Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Smell That Tips Off the Neighbors

Like the reek of a forgotten school
Lunch kicked under the back seat: It
Overwhelms all else – no
Escaping it. 
Moldy meat in sandwich, banana
Bruised and bent, Tupperware contents
Unidentified and dead. 
The windows, for God’s sake, the
Windows – get them open! At least we can
Quaff gulps of fresh air as we drive. 
Later there will be time to make a thorough
Search. Hands and knees – clear out the
Trash, open bags, and sniff. Sniff.
Head jerks up, eyes blink – whoa. So
There it is. As the bag crumples shut
Before its disposal, wry wonder curls
Mouth corners: How could we have
Left it there so long?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Public Comment: RU-486

The St. Joseph County Council met on Tuesday evening, December 5. During the public comment period at the close of the meeting, about 30 healthcare workers and concerned citizens spoke out against the possibility that a new facility would open in South Bend offering chemical abortion (RU-486). My contribution was a brief review of maternal physiological risks associated with this heinous practice.

All medical interventions are accompanied by risk, and we accept those risks when they’re outweighed by the potential benefits. Even a simple Band-Aid can present the risk of injury for those with very fragile skin, or even an allergic reaction, but we don’t think about it too much because the risk is so small.

The same rule applies to medications – like a simple dose of Tylenol, that we take without much thought because the risks are so minimal. But we can be allergic to Tylenol and other drugs, or we can experience a variety of adverse reactions if those drugs interact with our bodies in unexpected ways.

Most drugs have been used and/or studied so long that their side effects and risks are well known. Such is the case with mifepristone and misoprostol, the two drugs that together make up RU-486, the chemical (or medical) abortion procedure under consideration tonight.

Among the side effects that women who take these drugs may experience are these:
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Significant cramping and pelvic pain
  • Insomnia, anxiety, and dizziness
  • Headaches, along with back and leg pain

More serious complications, while uncommon, include the possibility of:
  • Heavy bleeding, lasting day, weeks, and even months, and sometimes requiring blood transfusions
  • Large uterine blood clots or even incomplete expulsion of fetal remains from the uterus
  • Infection, including the possibility of sepsis (or whole body infection), which can be deadly
  • Additional complications associated with an undetected ectopic (or tubal) pregnancy, which would be a medical emergency 

Proponents of medical abortion argue that these risks,
even the serious ones, can be handled if and when they arise, but keep in mind that women only receive the first dose of the two-dose regimen in a clinical setting. She’ll return home after that – or, if she’s from out of town, to a motel room – to take that second drug, and then face any complications or problems on her own.

Consider, too, that these possible side effects and risks are grave enough that women must be warned about them and sign an informed consent before receiving the abortion drugs. Like I said, all medical interventions have risks, and we have to weigh risks against benefits.

But the risks associated with medical abortion are high, too high, even if you want to argue that abortion is a “benefit.” RU-486 is a dangerous regimen, and it has no place in our community.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

But now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring,
persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable – the animated picture.

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie.

In college I thought I’d reached the height of cinematic sophistication when I went to see My Dinner with Andre (1981). My brother and I drove over to an art house in Seattle’s bohemian quarter and sat through the bewildering dialogue along with all the other aesthetes. It felt very grown up and intellectual to leave the theater in a quandary: What just happened? What was that all about? It was exciting and new – a hint of soul-searching maturation that went beyond mere textbooks and Bible studies. The film sparked questions that I didn’t know what to do with, and it seemed like a watershed moment – a revelation of sorts, an interior marker. We followed up the revelation with a visit to the art house’s coffee shop. We discussed big thoughts. We sipped our espressos.

But I was wrong about the watershed stuff and the sophistication. The raw urgency I associate with watching My Dinner with Andre was fleeting, and probably more a reflection of my desire to be cool (like the bohemians) than anything authentic in my own interior flourishing. It certainly wasn't the film's fault; I simply wasn't ready for it. I returned to my dorm, and life went on as before. Andre didn’t inspire any grand gestures – no extravagant flights of fancy followed, nothing radical or outlandish. Just back to the books and ticking off more courses for my GPA and bachelor’s degree.

Then I graduated, moved down to Eugene, and commenced becoming an adult. I lived in a converted sorority with other adult wannabes, worked at a bookstore, and bummed around on my days and evenings off – often ending up in more bookstores. I had no TV, no electronics to distract me from my post-undergraduate melancholy. Instead, I read widely and wandered, both literally and intellectually. I fed my angst. I drank more coffee.

