You have given me health and restored my life! Peace in place of bitterness! You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction; behind your back you cast all my sins. For it is not Sheol that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you; neither do those who go down into the pit await your kindness. The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today. Parents declare to their children, O God, your faithfulness. The LORD is there to save us. We shall play our music in the house of the LORD all the days of our life. (Isa 38: 16-20)
My dear brothers in the Lord, four and a half months ago I experienced firsthand the vulnerability of my humanity through Covid 19. It was a difficult moment, one of uncertainty and fear. But I confess that it was also a time when I was able to appreciate more closely the mercy and company of God, in addition to your solidarity, my local and parish community, the province of France, my family, my friends, and so many people from the Vincentian family, people of good will, and also the concern of the health personnel of the Robert Ballanger Hospital. Through prayer, care, or perhaps a little gesture, a thought, a message, in short. I will be eternally grateful to them.
Sometimes it is difficult to express feelings and more so among us men consecrated for the cause of love. We should always return to the inexhaustible source of God’s mercy, especially knowing that we are a gift for others, and that life is won by giving it away. Yes, three months have passed since I left the hospital and I have had the time to make a stop along the way, reorient my life and ministry and I believe that for all this time amid so much else, we have measured our ability to resist and to give hope, right where many are overwhelmed by discouragement and their forces weaken.
I would like to use the Gospel of the Eighteenth Sunday in ordinary time to tell you about this experience in my own way. The Gospel of that Sunday began with a painful event for Jesus: the death of his very dear friend John the Baptist. That is why he saw it prudent in the midst of pain to retire alone to a place to be with his Father. How important a time is to rethink things and not to pretend that nothing had happened. But how did all this happen to me? And why me? Anyway, the time comes for all of us and in its own way. The experience began two weeks before taking the examination. I attended a lunch with the community in a neighboring parish where the priests of the pastoral unit usually have lunch together every two weeks. The host, the pastor, had gone to the east of the country, where there had already been some cases. However, as it was the beginning of this turbulence that still shakes the world, little attention was paid to a possible risk. Three days passed and I had to return to the aforementioned parish for a catechetical preparation meeting for adults, as I am part of the team together with the pastor, and again we had dinner with him and his vicar at a very small table. No physical distancing at that time. The weekend came and I was not feeling very well. I started to have a fever, a cold, a bad stomach along with a loss of appetite. As the symptoms continued the following Monday I went to the doctor. He examined me fairly quickly and told me that it was not serious, that it was a cold; he gave me some medicine for fever and pain and told me to take a few days off. As usual, when you go to the doctor and receive good news, you feel more secure. However, the days continued to pass and no improvement happened. That whole week I spent like this, with the same symptoms.
On the weekend, as usual, some women from the parish came. They insisted that I take the examination. I waited until Monday to do it. You had to call a number. I called and they told me to go to the emergency room at the Robert Ballanger Hospital. That March 16 in the afternoon, a colleague from the community accompanied me. You had to wait a bit. I told him to go home and that when everything was over I would call for him to pick me up. The wait was a bit long, about two hours. But you senses things when you enter the hospital because of something that happens to you, you see that the panorama darkens. The pandemic was starting, and people were afraid of any possible coronavirus case. Now I really understand the work of all health personnel, everything they risk. Well, they did the exam, and I had to wait for the result. I was on a stretcher, and at around 9:30 pm, they gave me the results confirming that it was positive. I remember that I took the news as normal and I told myself, well, this will pass. One thinks that since he is young and strong it will be a matter of time. I sent a message to the colleague telling him that it was positive and that he still wait until the hospital would call him later. Well, I tell you that I have memory up to then, but then the other thing happened, of being subjected to that induced coma for almost a month.
What can I say about that experience?
