The Word Among Us

July/August 2019 Issue

A Dangerous Climb

My brush with death helped me to surrender to the Spirit.

By: Deacon Dave Brencic

A Dangerous Climb: My brush with death helped me to surrender to the Spirit. by Deacon Dave Brencic

“Dave, surrender,” my physical therapist said. “Isn’t that what they say in church? It’s the same thing in physical therapy.” The analogy made me smile as the therapist worked on my broken lower leg. For more than three months, I had faced a daily challenge of surrendering to the Holy Spirit. It all began with my decision to go hiking on the Cathedral Rock Trail in Sedona, Arizona. My wife, Jane, decided the trail was too steep and chose to stay back. I pressed on, lured by the promise of a breathtaking view at the summit.

A Lifesaving . . . Cactus? The steep climb took longer than I expected. I began to tire, and I knew Jane was still waiting for me below. I decided to turn around and head back. But the trail wasn’t as clearly marked as I remembered. Nobody was walking downhill, so I had no one to follow the way I did while I was climbing uphill. I took a misstep and suddenly slid several feet down the ridge.

I stuck out my left arm to slow myself and immediately felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. I was able to stop myself for a moment before my feet gave way completely, and I started to tumble. “God, save me,” I screamed, as I somersaulted fifteen feet down the rocky incline. I landed haphazardly on top of a prickly pear cactus with my left leg lodged in some dead tree branches.

I was conscious.

I was alive.

But pain like I’d never experienced consumed me.

Three other hikers saw me fall and immediately called 911. Once the paramedics arrived, it took nearly three hours for them to stabilize me and hoist me down the steep mountain slope with ropes. Time blurred as I was transported to the emergency room at a trauma hospital in Flagstaff and evaluated. Scans and tests revealed a fractured left leg and a dislocated shoulder. So many cactus needles covered my upper body that my shirt looked as if it were stapled to my chest.

Emergency medical technicians later told me that the cactus had saved my life by stopping my fall. But deep in my heart, I knew that my guardian angel had played a big part in my rescue. I had faith that it wasn’t simply a coincidence or a cactus; it was God who had saved me.

Searching for God’s Will. While I waited for surgery, Jane found my rosary and pressed it into my hand. My eyes filled with tears as I struggled with pain and fears about the future. I turned to God in prayer. As I prayed the Rosary, Jesus’ agony in the garden, the scourging, the piercing thorns, and the cross became vivid images for me. As I pictured Jesus’ suffering in the Sorrowful Mysteries, I was able to surrender my own pain and fears to God.

It was then that I chose to offer this whole ordeal for two special intentions: my daughter who was struggling with some health concerns and the souls in purgatory for whom no one else was praying. God was showing me something I could do when I faced pain and frustration and helplessness. Even so, I still had to pray for the fortitude not to say, “Why me?”

St. John of the Cross wrote that in order to be filled with God, a soul must first be emptied of self. He believed that such moments of being emptied of pride, our health, or even our identity, can be a catalyst for us to become more like Jesus. This became my goal during the long journey of recovery. I began to ask myself and God, How can I learn from this experience and surrender to your grace? In what ways can I be filled with your Spirit and minister to others?

Praying in Public. As the days and weeks unfolded, God provided me with ample opportunities. I started with thanking, by name, the nurses, doctors, and attendants who cared for me each day. This simple, heartfelt gesture often brought a smile to their faces. One day I felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to pray openly with some of them.

The inspiration came as I was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery on my broken leg. As I quietly waited, I felt like saying a prayer. Before the anesthesiologist put me under, I requested a few moments to pray. “Do you want to pray to yourself or out loud?” he inquired. “Out loud,” I replied. He quickly asked for silence from the other doctors and nurses.

I greeted everyone and identified myself as a deacon of the Catholic Church. As often happens, the Holy Spirit provided the words. “Thank you, God, for the gift of this day,” I prayed. “We are all your children, and we ask that you guide all of the doctors, nurses, and attendants who are here so that this surgery is successful.”

“Thank you,” the anesthesiologist said afterward. “That was a nice prayer.” It was a simple witness, but one that I had felt compelled to make.

Sharing Cares and Prayers. A variety of people crossed my path while I recuperated in the trauma center and in rehab. With many of them, I was able to share the story of how my guardian angel had protected me in Sedona or to talk about some other aspect of my faith. Sometimes, God used me to be a companion for fellow patients and listen to their concerns and fears about the future.

One unmarried gentleman who had suffered a stroke told me that his family was unable to care for him. He faced a bleak future in a state-run facility. “I’ll never be able to go back to my cabin,” he said, choking back tears. I knew that words alone could not provide comfort, but I promised to pray for him. I intercede for him still.

Recently, I came across a quote from Bishop Fulton Sheen, who said, “Accepting suffering and disease and bereavement does not mean taking pleasure in them or steeling oneself against them or hoping that time will soften them. It means offering them to God so that they can bring forth fruit.”

The Fruit of Surrender. I look back at those months in a wheelchair as months of transformation. My hiking accident became an opportunity for surrender and humility—facing the reality of my helplessness. It provided me with new insights about relying on God’s grace and living in the Holy Spirit.

My injuries have mostly healed nearly a year later. But I have come out of the experience with deeper compassion for those countless people whose earthly lives are permanently intertwined with pain and suffering. I want them to know that God is with them, that he can sustain them daily, and that their lives have purpose. Like the blind man healed by Christ, my eyes have been opened, and I see the afflicted of the world with new eyes. Seeds have been planted. Only God knows what other fruit will be brought forth.

Deacon Dave Brencic works in the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Chicago.