One night, I decided to go see Casablanca (1942) at the University of Oregon. I’d seen the flyer in the student center where I often read and hung out. I think admission was listed as 75 cents, and I made up my mind to go. It was a movie I’d always heard about, but somehow missed growing up.

It was early in the fall I’m pretty sure – maybe the screening was associated with freshman orientation – so it was warm, shirtsleeve weather. I strolled down to the student center, took my seat with the students in the stuffy auditorium, and settled in for the ride. I even bought popcorn.
There were no revelations in Casablanca, no new questions, nothing viscerally challenging. It was all romance and adventure mixed together in a confusing melodramatic narrative. I got the jilted lover bit, and I pretty much followed the suspense surrounding those transit papers signed by De Gaulle – a quasi-McGuffin of sorts – and the heroic Victor Laszlo's quest for freedom.

Plus, I enjoyed the snappy repartee between Bogart’s Rick and everyone else, especially Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and I recognized the classic lines that now pepper our common parlance – “Play it (again), Sam” and “Here’s looking at you, kid” and the rest.

I watched and munched.

After the closing credits, the lights came up and we all filed out. It was cooler out and quiet, and I walked home slowly along University Street, I wasn’t plagued by existential questions or pseudo-philosophical agonies. Instead, there was a prickly sensation of pleasure. It was the movie equivalent of reading Dostoevsky or Don Quixote because you feel like you should, and then actually enjoying it. I might’ve been motivated by a desire to fill a gap in my cultural formation, but I ended up reveling in it – a bonus!

Today I have a DVD copy of Casablanca at home, and not too long ago, Katharine, my 11-year-old, requested it on a family movie night – which meant that she’d already seen it at least once and she was choosing it over Princess Diaries and High School Musical II. With all the hubbub associated with the film’s 75th anniversary today, I was inspired to seek out Kath with a question: “What do you like about Casablanca?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just like it.”

Me, too. It’s all of a piece, and it’s hard to tease out anything in particular that makes it so appealing. Casablanca is a story well told – no big thoughts, no propositional posturing. Like a painting or a poem, it inspires by means of images; like a good painting or poem, it bears revisiting over and over.

“Let’s watch it again,” I suggested to Kath in a Sam kinda’ way.

She didn’t hesitate. “Sure!”

Dinners with Andre may come in time – let 'em. For now, I'm glad to see my young daughter soaking up this superb celluloid yarn just because she likes it. As Rick might say, it appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

Today’s Gospel is punchy and short – a mere seven verses. It’s Matthew’s version of the Pharisees’ attempt to “entrap Jesus in speech” with a set-up question about the census tax. There’s a beginning, a middle, and a memorable gotcha at the end: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The brief passage is neat and tidy, and it lends itself well to exegetical musings. It’s a made-to-order liturgical “pericope” – a fancy word for any chunk of text that is considered in isolation from a larger work.

Compare that to last week’s Gospel pericope from Matthew which was twice as long, but only if you “include the bracketed text for the long form.” You’ll recall that it featured Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king’s wedding feast. The invited guests begged off, so the king sent out his servants to round up the rabble to fill his table. The optional ending was about one of those substitute guests, inappropriately attired, who was booted out. The last line was cryptic: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Lots of meaty sermon material in both the long and curtailed forms of that Gospel, but why are there two versions to begin with? We’re talking about a difference of a mere seven verses, so it’s not really a time-saver to cut the reading short. Is it mainly a matter of homiletic preference?

It seems so. According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, “a pastoral criterion should be kept in mind” when given a choice of reading length. The GIRM continues: “On such an occasion, attention should be paid to the capacity of the faithful to listen with fruit to a reading of greater or lesser length, and to their capacity to hear a more complete text, which is then explained in the Homily” (§360).

That makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t help thinking about so many other, much lengthier lectionary entries that don’t offer truncated alternatives. There must be some reason that they aren’t subjected to liturgical dismemberment whereas others were.

And then there’s the mother of all liturgical readings which comes around every Lent: The story of Susanna and the Elders. Susanna, a pious Hebrew resident in Babylon, goes to bathe in her garden. Two lecherous elders, united in their lust for the woman, break in on Susanna’s solitude and demand that she lay with them. When she refuses and calls out for help, the two men accuse her of impure acts with a stranger of their invention. The elders’ lofty status gives their claim credibility over Susanna’s denial, and the innocent girl is condemned to death. Eventually, the young prophet Daniel comes to her defense, interrogates the “witnesses,” and the truth comes out. Susanna’s virtue is vindicated, and the two lying lechers are executed instead.

