I think one of the wisest things I have heard in the confessional was also one of the simplest and most straightforward: "Time is grace." The priest who said this to me was helping me to come to grips with one of my own most commonly confessed sins, a sin of omission: I often feel as though I have done virtually nothing to bring God's love to my fellow men, that there is still much to do in the way of showing to others God's mercy, kindness, and compassion. I found it very helpful to be reminded that one of the ways in which God shows us his mercy and compassion is in giving us time to repent and change our ways. He is a just judge, but he does not rush to judgment.
I have been reminded of this kindly, priestly advice often in the past few weeks. For many years (fifteen, actually) I took various medications to control a cardiac arrhythmia that I sometimes suffered from in my thirties. Atrial fibrillation is not a life-threatening condition, and in my case it was easily controlled with an anti-arrhythmic drug called flecainide. In fact, as long as I was on the medication I was totally free of the arrhythmia, but my doctor thought that there could be complications from using a drug like flecainide for so long, so he had me check in with a cardiologist to see about going off of it. I did that last December, and the cardiologist agreed that I should try to go off the drug, so I did. I made it until late February, but then the arrhythmia returned. I was very bummed out about this, but my wife kept telling me that I was being a baby about it all. She pointed out, quite rightly, that instead of bitching about such drugs I should be thankful that they exist at all and can improve my life. But you get to a certain age and your doctor is prescribing this drug for blood pressure and that drug for cholesterol and this drug for this and that drug for that, and eventually you begin to feel like a walking pharmacy. I went back on the flecainide, but now they wanted me to take warfarin as well, an anti-clotting agent that is often prescribed when atrial fibrillation is ongoing. I had to have weekly blood-tests to make sure my blood was properly thinned out.
So by the time May rolled around I was rather depressed about things. I had successfully completed a half-marathon at the beginning of April, but I was feeling more and more as though I was on the downhill side of life's journey. But then an extraordinary thing happened. It began when I had to go back to the cardiologist to see a specialist, an electrophysiologist (specialist in heart arrhythmias). This guy doesn't have an office in Athens, I had to drive to Columbus to see him. When I got there I was amazed at the facilities: a building the size of a large hotel filled with nothing but cardiologists. I walked into the lobby and it felt as though I was about to book myself onto a flight at a major airport. I mentioned this to the lady checking me in but she didn't think it was funny. After my two-hour drive I had to use those other facilities, but when I got there the door was locked. I had to wait a long, long time for the guy in there to finish. I began to worry that he might be having a heart attack or something, this being a place for people with heart trouble and all. When the door opened I saw what the problem was: he was burdened with a large oxygen tank and lots of tubes to deal with. I held the door for him and said a Hail Mary for him as I did my business. In the lobby I saw many such people: most of them elderly, all of them frail-looking. I felt like some kind of intruder: what was I doing here? I just ran a half-marathon, for goodness sake! My heart is healthy! I find that I often have to remind myself of that, because both my father and his brother died of heart attacks, and I don't want to continue the family tradition.
Well, to cut to the chase, as it were, the electrophysiologist told me that I do, indeed, have a very healthy heart, and that I could stop taking not only the flecainide, but also the warfarin and the beta-blocker I had been taking for my blood pressure. He told me that the arrhythmia may return, but I should just take two flecainide pills and see if it goes away. He says that there are lots of folks who do this, and that I shouldn't let my arrhythmia define my life. Well, let me tell you, it was as though someone had just flipped a switch, and my quality of life was improved immeasurably, just like that! I felt as though a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. On my way out, I made it a point to get a chuckle out of the lady who had checked me in, and I made my way back to Athens.
But in spite of feeling much better about my own prospects, I felt a new burden. I kept thinking about all of the other people in that waiting room, and the man with the oxygen tank in particular. It occurred to me that my wife was right: I had been a remarkably big baby about everything, and that many people--indeed, most sick people--have it far worse than I. If I had bothered to think about it, I would have known this much earlier, because you can't go into a hospital to get weekly blood tests without noticing all of the really badly off people wandering the halls. But at that time, of course, I was so self-absorbed that I didn't really notice them, unless they were ahead of me in line at the blood lab, keeping from getting to my other business as quickly as I would have liked. Now, the quality of my own life had just improved immensely, but what have I ever done to improve the quality of anyone else's life? There would not be a hotel-sized building filled with nothing but cardiologists if there were not a lot of people out there needing extremely complicated and expert care--I'm no cardiologist, but surely there are things I could be doing.
Perhaps one of the first things I can do is to get some perspective on things. I had--still have--a mild and minor problem. A friend of mine from high school has survived breast cancer; another friend from graduate school has survived kidney cancer; one of my colleagues has survived prostate cancer. All of these people have dealt with their difficulties and done some remarkable things--it seems to me that there is a sense in which they have dealt with their major difficulties with more grace than I have with my minor ones, and that should be food for thought.
But another thing that I can do is to be more prospective--instead of getting all scrupulous about my sins of omission I can look forward to the opportunity to make some changes in that regard. Time, in this sense, really is grace: the gift of yet another chance--further proof, if more were needed, of God's merciful kindness and compassion.
Ascension seems to be an essentially forward-looking feast in just this sense: as Christ was taken up from among them, the disciples might have chosen to dwell on the past, to regret the loss of the form of experience that they had enjoyed with the Lord for so long. Instead they looked forward to Pentecost and the continued life in the Kingdom that now is upon us. Now there seems to be plenty of time to go out and flip someone else's switch for a change!