Thursday, May 5, 2011

Torrents of Oblivion

The breakers of death rolled over me, and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid. . . .
[God] reached down from on high and grasped me; [God] drew me out of great waters.
Psalm 18: 4, 17 Book of Common Prayer

            I have a friend who may be facing serious surgery. In discussing her options, none of which were attractive, she matter-of-factly said, “There’s a real risk I’ll die during surgery.” That risk is genuine, which is why the hospital staff scared me half to death before my major surgery, with warnings about what could happen and many pieces of paper to sign indicating that I would not hold the hospital responsible if they did. I remember wrinkling my nose as the education nurse explained the likelihood of waking up with a tube down my trachea to help me breath. I didn’t want it, and didn’t need it, as it turned out.
            The Book of Common Prayer arranges the psalms for communal reading or chanting, which is why the verses I’ve listed likely will not correspond numerically with those in a Bible. But it’s the translation I read with breakfast, and it rivals the King James Version for sheer beauty of poetic language. (They were written about the same time, though both are updated periodically.)  This morning I noticed for the first time how these two verses line up almost parallel to each other on the pages of the open book (pages 602 and 603 in my copy).
            I also observed that the narrator is passive in these verses. That is, he or she is not the subject, the one acting, but the one acted upon: breakers rolling over, torrents making afraid—and then God at work, reaching, grasping, drawing him or her out.
The verses make me think of the anesthesized, passive patient during surgery, with its risk of death, its oblivion, however temporary. I will think of this verse the next time I face an invasive procedure. They do get easier—I’ve had seven or eight in the last five years—but they’re never without risk, without a tremor of fear. I’m not in control—I’m not even conscious—but God is there, acting through surgeons and nurses and anesthesiologists, through the radiologist who reads the scans and the lab technicians who examine my cells. I am not alone, left to be roiled by the breakers or to drown in the great waters. The mighty hand of God is holding onto me.

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