The full version of this tale weighs in at 51 (!) verses, and even the shortened form is on the longish side, at least for a weekday Mass. True, it’s not a Gospel, so we get to sit for it, but either version represents a marathon – especially for the reader.

And why? Couldn’t the Church have chosen to break it up into smaller pericopes over a couple days – maybe even three? No, and I’m guessing it’s because there’s no way to further trim down the narrative without destroying its edifying impact. In order to appreciate the moral of the story – that “faithfulness triumphs over adversity,” in the words of Toni Craven – we have to have to know the setting, the characters, both good and bad, and the drama of Daniel’s detective work. In other words, we need to have the big picture. We need the beginning, middle, and end.

The same holds true for our own lives and the lives of all those we encounter. The pericopes of our personal histories – individual acts and choices, particular events and seasons in the course of a lifetime – can never sum up who we are. Instead, we’re each a complicated mess of virtue and vice, aspiration and despair, and it’s impossible to fully understand ourselves from the inside out, let alone our neighbors.

But God knows our big pictures. He knows the grand sweep of our ups and down, and sees us all as works in progress, saints in the making, heirs to the promise of salvation no matter how many times we turn aside and seek after something less. And we do well to adopt that divine vision as much as possible – both of ourselves and those around us. “We can’t hope to know others as we should like to,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”

Which is why I always hope to hear the long form of Susanna’s story every Lent. It’s a fine reminder of how God discerns our own complicated stories, and an implicit exhortation to seek the big picture of those around us – bracketed text included.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dear #Pro-Choice

Dear pro-choice friend,

I got to my office this morning and discovered your message on my white board. I’m assuming you took the time to read the various postings on my door and drew the conclusion that I’m passionately pro-life – and you were right about that. It would’ve been hard to conclude otherwise, especially given the prominent “#DefundPlannedParenthood” sign right above the message board. So, for what it’s worth, I’m grateful that you did me the honor of standing there, scanning my signage, and giving it all some thought. That’s the beginning of dialogue. That’s what leads to increased mutual understanding and respect.

Unfortunately, your consideration of my evident pro-life position led you to opt for a less than respectful response. You could’ve left me a note asking for more information on why I’m against abortion. You could’ve come back during my posted office hours to introduce yourself and share with me your reasons for supporting abortion rights.

Instead, you snagged my dry-erase marker and wrote “#ProChoice” in big letters. Why? What were you hoping to accomplish? In a sense, what you did amounts to vandalism. Yes, it’s true that I invite folks to leave messages on my door by hanging the white board and marker there, but clearly your intent here was aggressive and so unwelcome. If I came across your door plastered with pro-abortion messages, how would you feel if I left a “#Pro-Life” scrawl there? Wouldn’t it make you mad? Wouldn’t you interpret it as a form of assault?

My initial reaction wasn’t anger, however, but mirth. I saw your message and laughed out loud – how ironic! You were declaring yourself (anonymously) to be on the side of choice, but you totally overrode my choice with regards to the kinds of messages I want to appear on my door.

But my mirth quickly turned into sadness. Here we are, you and me, at an institution of higher learning, and we totally missed an opportunity to expand our minds by learning from someone with whom we disagree. Frankly, I feel ripped off rather than offended. I’m bummed that you deprived us both of the chance to grow as human beings. I doubt I could’ve persuaded you to change your point of view, and I’m absolutely certain that you wouldn’t have changed mine, but I would’ve welcomed the occasion to meet and chat with you. Believe it or not, I would’ve listened, really listened. And, of course, I would’ve expected you to listen to me. Then we could’ve parted in peace – maybe not as friends, but at least as friendly acquaintances. Who knows? We might’ve even agreed to talk some more another time.

Anyway, consider this an invitation. I’m leaving your “#Pro-Choice” message on my door in hopes that you’ll see it, that you’ll be surprised it's still there, and that you’ll approach to discover this letter to you. Won’t you please come talk to me? Like I said, I’ll listen, but I’ll want you to listen to me in return.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Pure Joy: An Open Letter to the Chelsea House Orchestra

Where there is sadness, joy.

