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Heart surgery as spiritual experience

Methodist minister and Touchstone columnist Rev Dr Jim Stuart says open heart surgery and post-operative recovery was a life-changing experience. Not only did it make him reflect on the essentials of life, it gave him glimpses of other spiritual dimensions.

Before his quadruple by-pass surgery early last month, Jim’s heart worked at just 30 percent capacity. He is now recovering well and looking forward to the day when he will be able to mow his lawn and ride a bicycle.

Jim says while heart surgery has become common today, it is still a highly invasive procedure with profound consequences. “You can’t have your chest opened up and your heart repaired without being changed by it.”

One aspect of the experience is the fear of the operation itself. While heart surgery has become almost routine, there are many risks.

“You go into the operation with a sense of apprehension about what could go wrong and whether or not you will survive. They tell you all about it before hand but you’re still not really prepared for it.”

A vital part of the experience for Jim was the care people gave him after the operation. He says the staff in the Intensive Care Unit showed incredible compassion and goodness in the days after surgery.

He also appreciated the support the support he received from family, friends, and members of the church. “It was both humbling and rewarding to know so many people were praying for me,” he says.

The experience of surgery also had its mystical moments. During the recovery stage after the leaving the surgical theatre, Jim received a vision in which people he had known throughout his life appeared as if to reassure him.

“I had a very vivid picture of all these people moving toward me out of a fog and smiling. They included my students, people I have worked with, and friends over the years. It was if they were coming to tell me I would be okay.

“At another point I had an experience in which I was looking out into space and a door opened. On the other side I could see a woman and children playing in a place that looked peaceful and lovely. I wanted to go through but the door closed.

“It was as if it was saying to me death isn’t the end. There is another dimension. I felt I was faced with my mortality and was told things would be okay. It was not my time to go, I have things to do but when the time does come I can go through that door.”

In the weeks after surgery Jim has had time to reflect intellectually and emotionally on his experience. He says the heart is one of humanity’s key symbols for life and love. For the Church it is a metaphor for the compassion of Jesus gave the world.

Jim re-entered the world to learn of the London bombings. He says the incongruity between the love he experienced after his surgery and the reality of the world was jarring. But it also made him realise the material things people often value such as money and gadgets are trivial in comparison to family, friend and the people around us.

“It is a tragedy to see religion being reduced to war, acts of terror, legalistic frameworks, and so on. People need to see that religion is about compassion, love and being there for others.

“It is as if the world needs heart surgery. It is not going to be fixed in any other way than a radical change to people’s hearts.”