The Advent season — with its message to “Be watchful! Be alert!” — felt uncomfortably timely for me this year. Coming off a recent health scare, I have been all too aware of the reality that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”
It started in Assisi, when I was walking up a not-too-steep hill to the Basilica of St. Francis with my husband, Dennis, and a large tour group. About halfway up, I stopped, not sure I could continue due to pain in my chest. My husband asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, and I jokingly replied that I’d rather die at the Basilica of St. Francis. I tried to convince myself the discomfort was from jet lag, too many cappuccinos, exhaustion. I promised to see a doctor when I got home, but upon my return I resumed life uninterrupted. Until the pain returned when I was simply rushing to my car one evening. No travel woes to blame.
What happened over the course of the next few days was scary, but I could not help but feel grateful every step of the way — to doctors, nurses and lab techs, to myself for being willing to recognize an issue, and, of course, to God. It turned out that chest pain wasn’t jet lag but an 80 percent blockage in my largest artery. It was a heart attack waiting to happen, likely a fatal one. Thanks to a walk-in cardiology clinic and doctors who took my complaints and family history seriously despite the fact that every test showed I was perfectly healthy and at low risk for cardiovascular disease, I got the scan result (from a CT scan with contrast, aka dye) that showed quite clearly all was not well, at least not in one 9 millimeter section of the artery historically known as the “widow maker.” By the end of the week, I had a shiny new stent and a new lease on life.
A lot of people have messaged me privately asking me about my symptoms, I think because what happened to me can happen to any of us. And my best answer is to say: Know your body, listen to your heart (literally and figuratively), trust your gut, and be your own best advocate. But even with all that advice, we can’t save ourselves from the inevitable, maybe just put it off for a time, hopefully a long time.
We all know this hard truth intellectually. We hear it again and again in Scripture, especially during Advent when we focus not only on the coming of the Christ Child in a manger in Bethlehem but on the second coming of Christ at the end of time. But the fact is, we often don’t let it sink down into our souls. For most of us, counting down the days to Christmas and focusing on a baby in swaddling clothes is a lot more comforting than focusing on the end of the world as we know it and what it will mean for each one of us.
Although I am fully recovered and, in fact, feel better than ever, knowing how close I came to my personal version of “end times” has made me a little more willing to ponder the reality we often want to avoid. I recently pulled out a book on memento mori, Latin for “remember you must die.” It’s a practice in which we contemplate daily our finite time on earth and examine how we are living our lives and where we might need to make some adjustments, spiritually and otherwise. It may not be as jolly as twinkling lights strung from the eaves or Christmas cookies fresh out of the oven, but it has a stark beauty of its own, one that calls us back to our purpose, our prayer life, and our relationship with the One whose Incarnation we prepare to celebrate. Gaudete! Rejoice!
Mary will be guiding a 2024 pilgrimage to Italy with Father Matt Duclos. Visit her page on Select International Tours HERE for more information.
This column ran in the Dec. 14, 2023, issue of The Evangelist.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.