First, it is like being between sleeping and waking, like being disconnected from reality and at the same time being aware. The mind wanders a lot. I had many dreams; but I tell you that we do not stop being what we are. Let me explain. In dreams or that artificial reality everything has to do with the task you do; in my case, the one concerning priesthood. I cite some examples; many are good, others a complete nightmare. On another occasion I will tell you more details. Among other things I dreamed that all this was happening to me in the middle of a trip to Spain, and that we were on a ship and that it had been shipwrecked, and that we were rescued by the French navy and that they had taken us to Barcelona and I swore that I was in Spain. Also, I remember very well that I had even thought of calling Toño (José Antonio Gonzáles, a student confrere in Salamanca) to come and get me. Come? There is a lot of coincidence, but also fantasy. For example, after the rescue I was in a large room and they were calling me, but I could not walk or even move; I was very thirsty, but there was no water. They just gave me a little bit, and I asked for more and more. Another dream was that I was going to Cali, Colombia, in the vacation season, but that I was only going for three days and that I had fallen ill and that I was in a house of the Daughters of Charity, right there where they provided medical care and that I had been hospitalized for a month. I knew that the confreres were there, but that it was the Sisters who had taken care of me. I even remember that the Sister treasurer did not want to make a discount for the hospitalization. As I had a tracheotomy that had also been in Cali and that the doctor who had done it was a priest confrere from the province of Italy whom I had met in Rome and with whom we were going to do a mission later.
After this time has passed and reading everything that happened to me, I can say that the mind is something incredible, there is a certain predisposition that helps you take the next step. Let me explain: these three dreams that I mentioned to you helped me a lot in my recovery. Why? When I woke up or, better, when they woke me up, I was incredibly thirsty. I really couldn’t stand it, I asked for water and more water. It was the first thing I asked for, but they didn’t give me any, and I didn’t understand why. That is why some very dear nurse passed a damp cloth over my mouth that refreshed me a bit. The second thing was that I couldn’t move in that large room. I was in a large room with many doctors and nurses, intubated with probes and I was truly paralyzed. Everything hurt. I could not move. And the third was the question of the “trache,” as I was dreaming, it was not difficult for me to accept. That is to say, everything was already integrated in advance. I believe that here is faith, God who arranges everything again. In addition to those dreams, I also dreamed that I had gone on a family trip, that I had gone on a mission to India, that I had been to Mass with the pope at one in the morning and that it seemed very strange to me. That the province had bought some land on the outskirts of Bogotá and that they had sent me as superior and I would work with one of the Garcias, (in our province of Colombia we have or had five priest brothers of which there were two bishops who have already died, I don’t know if they died because they were bishops) a brother, and also it was a work in company with older Daughters of Charity. And so many others.
Returning to the text of the Gospel, that time of retreat for Jesus (hospitalization for me, quarantine for you), I think it has been a time of reconciliation (with ourselves, with the confreres, the family) to return to action; that is, make charity real. I am convinced like the great missionary Saint John Gabriel Perboyre that no more signs (the Gospel, the Eucharist and the crucifix) are needed to give oneself to the cause of love. Yes, the world needs compassion, crowds seek to be comforted, and we are the hands and feet of Jesus. What is my response today to this proposal to help heal the wounds of so many brothers and sisters? Sometimes our attitude is that of the disciples: send the people away, let them manage as best they can, and in this way, dear brothers, we could stay in the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ action, but He wants to teach us something else: that it is unnecessary to have everything in order to do something. It is only necessary to give the little that we have and with Jesus it will suffice, because it is his work, not my calculations. Give without measure, and they will give you without measure; and when you feel that you cannot take any more you will discover that you have five loaves and two fish. They seem negligible, but with the presence of Jesus they will make a difference. It is about donating some of your time, your money, your sympathy, your friendship, and that gift that you make will be contagious. If others see you doing something they will do as you do and there will be enough to nourish the crowd. Our holy founder multiplied not only bread, but also love, so that everyone had something.
Now I would like again to give a special recognition to everyone for their solidarity, friendship and affection. Those little gestures of love, of appreciation … are worth gold to me. Since leaving the hospital on May 2, feelings of gratitude have accompanied me. The vulnerability of life reminded me in a very vivid way of something that I already knew and that from so much repeating it seems even banal: “nothing is forever.” Neither life, nor health, nor friends. Anyway, I have learned what we often preach: life is a miracle and every day, every hour, every minute, every second counts, and we must dare to live, to risk for the best, for the best. No matter if we crash against a wall, we will have the satisfaction that we did something, we tried and we have to try again and again. We must somehow give ourselves the opportunity to make mistakes because that awakens us and leads us to take on life with much more responsibility, and thus we will be convinced that the important thing is to seek to be more authentic every day, learning to feel ashamed of our own faults. I see no other way for a true change. When Diego Luis was rector in Medellín, he always insisted on this phrase that I remember since then; I don’t know if it was his, but I liked it: “don’t ask from the structure what your own conversion doesn’t give you.” So that it does not sound so religious, I would say “your own conviction,” because I have also learned that change come from within, from what is most intimate, what is most cared for.
