I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Mark Raphael’s reflection “Lessons from an Ischemic Stroke: Achieving a Newfound Asceticism and Conversatio.”
Stroke. The dreaded word that no 40-year old or their family wants to hear. On February 15, 2022 (the day after Valentine’s Day), I was admitted to the Emergency Room at a local area hospital here in Southern California near the college town of Claremont. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I did not have a female valentine on February 14th. My speech was slurred for two days since February 13th and my family thought it was Bells Palsy. Lo and behold it was indeed diagnosed as an ischemic stroke. My stay at the hospital was for eight days and throughout the only memory retained from the hospital experience was the hallway loudspeaker blaring to pause for a mindful moment. Fast forward to the present, and I have completed so much. I completed a year-long course which led to a Certificate in Italian Language from the University of Oxford, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, swam 200 miles, and maintained my Catholic faith. Which brings me to the next phase of my faith journey: how to unite my recent health trials and challenges with Christ’s suffering all the while maintaining a daily spiritual practice, and, as a Benedictine Oblate, what the Benedictine promise of conversatio (change of heart) mean for this dramatic change of life direction and purpose.
Another dreaded medical term – autoimmune disorder. The cause of the stroke was determined by blood test results diagnosed by my primary care provider, rheumatologist, and neurologist to be Sjogren’s disease. In layman’s, non-medical terms, I will have to suffer from dry eyes, dry mouth, and an inflammatory joint response for the rest of my life. Turmeric pills also provided additional relief. The disease is also a known cause of stroke. I was lucky: the stroke appeared 10 millimeters away from having complete left-side of the body paralysis. The year-long recovery from the ischemic stroke was everything in fits and starts when it came to faith. Throughout, I realized that not only was my body attempting and striving to heal itself, but, moreover, there was a conversion of heart all the while a heart monitor the size of a drop of water was implanted in my chest area was keeping track of every moment for the next two years. I was yearning for a deeper a-ha profundity from my stroke, but alas it never came. Recovery is not at all-at-once solution, akin to the Big Law training which I had undergone 15 years prior, and subsequently left for a layperson’s religious practice. I had to accept my vegetable state of mind for the duration of the year of recovery with brief glimpses of awareness
In any recovery from a major medical accident, two religious principles are always in flux and no short-term determined solution or resolution is possible/feasible, at least at the outset: ascetism and conversatio. To speak on asceticism, the simple version is daily routinized practice that adheres to holiness. Often overlooked and understated is a daily exercise routine such as a yoga practice or even swimming for thirty minutes. I had an hour-long ascetical practice of swimming before COVID lockdown and swam 300-miles a year before my ischemic stroke. As a result of the stroke and the brain damage incurred, I had to reduce the amount of swimming per day to solely 30-minutes and live with a predicted swim mileage for the remainder of the year at 100 miles Yet, asceticism is flexible and not legalistic in terms of rule-abiding. Giving myself the space and grace to recover, an ascetical practice of swimming at most four times a week and at minimum three times a week has suited my weekly routine. Is it at the level of an hour of swimming a day for a year? Perhaps, that was a bit much in retrospect and a bit of a stretch as far as goals are concerned.
The inevitable result of a major medical episode and the involvement of a faith community is that the participants in prayer, the senders and recipients, undergo conversatio: as the body of Christ. As one songwriter put it succinctly: when the heart is open, the world is unveiled. That’s the religious beauty of the Benedictine tradition in that we share in each other’s sufferings and find religious liberation through spiritual community, even if we are monks In the world and not of the world. For starters, my father and I prayed the rosary every afternoon at 3:00 p.m. straight throughout my year-long stroke recovery. It was also during this time that I joined the Order of Malta as an Auxiliary member and began to volunteer at a local area hospital that did not contain my medical records. I, too, participated in a daily rosary through the Order of Malta. I found Christ in the hearts of those whom I served at the hospital, with a renewed interest in chaplaincy.
At about the same time, my Benedictine Oblate group changed to a different presiding priest, and with it came many humorous blessings with the nonstop puns and jokes. So, with two daily rosaries, a daily divine mercy chaplet, and a chorus of hearts and souls souls praying for me, I have indeed attained the change of heart, mind, and soul, which I was yearning for in the darkest of times in my year-long stroke recovery.
As a footnote: Throughout the pandemic/COVID lockdown here in Southern California, there were only several things that would occupy my time: prayer, Zoom Retreats, walks, and lap swimming. The wisdom of Dr. Christine Paintner’s Zoom retreats fomented an understanding of Christ’s suffering with her experiences endured from Rheumatoid Arthritis. I came upon the Abbey of the Arts, Galway, Ireland, through a Zoom retreat sponsored by Saint Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo, California as a part of my Benedictine Oblate charism. I was immediately drawn to the relief I felt from hearing poetry, music, dancing, and participating in fellowship from being part of a larger community to have shared common religious experience and continue to receive blessings in the rustling of leaves and grass within the City of Trees and PhDs, Claremont, California.
Mark Raphael, Oblate of Saint Benedict, has been a lay member of the Saint Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo, California, oblate monastic community since 2014. He is currently in a graduate-level Italian Language program at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, working on his second year. Furthermore, he has a Masters-level graduate certification in Mandarin Chinese from Cornell University and has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Santa Clara University. He has been an active participant in the Abbey of the Arts, Galway, Ireland, spiritual community since Fall 2020 and a member of its Sustainers Circle, since its inception. After a short stint in Big Law in Washington, DC, United States of America, he has devoted himself to lay ministry leadership at his local Catholic parish. He is currently active as a Cooperator of Opus Dei (hosting a once-a-month Men’s Spirituality Group), an Auxiliary Member of the Order of Malta, and a Chaplain at a local area hospital. For fun, he is training for his 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training certification, trains in the Bel Canto style, and listens to live video on demand music streams on various internet platforms.