It is by suffering that we learn

It is by suffering that we learn

by the Rt. Rev. Onell Soto,
Assistant Bishop of Alabama
I consider myself very fortunate that during my life I have enjoyed excellent health. I have been at hospitals many times but always on a pastoral mission. But this year, things changed suddenly.

First, I have a terrible flu that lasted almost three weeks. Then I have an operation on my face to remove cancerous cells. Now, on May 4th, I fall in Montgomery. At one moment we are well and the next we are not.

After a joyful celebration at Tuskegee we are on the road, returning home to Birmingham. It is almost 9:30 p.m. and we decide to spend the night in Montgomery. Comfortable motel, good night's sleep. The next morning when we were going down to have breakfast, I miss a step and fall hard against an iron rail and a concrete wall. Dislocated right shoulder, broken teeth and a two-inch cut on the forehead. The pain is practically unbearable. Nina shouts for help and kind people come to my rescue. In about ten minutes -- which feels like an eternity -- the ambulance comes. "Please, don't move," I'm told, and a cast is put around my neck. I touch my right arm and don't feel anything. My mind races. Will I need surgery? Will I lose my arm? Many more questions. I am kind of mad that a paramedic seems to enjoy cutting my nice new jacket with a big pair of scissors!

At the emergency room, X-rays by the dozen and finally a shot to ease the pain. "Your right shoulder is dislocated and we will put it together in a minute," a male nurse tells me while asking if I know John Keith and other Episcopal clergy. "Yes, I know them," I mumble. "Please tell them that I am here." A doctor and a helper pull me in different directions until I hear a little pop and the doctor's firm verdict: "Done."

They release me around 3 p.m. When I wake up I am at the home of Jorge Martínez, a Cuban friend from high school days. Nina tells me that the bishop and the staff at Carpenter House have called several times and that Robert Wisnewski, one of our local rectors, came to the hospital. A night full of discomfort. Next day, Bill King and Sarah Sartain come to take us home. In Birmingham, orthopedic doctors, dentists, more x-rays and finally some instructions: "Rest for two or three weeks and visit the physical therapist immediately."

All our children call. Elena, our youngest, arrives from Los Angeles. An e-mail to the clergy from the diocesan office. Fellow bishops take care of my visitations. Quite a frantic world. In addition, visits, calls, flowers, fruit baskets, cards, food, and prayers. On the spiritual side, growth, strength, faith, hope and time for reflection. And even the temptation of the rebellious prayer, "Lord, why this has happened to me?"

You see, I was not even the master of my basic needs. I needed to depend on the kindness and skills of so many people. My whole world was turned upside down -- like my own body. More than one friend has comforted me by sharing similar mishaps which make me conclude that what has happened is really minor. I can say this now but not when I was waiting for the ambulance!

Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB, of the Roman Catholic diocese, challenged me with a Paschal question: "Does not every fall have the potential of an ever greater rising?" This painful experience has helped me to realize once again that "Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth."

An accident like this helps you to understand how fragile and precious life is and how important it is to live fully and joyfully every moment of our existence. We clergy who pray for other people are deeply humbled and touched when others pray for us. And that is what I felt when Bishop Parsley prayed for me at a Eucharist in our home: "Onell, I lay my hands upon you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you the victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore. Amen."

I am grateful to all who have shown so much love and concern for me and for Nina as we go through this transforming experience. Now that I have been on this side of the bed, I see in a new light the importance of the ministry to the sick and distressed. May the Lord also hold you in the palm of his hand! Love you!


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