Friday, June 5, 2009

Finding the Holy Ghost in the machine

I was in the audience last night at Washington's John Paul II Cultural Center for the broadcast of EWTN's "The World Over" and was struck by the beauty of a clip that was featured from the show's archives: Raymond Arroyo's interview Dom DeLuise, done not long before the actor's death last month at the age of 75.

DeLuise talked about how the Catholic devotion that was central to him in his childhood re-emerged from time to time in his adult life. I was especially touched by his mentioning that whenever he had to endure an MRI, he said a Hail Mary while he underwent the test.

There is perhaps no other experience more like being buried alive than undergoing an MRI. I was reminded of this when I had one last month in anticipation of my June 11 surgery. I could not move. My throat seemed to close up, as it can at times when I am lying on my back and have trouble swallowing. I had to keep my eyes shut, as the nearness of the MRI's surface made it seem as though the machine was swallowing me up like Jonah's whale.

The technician piped in the CD of Handel's "Messiah" that I had brought. It came through faint and tinny on the industrial headphones, like an angelic broadcast from a far-off planet—only to be summarily eclipsed by the machine's buzzsaw-like din.

I thought that I knew in everyday life what it is like to be alone, and then I discovered inside that fiberglass sarcophagus what it was really like.

The only thing I could do to remember I was not alone was to send prayers up to Jesus through Mary, praying my rosary ring, which the technician had kindly let me take into the machine. I know it helped, because the thought of Jesus' love flowing back to me through Mary made tears run down the sides of my cheeks—and then I had to stop myself from crying for fear that my breathing passages really would close up.

I remember, back when I longed for faith, reading science-fiction novels by Philip K. Dick in which the author, who suffered from schizophrenia complicated by drugs and Gnosticism, envisioned worlds where people were so isolated that their prayers could not reach God.

As an agnostic, that struck me as a peculiarly terrifying image, more frightening even than the idea that there was no God—the idea that one could long for a God who really did exist, and yet be unable to reach Him. And, in a strange way, I think it helped to fuel my longing for a God who could be reached—the longing that would eventually open the door to let Him to reach me.

A Dominican friar has told me that the root of "monk" is the Greek monos, meaning not just "alone" or "single," as it is usually translated, but "alone with."

I think that is at once the greatest blessing and the greatest challenge of earthly life, the fact that "it is not good for man to be alone," and yet we are not alone.

There is really no such thing as being alone, because we are always in the presence of God. But, since we are spirit and flesh, it is this very spiritual presence of the God we cannot see that makes us long for the physical presence of another person. And yet, even the love of another person ultimately makes us long more for the physical presence of the infinitely loving Christ.