Imperfectly Human

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.