I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I've been told that I'll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.
Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I'd reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren't for the swollen flesh holding me together.
I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can't sleep. I can't relax. I don't know how I'm going to make it through this dark, lonely night.
But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it's the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I think about a book that several Franciscan sisters have enthusiastically shared with me: The Hidden Messages in Water by Masaru Emoto. In the book, Emoto tells about his study of water crystals and how more beautiful, symmetrical crystals form when the water is exposed to positive words like love versus negative words like hate. The words thank you apparently formed one of the most elaborate, gorgeous designs.
My body is made of water, at least two-thirds of me — and probably more, with these swelling wounds. I don't understand how prayer and positive energy work — one of the many mysteries of God's designs — but I suspect that positive thoughts will do something for all this water in my aching body. Whether it's real science or not, I don't doubt that positive words can have an impact on me. I don't doubt that being grateful right now, in my current condition, is much better for me than dwelling on my misfortune.
It occurs to me that while my body is working hard to heal, to recover from my recent near-death experience, any type of positive message will be helpful.
So I turn my grateful thoughts to the places on my body where I hurt the most My jaw, my hand, my nose.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I visualize my cells lined up like colorful science class diagrams. I slowly imagine each cell, pause and tell it thank you, until finally, I am calm.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I meditate like this through the night, falling in and out of sleep. In the coming weeks, I'll hear doctors and nurses marvel at how well I am healing, recovering, and I'll wonder if this exercise in gratitude has anything to do with it.
That was all more than a decade ago, when I was a canonical novice with my community. Since then, I have become more alert to brokenness in my life and in this good, crumbling world that we all share. I am convinced that groaning and gratitude must go together. We can allow ways for suffering to be redemptive; this is the paschal mystery. Sometimes this is a process, a movement from distress to bliss. At other times — like when I was broken and miserable in that dark hospital room — the groans and gratitude become one.
[Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]