I would like to share with you some thoughts from spiritual reading that I took from this momentous experience.
The Power of Prayer and Thanksgiving
This translates into the presence of God that we never lack, and in the perseverance of all of you in prayer. I confess today that I owe a very great debt to everyone. Yes, I owe my life to you, and of course, also to all the people who were watching over me in the hospital. That is why I invite you to be proud of the faith that you have. They have achieved what they asked for: a miracle, because they bowed down to God who heard their prayer. My life is a witness. Sometimes we get discouraged because we ask God, but we do not achieve what we want. What they did for me can give you the certainty that God is compassionate and merciful, and that it is worth waiting against all hope.
The presence of the other and the signs of God
One day after regaining consciousness, I realized that one of the nurses was African. I’m not sure if she was from the Congo. She was approximately 27 years old. She approached me and with great respect whispered in my ear: “Father, I have come so that we can pray together.” That action stuck with me. Some of the prayers she shared with me, especially to the Virgin Mary, she even knew in Latin. It happened two or three times. Once the prayer was finished, she told me: “Father, I am always passing by here and when you need to pray, send for me and my companions.” You see, God always sends someone who will whisper in your ear that he is always there and that is why we believe in angels and especially in the guardian angel. You can clearly see once again the hand of God. I know that the Church and the world are going through difficult times, but there is no need to be afraid. On the contrary, always believe in the Lord who promised to the disciples, and in them to us, that we would never be alone. There will always be something that miraculously urges us forward. That is the power of the Spirit that gives vigor to the body and courage to the soul.
The experience of the resurrection and the miracle of feeling alive
We always talk about resurrection, and we have enough accounts of it in writing. We are often very good at talking about it, but when one experiences it, any explanation falls short because you realize that it is not an argument but a concrete fact that you are witnessing. After I was aware of where I was, I had in my head that concern of giving signs of life, of telling you and especially my family: I am alive, do not suffer anymore! I was thinking above all about Mom and Dad, how they would be having a bad time, because they have already lost a child and it would have been an even greater pain; indeed, what mother or father wants to lose their child? With this I can tell you that for me personally the resurrection means “waking up,” and for what? To say like the Lord: Courage, it is I; fear not. To announce this good news that means life. That is why I invite you to wake up to see the signs of God. Because we are alive, but not awake, that is a major difference. How to recognize the love of God in our life? In this sense, St. Paul went so far as to affirm that if Christ had not risen, our faith would be in vain. Hence the doubts about the presence of God in my life have somehow disappeared. How not to see the work of God in my life!
With this I tell you the great joy that everyone experienced when they heard my voice again, and I say it above all for my family. Truly this time the tears were of joy. At the same time, my family felt much more confident in God, and how the good, and sometimes the bad, moments of life lead us to place everything in the hands of God who knows how to manifest himself. And yes, the affairs of God take time, but they come and give us security. Some of my confreres also told me that they had never prayed so much for someone. That touches my heart, I really admit it and thus I confirm that friends are truly recognized when they help us through the storms of pain. Today more than ever I am sure that it is worth living and having the friends and family that I have, and that not only my parents or my brothers would have given their lives for me, but also many of you. In truth, the Scripture is fulfilled here: no one has greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends. Immense thanks for sharing this miracle that means my life, and I will continue asking you to pray for me and in the same way I assure you of my prayers and above all my friendship. I love you in the Lord, now more than ever. Let’s continue dreaming of Heaven, signs of which we already see made manifest here on earth, but above all we believe that there is eternal life. We will never be disappointed.
Father Alexis VARGAS SANDOVAL, C.M.
Villepinte, Seine-Saint-Denis, France
Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary