Hell Slapped Me in the Face
Making my morning rounds, I entered my next patient's room, well lit in late morning light, and saw an elderly man. As Catholic chaplain for the local hospital, this scene was not unusual. This particular patient, however, greeted me enthusiastically with the words, "I'm terminal, but it's all right." He couldn't wait to tell me his story. He spoke of himself as one who turned away from his Catholic faith as a young man. He worshipped the secular world and pursued all the objects of worship that it offered: wealth, power, and pleasure. And he was good at it. The use of other people for his own profit and gratification became his modus vivendi. God was not going to get in the way of his lifestyle. During all this time, his sister, in Saint Monica-like fashion, prayed unceasingly for her brother's reclamation. In spite of his decades of mocking her efforts, she persevered.
One night, his sleep was visited by a terrifying dream of the horrors of hell. The experience was so vivid and intense that its potency remained within his mind. As he described it, "Hell slapped me in the face." As a result, he woke-up in more ways than one. He came to realize that all those things he coveted as the meaning of life, meant nothing. His complete confidence in the mercy of God encompassed his life. To the utter amazement of his sister and of the priest who was offering Masses for his soul, his new focus in life was to renew his Catholic faith and become devoted to spreading the Good News of God's mercy. In his religious zeal, he would speak of his love of God and how God's mercy changed his life to everyone who entered the room including doctors, nurses, and even maintenance personnel. It was as if he was determined to make up for the decades of wasted time following a dissolute life. His faithfulness, sincerity, and intelligence made him a formidable witness how God's presence and power can affect a man's life.
God is not glorified in any transaction upon earth so much as in the conversion of a sinner.
– Archibald Alexander
Illustrated within this man's narration are all the major themes of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday proclaims the mortality of the flesh and the requirement to repent and believe. The weeks that follow provide a stage upon which the struggle of self-examination and conversion take place. Finally, sinners come before God seeking healing. This glorious result is occasioned through the love and mercy of the God who also was seeking them. No words can describe adequately the joy enfolding an individual who has faced the tragedy of sin and felt the freedom and peace of God's forgiveness. Lent is an experience of fiery purification and of the discovery of a hope that can be derived from nothing on earth.
The flame atop the Pascal Candle scatters the darkness of the world and lights the pathway through our days to the horizon of eternity. This candle's light provides clarity of vision for the believer and supports the sojourner with a confidence based on the Truth of God. The sinner who remains comfortable in their sins shrinks from the light, but the repentant sinner, grateful for God's mercy, steps into it.
In my opinion, there can be no greater testimony to these beautiful Lenten concepts than to witness them in the flesh. That personification was manifested in my patient. His spiritual awakening gives him (and all who would listen) a most beautiful expression of the Christian approach to living and to dying. He is terminal on this earthly plane, but it is all right because he lives eternally in the promise of the Risen Christ.