A rescue team wheels Deacon David Brencic down a mountain path in Sedona, Ariz., on Oct. 17, 2018. Courtesy photo

‘God, Save Me!’

Falling down a mountain and into God’s loving arms

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A brush with death forever changed my perspective of life, my view of God, faith, relationships and the diaconate.

On Oct. 17, 2018, in Sedona, Arizona, my life teetered on the brink when I slipped while coming down a mountain trail and tumbled 20 feet.

“Oh my God, save me!” I screamed as I clawed at the red rock in an attempt to slow my fall. Somersaulting down the steep mountain slope — my eyeglasses and hat flying off — I eventually landed on top of a prickly pear cactus with my left leg lodged in some dead branches.

I was conscious, but pain like I have never experienced ripped through my body. I later learned I had suffered a dislocated left shoulder and multiple fractures of my left tibia (shin bone).

The EMTs said the cactus saved my life and kept me from falling farther down the mountain, where I could have suffered even more serious injuries or perhaps even died. But in my heart, I knew my guardian angel had rescued me.

This was the start of a humbling journey with God that I never imagined, and where he revealed time and again his deep love and overwhelming graciousness.

The Fall

It started with three people seeing me fall and immediately calling 911. The EMTs said some hikers who suffered similar mishaps weren’t found for days because they were off the trail or were alone.

A woman who witnessed my fall was a wilderness EMT and was able to make her way to me. She stayed with me until the rescue paramedics arrived. A dad and his teenage son also came to help. The teen was able to locate my wife, Jane, who was waiting below, and told her what had happened.

After assessing my condition, the paramedics decided to belay me down the mountain on a litter instead of attempting an airlift by helicopter. It took more than two hours for the paramedics to transport me down the steep, rocky slopes to the base of the trail. Every bump along the way down triggered another shock wave of pain.

Minutes blurred into hours, including a long ambulance ride to the trauma center in Flagstaff, followed by evaluations and scans and the painful resetting of my shoulder in the emergency room. Covered in cactus needles, the doctors carefully removed the shirt that was “stapled” to my chest.

As I awaited surgery to stabilize the broken bones in my leg, Jane was able to find the rosary tucked away in my backpack. As pain and fear swirled through my mind, I surrendered completely to God. In his loving embrace, I sought comfort and refuge. The sorrowful mysteries came alive like never before as I reflected on Jesus’ suffering — the agony, the scourging, the thorns, the cross. I thought, “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me?”

Following the fog of the operation and recovery room, God held both Jane and me close. In the days that followed, God continually revealed himself in compassionate nurses and in the kindness and generosity of strangers and my brother deacons and their wives, who embraced us with the love of Christ.

God Moments: Jeanne

Here are just a few of the “God moments” that graced our lives during those days in the hospital and later in rehab.

As Jane sat outside San Francisco de Asis Church after Sunday Mass, a woman stopped and asked if she was waiting for a ride. Jane mentioned that she was waiting for an Uber to take her back to the hospital. The woman introduced herself as Jeanne and insisted on giving Jane a ride. It turned out Jeanne was the wife of a deacon at the parish. The two immediately connected, and Jane related what had happened and how we had ended up in Flagstaff. Jeanne proved to be a dynamo and immediately started reaching out to her many connections. Within a couple of days, she arranged for free lodging at the home of a mother of another deacon and the use of an old Saturn owned by a friend.

During the next week and a half in the hospital, two other deacons from the parish stopped by to visit and pray with this stranger from Chicago who was saved by a cactus.

God Moments: Dave

Dave, a friend of Jeanne and her husband, Deacon Jim, offered to bring me holy Communion every day while I was in the rehab hospital. I treasured those visits, and I experienced a special closeness with Jesus like I had never experienced. My hunger for Christ’s presence was filled. Jesus was with me on this long journey of recovery.

During one of his visits, Dave asked how things were going and if we needed anything. Jane and I related how we were having difficulty finding a special hemi walker, which I would need during my recuperation at home.

Dave listened intently and said, “I think we need to get St. Anthony on this.” I smiled as I listened to Dave’s sincerity, as St. Anthony has always been one of my go-to saints.

An hour later, Jane’s phone rang. Dave had located the walker we needed at a thrift shop across town. Besides that, the walker was free, because someone had just dropped it off at the store. St. Anthony once again had come through.

Parish, Friends Assist

There were many other instances of God’s loving presence and grace: the friendly nurse who willingly shared her own Catholic faith and related how her husband was considering the diaconate; being able to buy the last two available tickets for a flight back to Chicago; friends back home enthusiastically pitching in to mow the grass, install grab bars in the bathroom, pick up items from a parish equipment lending closet; feeling lifted up and comforted by all the prayers and well-wishes of family, friends, parishioners, fellow deacons and strangers.

God Is With Us

One day as I struggled with doubts and fears that I would not be released from the rehab hospital on time because of recurring fevers, a parishioner from back home called to see how I was doing. He listened intently as I related my concerns, then he offered a reminder about faith that I will always treasure. “Dave,” he said, “I know you know this, but our God is an awesome God, and anything is possible for him. All we have to do is ask.”

Deacon Brencic
Deacon David Brencic poses for a photo in Sedona, Ariz., before his fall. Courtesy photo

His words touched me, and they were a gentle reminder not to be afraid. God had accompanied us through this whole ordeal, and he would never abandon us. It was a message I needed to hear at that moment. How many times as a deacon have I offered similar words of encouragement to others? But this time I was the one who needed to be ministered to and comforted.

Our two grown children also reminded us that now was not the time to refuse assistance. “Both of you are always giving of yourselves to help others, now let others help you,” they said.

It was humbling to be on the receiving end. The fraternal love, care and diakonia demonstrated by the deacons and their wives were especially moving. Serving out of love defines who we are, and today I have a deeper appreciation of the diaconate calling and the connection of the diaconate community at large.

In one of the many cards and notes we received, a brother deacon wrote that God is not only on the mountaintop but also in the valleys. I have found those words to be so very true.

I fell down a mountain and landed in God’s loving embrace. And that has changed me and my ministry forever.

DEACON DAVID BRENCIC was ordained in 1999. He works as the associate director in the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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Psalm 116

“I love the Lord, who listened to my voice in supplication,
Who turned an ear to me on the day I called.
I felt agony and dread.
Then I called on the name of the Lord,
‘O Lord, save my life!’
I was helpless, but he saved me.
Return, my soul, to your rest;
the Lord has been very good to you.
For my soul has been freed from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
How can I repay the Lord
for all the great good done for me?
I will raise the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.”

— Psalms 116:1-2, 4, 6-9, 12-14

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