Father Damian Ference has learned that having knee surgery is not a "set it and forget it" lesson in quick fixes. Healing takes work, his work, and that can be tough stuff. Today, in the second of his "Lessons from Surgery" series, he shares what he's learned about spiritual healing through the rigors of physical therapy, and how his "scientist" got the ball rolling. But the heavy lifting? That's the patient's burden. Read the first installment here.
The Scientist brought a model of a knee in the examination room with him. Step by step he walked me through the operation. I was fascinated. When he finished, he asked if I had any questions. I did. I wanted to know how long the surgery would take, how long I would be on crutches, how long rehab would take, how long before I could drive, how long before I could walk, how long before I could run, and what kind of risks were involved with my surgery. He took his time and answered each question thoroughly. Two weeks later he sliced into my leg.
The surgery was scheduled for one hour, but the Scientist said that there was more damage to the knee than he was able to determine from the MRI, so it took him a little over two hours to complete the procedure. When I woke up, my left leg was wrapped in an ACE bandage and a fancy leg brace that works as an immobilizer. I ate a bowl of ice and two red popsicles, and then asked if I could go home—I told the nurse I was afraid to get a staph infection. She checked with the Scientist and he released me from the hospital that afternoon.
The surgery happened on Thursday. On Monday I began physical therapy. The Scientist, a nurse and a physical therapist were all in the examination room that day. The nurse took off the brace and bandage. The Scientist examined the incision and commented on the swelling—he said it looked like I’d been icing and elevating often, as instructed. Then he asked me to lift my left leg. I couldn’t. He smiled and explained that he had to cut into my quad muscle in order to flip my kneecap over for the microfracture surgery. He said the muscle would come back, but that it might take a few weeks. That’s when the physical therapist took over and introduced me to the exercises that I would have to do every day, three times a day.
I’ve been going to physical therapy twice a week for the last seven weeks. Upon each visit the therapist adds some new exercises to my daily routine and then measures how far I can bend my knee. I only hit twenty-some degrees the first week after surgery, but I made it up to one-hundred-and-twenty-seven degrees during my last visit. The progress is slow, but it’s there.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my physical therapist what would happen to someone who just decided not to do any physical therapy. I mean, what if someone had some major surgery that in itself was a great success, but for some reason or another, simply never followed up with any physical therapy—what would happen then? My therapist answered me softly and said that he has seen more than a few patients who did just that— they had a successful surgery, but their body never healed properly because they failed to do their exercises. In a word, such patients become stuck and never move forward to full healing, yet the surgeon is not to blame.
Physical healing is a process. This process usually begins with the patient recognizing that something is wrong, just as I did back in March when knee pain kept me from genuflecting. That pain brings the patient to a specialist who can then determine the cause of the pain. Next, the specialist will come up with a plan and then do whatever it takes to bring the patient back to health—in my case, the Scientist did major surgery on my knee. But, although the surgery was a key moment in the process, the operation is only effective if the patient cooperates with the surgery by being faithful to rehab. If the patient refuses to assist the healing process, the patient will never fully heal.
Spiritual healing is also a process. Christ is the Divine Doctor, and often times he comes in like a surgeon to heal us. He knocks us out and carefully operates on our wounded hearts, making them whole again. Many times this sort of thing happens on a renewal, while reading scripture, on a retreat, during a holy hour, at a parish mission, or even at the funeral mass of a loved one—Christ the Divine Doctor breaks into our lives and performs major spiritual surgery. He removes the spiritual cancer that has been robbing us of life, he sets bones that have been preventing us from walking justly, and he removes the brain tumor that has dimmed our intellect. But that is only the beginning.
In a letter (4 February 1960) to Elizabeth Hester, Flannery O’Connor made a wonderful distinction between initial conversion and deepening of conversion. She wrote, “I don’t think of conversion as being once and for all and that’s that. I think once the process is begun and continues that you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it.”
O’Connor was right. Spiritual healing or conversion is never a one-and-done sort of thing. As the Divine Doctor, Christ does initiate the healing process, but he counts on us to continue the process that he started, just as a surgeon counts on her patient to do the exercises that will return him to full health. Christ gives us grace, but he also gives us the freedom to decide whether or not we want to cooperate with that grace.
Physical rehab is not particularly fun or exciting. In fact, rehab can be monotonous, boring, and downright painful. Rehab is hard work, yet in order to heal properly, a patient must be dedicated, put in the time, and do the work. The same can be said of spiritual rehab, or deepening conversion. The “Jesus-high” from a good homily, or a teen retreat, or a parish renewal only lasts so long—it is only the beginning of a long process. And like physical rehab, spiritual rehab can at times seem monotonous, boring and can be downright painful.
A good prayer life isn’t flashy—it’s stable. Daily mass, the liturgy of the hours, the rosary, scripture study, spiritual reading, practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and living a virtuous life do not usually result in a Jesus-high—that’s not the point of having a solid prayer life. The point of a good prayer life is to become another Jesus, and that’s hard work. But in the end, it’s the only work that really matters.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. He is currently dazzling medical professionals with his progress in physical therapy.