Boosted by, among other things, the prayers of our readers, Michael J. Kelly SJ, world-renowned expert on HIV/Aids, has come back from life-threatening surgery. And he has reported, in his own articulate and objective style, on what is generally called a near-death experience. You can Google an International Association for near-death studies, for hundreds of comparable reports. Wikipedia defines them: “A near-death experience refers to a broad range of personal experiences associated with impending death, encompassing multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body; feelings of levitation; extreme fear; total serenity, security, or warmth; the experience of absolute dissolution; and the presence of a light”. Without drawing hard conclusions from them, AMDG Express offers two such glimpses by contemporary Jesuits of that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.
Michael Kelly writes:
“I want to share with you an extraordinary experience I had just at the time of my surgery. It seems to be quite common that after a long period under anaesthetic a person gets delusions and hallucinations. And I had plenty of these, all of them upsetting, though not deeply frightening. Except that one was different. It was after the operation, and I was still on the table when I came back into dim consciousness. I could see the intensely bright operating theatre lights above, and could feel the discomfort of my oxygen or gas mask on my face. Then as clearly as anything I said to myself: “Well Kel, this is it. This is death.” Kel is a name they used to call me in my student days. I don’t know why this word from my past came back to me on this occasion, but it was certainly there, loud and clear: “Kel, this is it, this is death.” But unlike the other halluciantions there was no sense of fear, no anxiety, no battling against it, just a great and wonderful peace – and then I woke up in the hospital ICU. Afterwards I was thinking about St Ignatius and the evil spirits bringing upset, while the good spirits brought peace and joy. I now know something of what Ignatius felt. Even today, most of the other delusions are too painful for me to go back on them, but not this one. It is a memory of great peace and acceptance. Incidentally, some people asked me if at any time I was afraid, facing the surgery. I can truthfully say that fear never entered the question before, during or afterwards. It’s only now that I’m hearing about the difficulties I had to go through in the period following the surgery. But whatever about some discomfort, fear was never part of the equation.
Brother Jim Barry
What is it like to embark on that last journey? Another unlikely witness was Brother Jim Barry, a large, strong, unemotional Corkman who said little and worked non-stop. Fifteen years ago he was operated on for cancer, something went wrong, and he was at the point of death. Later he told about the day of extreme crisis. Though apparently unconscious, he was aware of a sense of foreboding around his hospital bed, and he felt his body in terrible shape while medics worked feverishly to keep him alive. Then Jim’s mind withdrew from the body, and he remembers moving across a bridge towards a bright, beautiful place on the other side. He was happy, buoyed up by a feeling of joy and anticipation. Round the middle of the bridge the joy was interrupted. People were pulling him back, and when he came to himself he was sadly in the hospital bed, in a painfully sick body, disappointed and rather angry at being hauled back from happiness. For the next fourteen years he laboured in an increasingly sick body, and was noted for his tender care of sick people. When his final illness overtook him, he went in extraordinary peace. Perhaps he could convey to those who were facing the end, that there was a lot to look forward to, that the last act of life is beautiful.