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On the eve of surgery, a burden lightened.

Not long ago. I underwent vascular surgery to bypass a kinked artery in my upper abdomen. This was a major intervention requiring an incision more than a foot long below my ribcage. Facing such an invasive and dangerous procedure, my heart grew desperate to clear its conscience.

My own work as a surgeon had helped many people. Even so. as I prepared to undergo a big operation, I looked back with dismay at my short-lived career as an ophthalmologist specializing in facial reconstruction. I felt haunted by the small but significant number of patients harmed by my mistakes. Although my hands had removed hundreds of eyelid cancers leaving minimal blemish and effected thousands of other positive outcomes, the successes did not erase the failures.

Nearly a decade and a half since neck problems ended my surgical work, I still felt spasms of shame about every patient who suffered through my deficiencies. Although I didn't believe my error rate had been any higher than the average physician's, I found no comfort in that rationalization. I'd known rare surgeons who almost never made mistakes, and I could not help but measure myself against those most gifted. And I knew that during training, under the pressure of competition. I had often undertaken procedures that were beyond my budding skill; in a few cases, the results had been disastrous.

For a long time, I'd managed to suppress my feelings of remorse, but they grew more insistent during the weeks before my operation. On Ash Wednesday, the day prior to surgery, I decided to attend Mass for the first time in years. The ceremonial start of Lent seemed a good time to revisit the Catholic church and mark a major transition in my life. I planned to ask the priest to hear my confession afterward.

My history with Catholicism dates only to 2000, the year of my career's collapse. In the confused, chaotic weeks after I walled away from a hard-earned profession. low-grade melancholy progressed to full-blown depression. As suicide seemed ever more inevitable, I requested psychiatric hospitalization. In-house confinement kept me safe but did little to lessen my despair.

But soon after discharge something shifted inside me, and the darkness lifted. First a warm glow surrounded me, then a bright crimson light, and then what seemed like the ecstatic radiance of the Big Bang. Celestial music resounded on all sides as I felt embraced by the Divine. Visions and revelations flowed through me in waves, and at times Christ spoke to me, inviting me to transform my life and outlook. Overwhelmed and awed (and resistant to the psychiatrists' conviction that all I'd seen, heard and felt was mental illness), I accepted my wife's suggestion that we seek guidance in the local Catholic parish. The priests honored my experiences as genuine spiritual calls. Conversion seemed a natural step.

As a newcomer. I approached the sacraments awkwardly, and I remained skeptical about confession. How could responsibility for past harm be lifted merely by voicing regret? I confessed my shortcomings as a surgeon several times but never felt relief. Eventually, I let the matter drop, not because it had been resolved, but because absolution seemed impossible.

As years passed, I drifted away from Catholicism to explore other paths. First I returned to the Quakerism that had supported me in younger years, then took up Buddhist meditation, and most recently found my way to a mystically oriented yoga community As I explored superficially diverse traditions, I looked for the deeper qualities that united them. Many times, during meditation, fasts and worship, I found myself opened, once again, by the Divine. My revelations tended to reflect the spiritual setting in which they occurred, but I grew to recognize recurring themes: cosmic unity pervasive rightness and unconditional love. (In Christian terms, these would be the Holy Spirit, Father and Son, respectively) Within these elements, I found ever-increasing solace and, what's more, began to see that forgiveness is not only possible, but inevitable.

Still, as major surgery loomed, my past troubled me. On the most selfish level, I worried that fate would punish me with a bad outcome; I had suffered injury through medical mismanagement a number of times already. But this was a minor concern compared to the urgent belief that I should enter the operating suite with a clear conscience. I therefore felt great relief when. after the Ash Wednesday service was finished, I told the priest about my impending surgery and he agreed to hear my confession.

The church was one I'd seldom entered. It was large and attractive, but less ornate than many. As I waited for Father to finish his various tasks, there wasn't much artwork to catch my eye, so I gazed instead upon the sanctuary's crucifix, a wooden cross supporting a sculpture of Jesus carved in white stone. It soon struck me that the wound in Christ's side was anatomically near the planned location of my own surgical incision. This helped me feel less alone. Christ had suffered more painful injuries than I would, and he had transcended them. Perhaps, in some small way, I could follow his example and gain spiritually from the upcoming procedure.

The priest beckoned me to join him on one of the pews along the right-hand side of the nave. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, bathing us both in a wash of pink and orange.

"Father, I wasn't raised Catholic. I converted as an adult, so confession doesn't come naturally to me. It's been eight or maybe 10 years since my last confession."

I told the priest that in recent years I'd worked hard to behave ethically and listed some minor sins that I'd committed in spite of my resolve. I quickly moved on to explain that I was a former surgeon who, as a young man, had been self-centered and driven by egotism. I hadn't always honored my patients properly. There had been times of both bravado and carelessness, when those who trusted me had been harmed, sometimes seriously.

I mentioned my fear that God would balance the scales with a poor outcome during my upcoming procedure, but I was more concerned about how a bad result would demoralize the surgical team than its effect on my own health or comfort. I surrendered to remorse, with absolute willingness to accept whatever consequences I deserved.

After I finished, the priest explained that God understands our human failings and forgives. He murmured soothing words as I wept silently. He then absolved me of my sins and blessed me in advance of my hospitalization.

Walking out of the sanctuary, I felt dazed but lightened, relieved and confident that I was finally free of my burden. For the first time, I understood the sacrament of confession. It doesn't shield us from responsibility; instead, it transforms the pressure of secretiveness and shame into the steadiness of honesty and self-compassion. Through sincere admission of fault before God, the past ceases to be an anchor that holds us back. It becomes the ballast that reminds us of our fallible humanity as we sail forward, moved by the breath of the Divine.

--Dreamstime

SURGERY: A SINCERE ADMISSION OF FAULT

[Will Meecham practiced as an ophthalmic plastic surgeon until neck disease forced a change in lifestyle at age 42. Through his teaching. writing and speaking, he now works to help others adopt an affectionate attitude toward life despite trauma, loss and pain.]
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Author:Meecham, Will
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 18, 2014
Words:1236
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