On the night of my heart attack I was alone. It was dark, and late at night, and I could not sleep. I knew something was wrong, but I was not sure what it was. My chest hurt, I was having a hard time breathing, and I felt as though I had eaten something which was about to make me sick. Still, despite all these signs, the thought that I was undergoing a heart attack was furthest from my mind. Usually I might have problems with a sudden asthma attack, and so that is what I thought was going on. But in the darkness of the late night, when all the world is quiet and only whispers are heard, I felt terrified. I had to turn somewhere, and so I turned to something that always comforts me in times of distress: prayer.
One of my favorite prayers is the rosary. I try to pray it daily, at least one decade (one Our Father, ten Hail Mary’s and a Glory Be while contemplating some part of the life of Christ) if I am short on time. The rosary has been with me my entire adult life, it was one of the earliest prayers that I learned as a Catholic, that is, when I became more serious about my religious faith. In all the decades I have been praying the rosary, I have always found it a great source of consolation. I prayed my first rosary in 1986. So this is my 27th year of practicing this old Catholic devotion. There is something very peaceful and meditative about this prayer. Although of obscure origin (the tradition is that Mary herself appeared to St. Dominic and told him to preach this devotion) it most likely has its origins in prayer practices picked up from the Muslims by the Crusaders. The use of prayer beads is a common custom in many cultures. I can see why. The prayer beads give a certain structure to the prayer, so that you know before you start how long the prayer will last, you know the type of prayer you will doing, you know the things to be contemplated before the contemplation begins. The tactile nature of working through the beads is also a nice, physical manifestation of the ultimately spiritual nature of the prayer. A study was actually done which suggested that the very structure of the “Hail Mary” prayer, the essential, repeated mantra of the rosary, leads one to a certain type of breathing which is beneficial to calmness and relaxation. Although many, if not most, Catholics do not practice it, and many who do find it dull and boring, it has always been a special prayer of mine. I even carry a rosary around in one of my pockets. If for some reason I forget to take it with me in the morning, then I feel something is truly missing for the rest of the day.
So on the night of my greatest peril, in the midst of pain and darkness and confusion, I sat down and prayed this wonderful prayer. It was a Tuesday night, so I must have prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries, the mysteries which reflect on the sufferings of Christ before and during his Passion. How wonderful it is, to mediate on Christ’s sufferings when you yourself are suffering. How wonderful it is to be close to Jesus when life is ebbing away from you, even if you are unaware of this!
Unbeknownst to me while I was praying the rosary, I was having a heart attack. The most dangerous part of a heart attack is the initial 30 minutes. Sudden heart failure and consequent death can occur. This could have been my fate. I thank God, not so much that I survived during that critical time, but that I was fortunate enough to be praying and drawing to close to Christ at such a time. What a better way to die than while praying? But I do believe, for whatever reason, the rosary helped saved my life, and preserved me for some reason, some reason which I am not yet sure of. I believe that turning to God, to Christ and to his mother Mary, at this time saved my life. And now, after this event has happened, my life is changed forever, and I am not the same person now that I was before. I may be physically damaged for the rest of my life, but I feel I am a better person in so many other ways, and I thank God for that. I really do believe I am starting a new life, La Vita Nuova. I look forward to where this journey goes from now. It is a journey I have completely entrusted to God.
Prayer is a beautiful thing. It is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. It is ultimately the source of all my strength in life; as the Blessed Pope John Paul II said, “We can do nothing without prayer.” How true.