Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Benediction for the MRI Machine

Wearing a hospital gown and blue-paper shorts, I ease down slow, first onto my side, then gingerly onto my back that protests, though more quietly these days, after a month of sharp retorts in response to once innocent movements. The technician slides a bolster under my knees, and warm blanket over them (blanket warmers are the bright aspect of hospitals and surgery centers). Foam earplugs in place, an emergency call button in hand. I close my eyes, the technician tells me not to move for the next half-hour, pushes a button, and I slide like a shrink-wrapped ham into the scanner, my body positioned just so, my lumbar spine a barcode to be decoded, revealing, it’s hoped, both diagnosis and cure.

If the very recesses of one’s body are going to be laid bare, the terror and hope of what lies hidden inside muscle and sinew, tendon and bone on display, these secret mysteries should be exposed quietly, reverently, in the hush toned of candle-lit chapels and whispered prayers, not while one lies prone and motionless, eyes clenched shut against the confining space-age tube, roar of a jet turbine, and unrelenting jackhammer vibration that rattles teeth and nerves.

But noise it is, and I try to focus on my breath, in and out, but I worry that my belly is moving too much, with my belly expanding inhalations, that it will obscure the necessary view of my innards. What to try instead, perhaps an equal and opposite noise, that I could somehow incorporate into a soundtrack? If only I knew some songs in a genre that could match the machine’s violent thumping and insistence on victory, but I don’t even know the names of genres I could use: death metal?

What I know by heart are hymns, and it’s been a few years since I’ve sung them with any regularity, church hopper and frequent Sunday worker that I’ve become since relocating to Washington four years ago. If I’d remembered about the hearing-damaging noise, I would’ve prepared beforehand, would’ve pulled up a playlist on Pandora, listened in the car as my husband drove to the appointment, or flipped though the pages of my UMC hymnal earlier in the day, reminding myself of second and third verses of my favorites.

So, hymns it is. I don't sing aloud, or even hum, in case my vibrations work against the imaging. But I call up tunes and words. I start with the cheerful, “Morning Has Broken,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “And They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” and “Blessed Assurance,” but there’s too much dissonance between the metallic pulsing and these happy hymns.

What does work, is a hymn of sorrow, one I was first introduced to on Ash Wednesday almost 30 years ago, though I confess, in my pain-body tunnel-vision these days, the liturgical calendar has not been on my mind. Unbidden the first two verses come:

O sacred head now wounded
With grief and shame way down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns thine only crown,

How art thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn.
How does that visage languish,
Which once was bright as morn.

I latch onto Jesus, those lyrics about being wounded for the remainder of the first eight minute cycle, and all of the second eight minute cycle, for who else can be present with me here? Not the technician who is only a disembodied voice speaking via microphone in the few moments the machine is silent between runs. Not my husband in the waiting room, not my wedding ring—no metal allowed—in a locker with my clothes.

The machine amps up its third and final driving beat, cast in its role as God. I wasn’t supposed to appear before this oracle today, at least my insurance didn’t think it was medically necessary. I am here by grace, because someone who loves me said, “let me pay for this.” For this half-hour I’m blessed, cradled, in what for some is nothing more than a blaring brightly lit torture device that will deliver bad news.

I know that I will be healed, no matter what sort of treatment I will need or receive based on this MRI. I know this because people I love have suffered much worse, their lives permanently altered in the name of survival, but they are not defined by diagnosis, by disease, by disabilities. I can’t say if my doctor will see Jesus lurking between L-3 and L-4 in my lumber spine, when she reads the MRI report. But he’s there, always—love alive in me, in each of us.

Each night for the last week, once I’ve settled my aching self into bed waiting for painkillers to allow sleep, I’ve been reading Jan Richardson’s Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for theSeasons. Her blessings are gritty and real, no Pollyanna Hallmark Channel blather, they bless through suffering and loss as well as joy. The MRI thunders bringing on a headache and hot flash. And I wonder, has anyone blessed this machine, this room, the people whose bodies have slid like mine, specimens on this diagnostic tray?

And so I spend the last eight minute cycle of this cacophonic procedure blessing the people who come to this imaging center day in and day out, those simply working at their jobs, technicians, physicians, janitors. I bless those, like me, who come under extreme circumstances, a failure of the body to work as expected. I bless their friends and families, at home, in the lobby, on social media, waiting, hoping, fearing the news.

It’s a challenge to pray in this bone-rattling din, to hold still as I can and think, but I manage this:

“May this machine be used for the highest and best good by all who come in contact with it. May those entrusted to operate this equipment do so with great skill and compassion. May all who enter here be comforted.”

Waking tonight in discomfort and unable to return to sleep, Jan Richardson’s words in “Blessing the Door,” resonate with my intention in the benediction for the MRI machine:

But here
at this door of
the blessing cannot
be said without you.

So lay your palm
against the frame
that those before you

Place your feet
where others paused
in this entryway.

Say the thing that
you most need,
and the door will
open wide.


  1. Lovely, as always. It is indeed a gift to find the blessing inside of one's difficulties, to be in a place so loud and dissonant and still find Jesus there. Your writing blesses us all. Sue M.

  2. You are a blessing in spite of---or perhaps through---your pain. Thanks for this

  3. Thank you for the surprise and grace in this benediction, Cathy. There is much to reflect on here as I begin to move through my Ash Wednesday.