On Ash Wednesday 2019, I had a very unusual experience. I’d been unwell with a virus for several days, although I had still been able to potter around the house.
At about 9.30 in the morning that day, I was suddenly overtaken by a sharp, stabbing pain in my right side, just below the ribcage. It came again and again, with growing intensity, until, within a minute or two, it was continuous, and I couldn’t speak or move. My breathing became very shallow, and my lips, face, hands and arms began to tingle.
My husband immediately phoned for an ambulance, while I wailed and panted. I wasn’t afraid, just utterly overwhelmed by the intensity of the pain. I was sitting down, bent over the kitchen table, and with my head turned to one side, so I could see the shopping bag he put beside me, into which he was quickly throwing everything I might need in hospital. I was fully aware that I could be dying, and saw vividly how my soul would simply slip away, leaving behind the bag, my husband, the room, and everything I had ever imagined would make me happy.
The ambulance arrived quickly, and the staff were wonderful. They helped me to slow my breathing, and ran through various tests. All my vital signs were completely normal, although my pulse and respiration rates had been very high when they first arrived.
Gradually, the pain retreated, and I could speak again. They said it was a panic attack, but this didn’t ring true for me at all, as I have had countless panic attacks, and none of them in any way resembled what happened that day. After some discussion, we all agreed I could stay at home, as long as I saw my doctor in the afternoon.
The GP diagnosed an acute attack of pleurodynia (also known as Bornholm Syndrome, or Devil’s Grip), a chronic condition I have had for the last 25 years. Acute attacks are generally triggered by respiratory infections. However, even at its very worst, it has never remotely resembled what happened that morning. A second doctor thought it sounded more like a pleural rub, highly characteristic of pleurisy.
After two weeks of rest, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and steroids, I slowly started to resume my normal activities. However, a troubling question persisted at the back of my mind, though I hardly dared to express it at the time. The strange attack, which lasted three hours, felt exactly as if I were experiencing the moment when the spear pierced Christ’s side to ensure he was dead. So, was it a symptom of a physical illness, a spiritual experience, or perhaps a combination of both?
The soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out (John 19:32-4; NLT).
If we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering (Romans 8:17; NLT).
Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often (Luke 2:19; NLT).