[Editor’s Note: Dan Burke is the founder and President of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, which offers graduate and personal enrichment studies in spiritual theology to priests, deacons, religious, and laity in 72 countries and prepares men for seminary in 14 dioceses. Burke is the author and editor of more than 15 books on authentic Catholic spirituality and hosts the Divine Intimacy Radio show with his wife, Stephanie, which is broadcast weekly on EWTN Radio. Past episodes can be found, along with thousands of articles on the interior life, at SpiritualDirection.com. He is also the founder of Apostoli Viae, a world-wide, private association of the faithful dedicated to living and advancing the authentic spiritual patrimony of the Church. He has recently recovered from COVID-19, and spoke to Charles Camosy about the experience.]
Camosy: Your health background is one of the major reasons you call your recovery from COVID-19 a miracle. Can you say more about that health background?
Burke: Among other medical issues, the most relevant is that I have had chronic asthma since I was a child. In the last three years my lungs have been in decline and my doctors have been working to mitigate the deterioration. This effort has only been partially successful and when I contracted the virus I was not in good shape.
You must have been terrified to have been diagnosed, admitted to the hospital, and put on a ventilator. We know now that ventilation is a kind of last-ditch effort that often doesn’t save the patient’s life. You described it as “deep and dark spiritual warfare.” Can you say more about what you were thinking and feeling at this time?
I don’t really relate to the idea of being terrified or afraid. I have had more surgeries and hospitalizations than I could count. However, this situation was different. The spiritual darkness connected with this virus was palpable. If felt like I was heading into pitch black – being stripped of all comfort – all personal care – all human contact – all connection with my wife – and then going on the ventilator was extremely uncomfortable. Three days after I was intubated, I unconsciously escaped my constraints and removed the intubation tube. It caused quite a commotion in the ICU. After it happened though the nurse called my wife to let her know that I had done this – the bad news. The good news was that I was able to breath on my own and began to recover. She and many had been specifically praying that I would be able to breathe again on my own.
Why are you convinced that it was the prayers of others who kept you alive and helped pull you through?
Because of my lung issues, I told my son, weeks before the virus hit the U.S., that if I get the virus he needed to know that I likely wouldn’t survive. On the way to the hospital I wrote out my will on a pad of paper.
When my wife took me into the ER, she didn’t know if she would see me again. In retrospect we have learned that 8 out of 10 people die who are intubated. So, the odds of my survival were extremely low.
My wife Stephanie began to let folks know I was in the ICU and thousands began to pray. We received about 3,000 notes of support from just about every continent in the world. I have no doubt that I would not have made it without prayer and the good work of competent and caring medical staff at UAB. All grace is mediated. Catholic mystical tradition teaches that often when God desires to bring about an outcome, He wills that it come through the care and love of His people. In this case, he willed that I live, and the prayers of His people provided the channel of that grace to me for my healing.
In something that seems to go beyond even a wild coincidence, you just happen to have a new book out called Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits. How did writing this book prepare you for facing down COVID-19?
It is fascinating that I just finished this book and then subsequently went into the most challenging spiritual warfare I have ever faced in my life. The darkness was overwhelming and all of my teaching at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation (Avila-Institute.org) and practice came into play to keep my mind and heart focused on the Lord and His presence and provision. I can’t say I was at peace, but I can say that I never doubted my faith or trust that He would do what is best for me and those entrusted to me. I was ready to live or die as the Lord determined. That said, in the darkness I knew how to fight, and I did, by God’s grace.
Many of us who work adjacent to science and medicine try to uphold our belief in the supernatural with a firm commitment to empirical evidence and science. How those of us in this space think about the claims you are making here?
Faith and reason or science are not in conflict. God is at work in many ways. Sometimes it is through competent medical care, and sometimes through miracles, and both can work together. I have had a medically verified healing of a blocked artery (I was prayed over by a priest), and I have experienced a number of life-saving medical procedures. In all cases, I believe God is at work in and through faith and science to bring about the end He desires.