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Asking the Clergy: What can be learned about faith from a near-death experience?

From left, Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway

From left, Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway Jewish Center, the Rev. Andrew Cadieux of Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox Church, and the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter of Congregational Church of Patchogue. Credit: Alex M Wolff; Andrew Cadieux; Jeffrey Basinger

More than 600,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many have lived to tell of their recovery from severe COVID-19 after lengthy hospital stays. This week’s clergy, including one such survivor, discuss how a near-death experience can test and strengthen faith.

The Rev. Father Andrew Cadieux

The Transfiguration of Christ Greek Orthodox Church, Mattituck

In March I was hospitalized with COVID-19. In addition to suffering double pneumonia and severe weight loss, I was so weak that I could not even walk. Sometime between Sunday night — when I was brought to the hospital — and Monday morning, I prayed for God to take up my soul. I had made my peace with my Lord, and I was angry!

I was angry because I was newly assigned to a parish (two months) and I was so ill. I was angry because I could not hold or even be close to my wife and three children. I was angry because I felt that I had so much more to offer as a priest. It was then that I made my deal with God: "Lord, if you see fit to make me well, I will try even harder to do Thy will and not my own."

In a humble way, I felt like the Bible’s righteous Job, who was tested by God. When he was able to prove that he had kept his faith, God blessed him with so much more. My near-death experience pushed me to the edge of a large cliff with only two choices: I could fall, or I could fly.

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson

Midway Jewish Center, Syosset

Judaism teaches that each night we entrust our souls to God with the blessing of its return in the morning. Perhaps it was because so many people died in their sleep that this concept was developed, but its implications are enormous. We are to begin each day with words of gratitude, thankful for just being alive. It does not matter how the rest of the day will be. It does not matter what worries we have. We are alive.

It is natural to be grateful for surviving a near-death experience, but how often do you wake up and say, "Thank you. It’s great to be alive." What a way to start out the day! Sometimes we wake up tired, the kids are going crazy, the coffee spills on our clothes, we walk out the door late, get stuck in traffic and then we say, "What a terrible day."

When we begin with gratitude, everything else seems less significant. Let us not take one moment for granted and greet each day with resilience, determination, blessings and gratitude!

The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter

Pastor, Congregational Church of Patchogue

There is nothing like a pandemic to cause us to contemplate death. The same tale is told, but with different words, by people of faith I know who have nearly died of COVID-19 or survived freak accidents and disasters of natural and human origin. While suspecting they were dying, they deeply believed that they had a purpose for being here and that they were loved beyond measure. They all believed that their faith in God would not necessarily save them from the pain and indignities of life, but that no matter what they were going through, including death — God was with them as they went through it.

Many people have near-death experiences. But some also have what I would call near-life experiences. They beg, rage, bargain, blame and deny as they lay dying. I have loved them in their transition from this life.

I would love to see more people, while still living, seize the passion and conviction of people who are dying. Imagine people living life in love with life, and in love with the life they find in each other so that, even in dying, they are fully alive.

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