Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Of Moses’ Horns, St. Jerome, and the Last Judgment


“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor” (2 Cor 3.12-13).
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Monday, July 1, 2019

Note to Amber: The Stuff of Nursing


When I started teaching nursing 15 years ago, I was still a pretty new nurse myself. What's more, in the middle of my first year as a nursing instructor, my infant son required emergency surgery, and I had to scramble to keep everything together. 

Somehow, despite my inexperience and stressful life circumstances, the first cohort of students I taught that year made it through, and they went on to become successful nurses. Some of them—wonder of wonders!—are still friendly with me and keep in touch. 

One of them is Amber. Recently I stumbled across a note I wrote Amber soon after she graduated and started her nursing career. With Amber's permission, I'm posting it here unedited. Maybe it'll be an encouragement to nursing students and new nursing faculty alike.
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I threw you and your colleagues to the wolves, Amber, but still you all survived.

Fundamentals of nursing was a whole new world for both of us that year—for you as a student, for me as an instructor. When we got to clinicals at Elkhart General, we all learned some significant things the hard way!

Still, with God’s help, you persevered, only to be shell-shocked by med-surg the following spring, as taught by a very green instructor. The course content was challenging enough, but you had the additional challenge of trying to follow someone teaching it for the very first time. Space helmets, whoopee cushions, and rubber chickens helped some, but they couldn’t make up completely for all the chaos.

And, still, you survived.

Clearly, if God brought you through the wildness of that first year of nursing school, He really wants you to do this!

I’ll never forget, Amber, how you and your colleagues cared for my family that fall semester—how you gave up your time (and money!) to spend an evening with the kids so that Nancy and I could go out; how you tidied up the house and did the laundry that same night; how you worried and prayed and were patient with me when Nicholas required emergency heart surgery.

And that’s the real nursing stuff, the true nursing stuff. Sure, you’ve learned all that other stuff you need to be an RN—all the chemistry and pathophysiology and skills—no question! To me, however, what really makes you a nurse is what you demonstrated from the very beginning: A love for Jesus that spills over and splashes everybody around you.

Dorothy Day wrote, “When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees Christ, His Son, in us and loves us. And so we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them. There can never be enough of it.” You were doing that before you were a nurse, and now you can do it as a nurse. May God richly bless you as you move forward with your profession, Amber, and may He continue to bless others through your vocation of love.
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Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Saint for Pirate-y Things: St. Symeon of Syracuse


Real pirates, both past and present, aren’t amiable. They rape and pillage and kill. They’re nothing to laugh about.

Nevertheless, growing up, I thought of pirates as chummy and amusing when I thought about them at all. And I pretty much only thought about them when my family made its annual summer trek to Southern California for sun, swim, and Disneyland.

“Pirates of the Caribbean” was merely a ride back then (this was way before Johnny Depp), and the buccaneers who populated that ride were all smiles and joviality and “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.” I imagine it’s the same jokey image of pirates that younger generations adopted after repeated exposure to the VeggieTales Silly Song starring Larry the Cucumber and friends. “Well, I've never plucked a rooster and I'm not too good at ping-pong,” sings Larry the slothful swashbuckler. Heh-heh, pirates for kids – you gotta’ love ‘em!

It's an association that's in keeping with this hagiographic curiosity: St. Nicholas (as in Santa Claus) is not only a patron saint of children, but also the patron saint of pirates – yet only repentant pirates I’d think. You’d hope that saints wouldn’t be patronizing practicing pirates, right?

Right, although that raises a question: What if you’re dealing with one of the practicing kind? What if you’re sailing the Seven Seas and you get attacked – and it’s not VeggieTale attackers? Since St. Nick is busy with his pirates in rehab, who’s your go-to intercessor going to be?

Some might suggest St. Albinus of Angers, the 6th-century French abbot and bishop who used to ransom members of his flock who’d been snatched by pirates trawling the Loire River. However, prayers to St. Albinus would only make sense if you’d been taken by surprise and were already in fetters. What about a saintly somebody to plead your cause if pirates are just about to board your vessel – yikes! – and you’re hoping to escape unscathed?

That, my friend, is the purview of a saint whose feast is observed today (June 1): Symeon of Syracuse (also known as Symeon of Trier and Symeon of Mt. Sinai). Born in Syracuse, Sicily, around 970, Symeon’s mother was Calabrian, but his father was a Greek military officer, and so the lad was sent to Constantinople for his education. Eventually, Symeon decided upon a life in religion, was ordained a deacon in the Holy Land, and entered the ancient monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

In 1027, Symeon was charged by his abbot to travel to France to collect alms promised by a nobleman, but he was waylaid on the Nile near Alexandria by vicious (that is, decidedly not Disneyland) pirates. Despite the fact that the brigands wiped out the ship’s crew, Symeon somehow managed to escape – pfft! just like that – and he landed in Antioch where he received aid. After that, Symeon made a return trip to the Holy Land and visited Rome, and by the time he finally reached France, the nobleman was dead and the alms were never collected.

