Bruce Wilson; Coventry Press, 2019, (p155) ISBN 9780648566144

Bless You Heart Attack for Being in My Life: Wrestling with Death, Health, Self & Spirit

When the editor asked if I might be interested in reviewing this book, the first half of the title was almost enough to turn me off.  Fortunately, I recognised the name of the author, whose earlier challenging and thoughtful book Can God Survive in Australia? I’d read and appreciated decades ago.

I’m glad I put my hand up to read Bruce Wilson’s latest book. It was written out of the harrowing experience several years ago of a badly misdiagnosed heart attack, and the subsequent surgery that saved his life but with 50/50 odds of killing him, leaving him seriously and permanently physically diminished.

As it happens, the title comes from that great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago contains this passage:

Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying on the rotten prison straw, I came to realise that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.

Wilson’s background

Bruce Wilson describes himself as “sociologist, theologian and Anglican bishop”—and a physically active one—but stepped aside from his episcopal role at a relatively early age to specialise in offering psychological and spiritual guidance to pastors and other clergy.

That background shapes his reflections, the brutally honest insights he offers on his own experiences, and his insights on the challenges of frailty and of forgiveness. As the theologian who wrote the foreword puts it, “Wilson invites us beyond a widespread spiritual childishness…to a spiritual childlikeness, showing us what it means to be…adult children of God”.

A book for all

In some ways, it is a curious mix of a book.  At one level I imagine it might be particularly valuable to those people, men in particular, who are recovering from a serious attack themselves, or are supporting and/or ministering to those who are. But, more generally, the book has something for us all, offering (but not in some self-help way) the challenge to re-examine quite what matters in life.

Eventually, really dark times challenge almost all of us in different, often quite unexpected, ways. In 2020, who’d have imagined the utter disruption, and the huge losses for many, of the coronavirus. As the author states, “how we respond to major afflictions in our lives is either our making or our breaking”.  Traumas don’t leave us unchanged, and Bruce Wilson offers his, sometimes searing, reflections on the discoveries on his own journey in the years since the heart attack.

He reminds us that the gospel doesn’t offer an escape from the dark times and deep waters, but yet points us, draws us, constantly towards the one—Christ—who suffered for us and for our salvation.

Focusing on what really matters

Wilson ends his book looping back to the theme of his much-earlier book, noting “the sorrow I carry for Australia – and Western Culture in general – is for its increasing spiritual emptiness. Almost it seems in proportion to our expanded capacity in the physical world we have become dim-witted and crippled in the spiritual world”.

What the writer boldly describes as the ‘blessing’ of his heart attack offers something for anyone who will pick up his book and read it—anyone who will seek to focus first on the author and perfecter of our faith, and on the things of God, even as we live now in this world of physical abundance and spiritual emptiness, and of frailty and mortality.

Wilson points us to the Father whose promise is of a new heaven and new earth, where disease and death, sickness and suffering are no longer. And he challenges us to live now knowing that whether we live or whether we die, we live for the Lord.

Reviewer: Michael Reddell