at other times not recognized, even by the Apostles. He was able to pass through walls, yet ate normal food. He ascended bodily into heaven, but we know that his Ascension was not just floating into the sky, although that was part of it. St. Paul refers to the resurrected body as "a spiritual body" which seems something of an oxymoron. Altogether the resurrected body is something we cannot fathom in this life. Famously, Origen conjectured that it was spherical in some way ...
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, April 11, 2014
Inspiring, as we approach the Triduum. Our hope is that we will become like Him...our bodies glorified so that we might more perfectly glorify the Lord for all eternity.
written by Jack,CT, April 11, 2014
Holy crap man,I hope you feel better!
The body is so complex and amazing when
it works!

NOT so good when it falls to disease....

I understand phobia/phobic behavior well we
have this in common.
I have put off Medical procedures big and small
as well and "HAVE" paid for it.

It is refreshing for a con. here to write about

a weakness both "body and mind" and all I can say

is thanks Brad. Be Well and God Bless
written by schm0e, April 11, 2014
The little I've read about martyrs indicates in no uncertain terms that a grace is given that enables supernatural facilities to endure and even rejoice.

I believe it was in Foxe's Book of Martyrs where is found one testimony by a man who was on a stretching device. He said that a large young man stood by him and he experienced such delight that he "despaired of it ending".

Should you ever actually be called to be a martyr, say of Obamacare, which you apparently just narrowly missed, look for that Young Man!
written by John McCarthy, April 11, 2014
Thank you for sharing your harrowing experience.....It helped me to 'get real' about my life, past, present, and future...
written by Myshkin, April 11, 2014
Yuck! Foxes Book of Martyrs! If there ever was a piece of Reformation agit-prop that book was it. It has been demonstrated to be such a collection of half-truths and lies especially about hate Ancient Roman Catholic faith so many times, I never thought I'd see it quoted again. Here's what the old Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about it:

"The passionate intensity of the style, the vivid and picturesque dialogues made it very popular among Puritan and Low Church families down to the nineteenth century. Even in the fantastically partisan church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks and its motley succession of witnesses to the truth (including the Albigenses, Grosseteste, Dante, and Savonarola) was accepted among simple folk and must have contributed much to anti-Catholic prejudices in England. When Foxe treats of his own times his work is of greater value as it contains many documents and is but largely based on the reports of eyewitnesses; but he sometimes dishonesty mutilates his documents and is quite untrustworthy in his treatment of evidence. He was criticized in his own day by Catholics such as Harpsfield and Father Parsons and by practically all serious ecclesiastical historians."
written by schm0e, April 11, 2014
@ Yuck!

Oh lighten up. What's "anti-Catholic" about the quote that I paraphrase?

I don't think there's any room for snobbery in the Church anymore.
written by Myshkin, April 11, 2014

Well, I agree there's no room in the Roman Catholic Church for snobbery, if there ever was ... But where we disagree is that you think there's room for deliberate lies and half-truths that have been exposed for over three centuries ...

I would advise you to read a better source for the martyrology like the original four-volume "Butler's Lives of the Saints." Throw the trashy agit-prop out ...
written by marianne, April 11, 2014
check sherri brescia-nutritionist on the internet-she has the most sensible indwell appointed system called"great taste-no pain" it avoids the knife for gall bladder
and she has testimonials from many persons who escaped the surgery-my friend had the surgery and after a few months the stones came back-
written by marianne, April 11, 2014
ps the MRI is not all that bad-hey its not like getting your leg cut off! Just say a few prayers
say the apostles creed backwards and villa its over!
written by Rosemary, April 11, 2014
Brad, sweetie! Get on your knees and thank God that you live in a country that has the best medical care in the world! Can imagine all the people who do NOT have that access? In the case of gallstones, infection sets in and, after a long, excruciating, and fetid deterioration, the patient dies.

I, too, was a weenie about all this. After so many attacks and painkillers to treat my denial, really, I got the surgery. Super easy laparoscopic. Lovely! After minor pain and dietary adjustment, I was ready to return to active life within four days. God is Good. Especially to weenies!

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