On Easter Sunday I preached, “Christ is risen.” The next day, I experienced my own small resurrection.
It all began the Monday of Holy Week. After my exercises I was literally brought to my knees by a deep pain coming from my left side. I tried to muscle through it for a few hours, but it only grew worse.
I prayed, drank lots of fluid and figured it must be a kidney stone. As I celebrated Mass that day the sisters noticed I couldn’t stand straight, but was crouched over during the liturgy.
All night I walked, sat and tried to lay down — not an ounce of sleep. Why didn’t I just call a doctor or go to the hospital? The answer is simple. My elderly parishioners say the hospitals here in Russia are places you go to get infected or die. And their experiences confirm their strong opinions. One lady was diagnosed with a shoulder displacement, received vigorous massages and her pain was excruciating. Finally she headed to South Korea for help. She had torn muscles and the therapy at the Russian hospital made it worse. Another parishioner had her gall bladder removed and the surgeon sliced the pancreas to the point that she spent five months in and out of the hospital dealing with the sloppy surgery. Another lady had pain in one leg. The doctor said, “Don’t worry it is just your age.” The woman replied that he thought it strange that her other knee — just as old — didn’t hurt at all.
Anyway, I was placed in a hospital room with six other guys who had the habit of sneaking out for a smoke and coming back into the room carrying that lovely after-smoke flavor.
There were no showers and you had to bring your own toilet paper. The bathroom was down the hall and down the stairs — a real distance for one experiencing the need to go — quickly. I did come to love these guys though, and prayed for them as well as the women in the next room. We were a small community of sufferers.
It is not possible to hide your suffering or your humanity in a room of seven guys. I even came to enjoy the choir of snorers at night. Each had their own particular snoring sound and together they comprised a small choir. I feel asleep with little problem and probably contributed to the song.
They all knew I was a priest — and an American — and they asked many questions. I prayed the office and rosary openly, and the atmosphere seemed more open and friendly.
The care was okay, with nurses giving shots that relieved the pain. The food was as we say in Russia “postne.” In other wards, “little meat and lots of grains.” Actually I ate there like I had been eating all of Lent. The classic fast for Lent is no meat or dairy, just grains. So it was kasha in the morning, afternoon and evening.
Then came the diagnosis: A large stone that probably won’t pass, which requires laser surgery.
This was Tuesday of Holy Week, and I asked how long of a recovery this surgery requires. The doctor said three to four days. I said this can’t be done now because I have Holy Week services. He said he could not release me because of the danger of the stone blocking the urinal tract. So a battle of the wills ensued. Finally on Holy Thursday morning the day before the surgery I said I was leaving to do the Holy Week services. I had not missed a Holy Week in all 36 years of my priesthood and I wasn’t going to miss this one. Besides there were 300-400 hundred people wanting to hear the words, “Christ is Risen.” I needed to proclaim this Christian message of hope. There were no other priests but me.
I asked the doctor if he was married. He said, “Yes.” I asked if he’d be willing to suffer for his wife. He said, “Of course.”
I told him that my parish is like my wife, and there is nothing I would not do for her. After two hours of heated discussion, the doctor let me go. He is not a believer in Christ and could not understand how I could risk my health for Holy Week and Easter.
If I got into trouble, the doctor told me to hurry back to the hospital — not in an ambulance but in his personal car because he was not “officially” releasing me from the hospital.
I left to begin Holy Week with the whole parish praying for me, half of the diocese and folks as far away as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Easter liturgies were deep and prayerful. Somewhere between Easter night and Easter morning the pain ceased. I rose on Easter morning with no pain. I was so relieved I shouted “Alleluia” with all the Easter faith I could muster.
Nonetheless, I went back to the hospital on Monday to go under the knife. The doctor took one more look at me through the ultrasound and found that the stone had passed.
I was free to go home!
I intend to live and die here in Magadan, Russia, so perhaps the Lord gave me a trial to prepare for future hospital visits down the road. For now, the gift of dodging the surgeon’s knife was an alleluia moment, and one that was shared by one of our homeless ladies we call “Big Luda,” who comes to the parish to pray. She came to see me when I was in the hospital, right at the very moment when the doctor told me that the stone had passed. She looked at me and said knowingly, “Of course. We prayed for your resurrection.”
“Christ is Risen. Indeed He is Risen” — and so is Father Michael. Now for some Easter cakes!