Dear friends,

A colleague of mine wrote a sermon on joy this summer. In preparation, he perused the theological landscape regarding the topic, and was surprised to find a dearth of relevant contemporary sources. Almost as a punctuation mark to his depressing discovery, his hunt led him to an ongoing study being conducted by Yale Divinity School (and funded by a large Templeton grant) meant to trace and explore the meaning of Christian joy in the modern context. The fact that this study was proposed at all, let alone generously endowed, is an arresting admission that there’s a paucity of hermeneutic source material on something so fundamental to human experience and yearning.

All I can say is: Too bad my friend didn’t have a chance to see you perform at the Indiana State Fair before he gave his sermon. He would have found inspiration aplenty.

My family and I did have the good fortune to see you in action this past Sunday. It was our first time venturing down to Indianapolis for the big Fair. As we wandered about, we made our way to the Pioneer Village to check out the exhibits and displays. That’s where I detected faint strains of Celtic music in the air, and I followed them to their source in the Opry House.

And there you were, some two dozen young musicians, mainly strings along with a handful of woodwinds and percussion, pouring out an irresistible riot of sound and celebration. You were all grinning and flush, perspiring in the heat, but still perpetually moving about on the stage. I was mesmerized, and when my children took seats toward the back of the assembled crowd, I compelled them to move up to the front row.

I wanted to drink in your performance straight up and undiluted by distance, for it was an intoxicating mix of music, motion, and magic that I’ve never encountered before.

There was so much evident happiness, so much exuberance, so much joy. Having performed in musical ensembles in my youth, I was aware that directors frequently instruct their charges to plaster smiles on their faces for the sake of the audience, but that was not the case with you. I know – I looked carefully. Each of you was bouncing and beaming, rows moving from back to front to back again, trading places as different performers were featured. Always there was a palatable sense that your visceral pleasure was authentic – your joy was so real! You were clearly enjoying your music, enjoying each other (director included), and enjoying simply having the opportunity share your collective gifts with an audience.

Of course, the music was superb on its own, but that was almost secondary to the elevated mood and transports of delight that your overall performance transmitted to your toe-tapping audience. We had to leave your Opry House appearance early, but later we stumbled across a group of you busking for change elsewhere at the Fair. “Thanks,” I muttered, dropping a buck in your open instrument case. It was all I could spare at that moment, but no matter. You responded with abundant smiles and nods, and your musical hilarity proceeded apace.

As I said, too bad my friend didn’t get a chance to see you before he preached. Indeed, I’d argue that your Fair performance itself constituted a kind of ersatz sermon – a lively musical explication of what it looks like to be fully given over to one's natural gifts which then leads to a gratuitous sharing of those gifts with others. 

Our world is rent by pain and confusion, but you seem to have located a deep-rooted vein of pure joy. Thank you for tapping it and passing it along. Please keep it up.

For more information about the Chelsea House Orchestra, follow this link to their website.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Blessed Luke Belludi (1200-1285)

Around my house, we joke about “salvation by association” – our facetious hope that we might ride on the eternal coattails of the holy men and women we’ve rubbed shoulders with over the years. Of course, salvific grace doesn’t work that way, but hanging around saints is certainly a prudent measure when it comes to pursuing sanctity for ourselves.

Biographer of saints Father Alban Butler certainly thought so when it comes to Luke Belludi, a disciple and dedicated companion of Anthony of Padua. “The devotion to St. Anthony of Padua is so widespread and of such an early date,” wrote Butler, “that we cannot be surprised if those more intimately associated with him have been irradiated with his glory.”

In truth, we know little of Blessed Luke aside from his connections with his more famous mentor and friend. What we do know is that Belludi grew up in a wealthy family near Padua, Italy, and that he received the habit of the Friars Minor from St. Francis himself in 1220 – the same year, it turns out, that St. Anthony entered the order. Not long after, Bl. Luke is said to have implored St. Anthony’s miraculous intervention on behalf of a mortally ill child.

Later, St. Francis directed the rhetorically gifted Anthony to preach missions among the heretics of northern Italy and southern France. Bl. Luke accompanied Anthony on these journeys, and returned with him to Padua in 1231. That year, Anthony’s relentless pace caught up with his sickly constitution, and he succumbed to an early death. Luke Belludi was among the friars who attended Anthony in his last agony, and afterwards he became the saint’s stalwart champion.
The Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua

Among other legacies, Belludi saw to the completion of the magnificent Paduan basilica in honor of St. Anthony, and it is there that Bl. Luke’s remains were put to rest in 1285 – in close proximity to the earthly remains of his saintly role model.

Luke Belludi’s own sanctity was confirmed by Pius XI in 1927, and his feast is celebrated among Franciscans on February 17.

A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.