By Amalraj Chinnappan, SJ
Amalraj Chinnappan, SJ (MDU), called C. Amal by friends, is probably the best-known Jesuit in Myanmar. Before opting to work in Myanmar in the year 2007, he has worked in India and other countries, serving refugees and victims of natural disasters. Blessed with a sharp mind and a refreshing sense of humour, he has always chosen to live in challenging situations in order to work for God’s little children. Two years ago Amal fell seriously ill and was almost given up by his doctors. He was anointed twice.
In this deep, reflective sharing, he tries to answer the questions that hit him after he miraculously recovered – questions like, ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘What brought me back to life?’ ‘Why did God work this miracle?’ ‘What is the meaning of the scene that I ‘saw’ repeatedly when I was in a coma?’ etc.
As I opened my eyes, a sympathetic doctor whispered in my ears, “Your recovery is nothing less than a miracle in our hospital history. It is 20 percent medical effort and 80 per cent the result of the relentless prayers of your people.” Lying on a hospital bed for two weeks, I tried to grasp the meaning of those words. A miracle seemed to have happened.
As my memory struggled to sequence the events, a flashback emerged. On a trip to far off Mindat in North West Myanmar on a mission, I fell into a sickness that dragged me into a disaster. On 21 July 2019, I was brought unconscious to the hospital. They anointed me in preparation for any eventuality. More than half of the team of doctors who took charge of me doubted if I would survive. My medical documents say my heart stopped.
They anointed me in preparation for any eventuality. More than half of the team of doctors who took charge of me doubted if I would survive.
Food poisoning and my old pal – diabetes – colluded to choreograph a dance of death. For 13 long days, through a spiral of excruciating pain, hallucinations, induced and spontaneous coma, my life oscillated between spasms of death and streaks of hope. They were 13 days of darkness.
Hearing the news my brothers rushed from India to be with me. My body, a patient and enduring companion of six decades of reckless travel and travail, suddenly seemed to be in an indecent haste to bid farewell. A visiting priest thought it wise to give me the last sacrament – for the second time.
The doctors waged a war. I was incubated on a mechanical ventilator in the ICU. As three days gave way to six and then nine, the doctors faced a choice: take me off the ventilator and see if I could breathe on my own, or perform a tracheostomy, which would mean making an incision in my neck to insert a breathing tube directly into my windpipe.
On the tenth day, something unexpected happened: I opened my eyes, my lungs purred and breathed. The doctors, who had almost given up on me, confirmed that I was alive and on the way to recovery. The twice-anointed Jesuit was sent back to the world. Yes. It was a miracle.
What made the miracle possible?
The Society of Jesus, which has been my family for more than four decades, generously did everything it could. Young Jesuits, sacrificing their routine life and sleep, kept vigil. A photo of the Cardinal of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Muang Bo blessing me, as I lay unconscious in the hospital bed with invasive tubes and other scary accessories, went viral. That evoked a tsunami of prayers in various places of Myanmar. Obviously, I was not aware of all these at that moment.
Later I learned that scores of men and women visited the ICU, and many broke down and cried, seeing the combat between death and faith. But deep faith, earnest prayers of hundreds of people and the persistence of the doctors triumphed eventually.
I recalled what happened twelve years ago. I arrived in Myanmar in 2007 when the beautiful country went through turbulent times. There was bloodshed in the streets. Those who cared for me repeatedly told me to return to India. But a super cyclone that ripped the long-suffering nation apart made sure I could not return. I was sucked into the disaster relief work of the Myanmar Church.
As Jesuits, we played a big role in the recovery and rehabilitation of thousands of families and children. What followed was a decade of loving, committed work that took me to all the corners of this nation. For ten years I worked for and with one of the most graceful people on earth. The daily encounter with Buddhism challenged me to be a better Christian. I met thousands, trained hundreds, and shared their dream of a better world. I was part of their planning, training and their celebrations.
How gratifying it was to come to know that these dear people were grateful and cried out to God to cure me, as I lay unconscious! How poignant it was to learn that, although I came from another country, they saw me as their own! It was also a heartwarming affirmation of the services Jesuits had been rendering silently to a wide spectrum of people in Myanmar.
As I slowly emerged from the rollercoaster nights of excruciating pain, nightmares and medicine-triggered hallucinations, I realized that the soothing balm of human fellowship played a big role in healing me. During the day four women were my caregivers who never left me alone. One of them was a Buddhist nun, who was once my student, another one was a Muslim. There were also Catholic nuns and staff. I came to know that whenever I groaned uncontrollably because of severe pain, these women whispered consolation and hope in my ears, recounting how so many, including total strangers, had come during the day to show their love and concern and pray for me.
On 21 July 2021, when I completed two years after my miraculous recovery, I had to face the troubling questions: Why was I saved? Was this my ‘Cannon Ball Moment’? And what does the future hold? First of all, why did this happen?
Henri Nouwen says that growth happens not always through peaceful, normal events, but by ‘interruptions’ – life-changing events – like sickness and accidents. For Ignatius Loyola it was the ‘cannonball moment’. Coming face to face with our mortality raises vital questions like: where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Steve Jobs, living under the threat of incurable liver cancer, gave a sensational summary of this experience in his unforgettable speech at Stanford University: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
Coming face to face with our mortality raises vital questions like: Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?
And he ended his speech with one of the most memorable quotes on human mortality: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”
Some people came up with another question: During those days when I was in a coma, did I go to heaven? Did I have a chance to meet Jesus? You would have seen fundamentalist Christian groups showing off ‘people who went to heaven and came back.’ Psychologists have a trendy name for such people: NDErs = Near-Death Experiencers!
Did I experience death? When I returned to the Jesuit house, the Socius to the Provincial of Madurai, wrote to me to ask if I had any ‘spiritual’ experience during those comatose days. Henri Nouwen, the great writer, once had a similar near-death hospital experience. Later he wrote a booklet on it and it is called, “Beyond Mirror.” He writes movingly about how he experienced Jesus invite him soothingly, “Come, do not be afraid.”
I had no such spiritual experience. I think my brain was on lockdown because of medicines and machines. But something else, more revealing, happened. A panorama unfurled in my mental screen. A vast, never-ending desert emerged. And I (my mind) went all over that never-ending desert, desperately searching for a human being. This scene came back again and again and again ad nauseam, evoking anguish.
When I regained consciousness, I reflected on this. Why was I (my mind) searching desperately for another human being? After many days, it dawned on me. Human beings are created to relate to one another. Humanity emerges when we relate to another human being. Our existence is defined by relationships. No man is an island. Loneliness is hell. It is the other person who makes me human. It is the love of fellow humans that makes me experience God’s love. “If you cannot love the brother you see, how can you love God? For God is love.”
I understood that even in those dark moments of the coma, my heart ached for relationships. Trying to reach heaven is really a call to return to humanity, to others. That is heaven.
Martin Buber was right: There is no I without You. When the ‘I’ was in the danger of dissolution, the mind sought ‘you’. For those who have succeeded in finding meaningful, loving relationships heaven has already begun. The only raison d’etre for human life is love. This is why they say: Fall in love, stay in love, that will determine everything. A verse from the Song of Songs settles everything: Love is stronger than death. ( Song of Songs: 8:6).
After my consciousness returned, a simple truth emerged: To be is to love. To live is to relate.
Amalraj Chinnappan, SJ, (MDU) works at Myanmar Social Outreach (See intro). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.