And to dust you shall return.
I am finding this a different and an interesting Lent. Lent is importantly to me personally, and I observe it each year.
Now, there are, more or less, two ways of that people observe Lent. There are those who “give something up,” and those who “take something up;” and I’m definitely one of the latter. Not that I’m one to take up big things, but the few small things I add to my discipline do keep my attention. I change from the seven week to the monthly cycle of the Psalms in my offices. I kneel rather than sitting when I meditate. I do some special reading. Again, not big changes, but steps that are important to me.
However, this year I’ve had an additional change, one that I didn’t choose for myself. See, I shared with my doctor that I’d been having some moments of dizziness, or an occasional sense that my face was flushing. As I told my mother, “I’ve been having the vapors” (pronounced “vay-puhs;” it’s a reference both cultural and generational, and I suppose some may not recognize it). I like my primary care physician. In general, I like the fact that he’s thoughtful, and that he’s thorough.
And so for most of Lent I’m wearing an event monitor. Actually, the 30 days I have to wear it actually ends on Holy Saturday. It’s a small device – about the size of an MP3 player (not the newest ones, but from a few years ago) - and, except for a couple of buttons, solid black. It’s edges are hard and sharp in a way that hasn’t been popular of late. It reminds me more than anything else of the sort of pocket transistor radio that in its day was the standard for portable music. It hangs on a ribbon around my neck, and attaches by a cable to two patches of the sort we use for other kinds of heart monitors.
That’s what it is, really: a heart monitor. However, it’s not constantly recording. Instead, when I have one of those funny feelings I push the button and it records whatever my heart is doing (hence, an “event monitor”). At a later point I call the company and send in the report through the phone. After 30 days I send it back in, and eventually my cardiologist gets a report that gets shared with my primary care physician – and, eventually, with me.
I’m finding this remarkably apt for Lent. It’s not exactly a hair shirt, but the patches can certainly itch, and it’s always there against my skin. It’s not exactly a thorn in my side, but there is some pain and irritation when I change the patches, and the cable manages to pull some hair on its own. It hangs at about the middle of my chest, and I was initially worried it would be at an inconvenience when I knelt at my prayer desk (turns out it wasn’t).
At a more basic level, it is a virtually constant reminder of mortality. As a Benedictine, that’s not so much a new thought. Saint Benedict in Chapter Four of the Rule calls on the monastic to keep death constantly in mind. As a hospital chaplain it’s even easier. It’s not at all uncommon for me to see a patient and think, “What if that were me? What if that was my Best Beloved?” I have said often enough that unless the Kingdom comes first, none of us gets out of life alive (and if the Kingdom does come, we’ll have a lot of other stuff to think about). I think about the possibility, and the possible circumstances of my death a lot.
But, there’s a qualitative difference here. This isn’t just a patient I care for. This time it is me, and every sensation becomes a reminder of mortality. Every time I feel the module bounce around under my shirt or feel the patch pull against my skin as the cable tangles in my clothes there’s a subtle reminder: “I’m human. I’m vulnerable. This time it could be me.” Any physical sensation out of the norm, from a muscle twinge to indigestion to a sense of weariness, raises the question, “Is this an event? Do I record it? Is it meaningful? Is it critical?” Not simply, “Is it me,” but also, “Is it now?”
Now, I’m not terribly worried. I have reason to believe my heart is fine. That, of course, will only point in a new direction about the symptoms that started all this, but I’m expecting my heart to be all right. With that perspective, the event monitor is mostly an inconvenient necessity.
Still, it has added something different to my Lent this year, and perhaps from now on. Lent began with the reminder to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Before this, the reminder was true and important, but a bit abstract. This year, thanks to a little black box, it is much more tangible, much more concrete – and, in one way or another, entirely real.