All that adventuring took its toll on Symeon, and he decided to skip the return trip to Egypt. Instead, in 1030, the settled as a recluse hermit in Trier, Germany, at the invitation of the archbishop there. Symeon was enclosed in a tower where he lived a life of prayer and fasting until his natural death on June 1, 1035.

By all means, then, if you’re setting out for a leisurely cruise or a Gilligan-esque “three hour tour,” keep St. Symeon in mind and be ready to enlist his prayers in case you spy a Jolly Roger on the horizon.

Landlubbers can invoke him as well, of course, although the pirates we face today tend to be less bloodthirsty and more given to subtler forms of plunder. “Aargh, me hearties! Your credit card interest is 18% and payment is past due!”

St. Symeon, pray for us. Ahoy!
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

King St. Brychan of Wales (5th century)


If you check Catholic Online for the saints of April, you’ll find this curious entry for today: “St. Brychan. King of Wales, undocumented but popular saint. Brychan is credited with having twenty-four children, all saints.”

So, we have a holy royal with no official pedigree, but an ostensible following – both in terms of fans as well as blessed progeny. It's a tantalizing hagiographic tidbit that invites further investigation.

The cloud that obscures the true biography of this acclaimed Celtic figure is virtually impenetrable, but his name sure is linked to all kinds of history and piety. The story goes that Brychan was an Irish prince that landed in South Wales as a youth after his family took charge of the kingdom of Garthmadrun – now known as Brycheiniog in honor of the saint. After his father’s death, Brychan inherited the mantle of leadership and was said to have developed into a godly and just ruler, as well as a firm supporter of the Church.

He was also a fierce opponent when threatened and tenacious in combat. It is said that a rival, King Gwynllyw, sought to wed Brychan’s beloved daughter, Gwladys, but that Brychan turned him down. After Princess Gwynllyw was kidnapped, a tremendous battle between the two monarchs ensued which required the intervention of King Arthur himself to produce a peace. St. Gwladys did go on to marry King Gwynllyw (also a saint), and, according to a 11th-century chronicle, their children included yet another holy personage, the abbot St. Cadoc.

And that’s the thing about Brychan’s legacy: It’s brimming with saints. They’re practically strewn about in Brychan’s story like plush occasional pillows in a redecorated living room – here, there, so many that you no longer notice them. It’s mainly his many saintly children, borne of his three (or four) successive marriages, not to mention his saintly grandchildren and on down the luminous line. There’s Ss. Adwen and Keyne, Wenna and Menefrida. Even his childhood tutor, Drichian, was known to have been a saint.

On the other hand, it’s also likely that some folks in the Middle Ages were inclined to associate their lineage with Brychan’s as a shortcut to pious respectability. So many, in fact, that although the number 24 (as quoted by Catholic Online) is the most commonly mentioned, there’s really no way of telling how many kids were sired by the king – 50? 60? Who knows?

Yet even that fudging of family trees is a backhanded compliment to the Brychan narrative, regardless of how accurate it is. It’s been said that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and it appears that such was assumed to be the case with King Brychan – or at least his name. Why else would so many want to be in on his heritage? He might not be a canonized – or official – Saint, but Brychan certainly has left his mark of sanctity on the British Isles and beyond.

As befits a man associated with so much godliness, the annals tell that he eventually surrendered his crown to one of his sons and lived out his remaining years as a hermit. Although his April 6 commemoration might be unofficial, he can hardly be overlooked on all the feast days of his saintly descendants, both real and imagined.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

St. John Ogilvie (1579-1615)


You gotta’ love a sense of humor on the scaffold.

Take St. Thomas More, for instance, who famously jested with his executioner. “My neck is very short,” said More from the chopping block. “Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry for saving thine honesty.” Court records also note that “he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had committed no Treason.”

Today is the memorial of another such saintly joker in extremis: St. John Ogilvie, S.J.

Born in Scotland, Ogilvie grew up in a devout Calvinist home. His education in continental Benedictine and Jesuit institutions afforded him broad exposure to the glories of the ancient Church, and he eventually was persuaded that Protestant critiques of Catholicism weren’t sound.

At age seventeen, Ogilvie became a Catholic, and he joined the Jesuits a few years later. He was ordained in 1610, and, after serving in various capacities on the continent for a few years, Ogilvie finally received permission to return to his homeland and surreptitiously minister to the persecuted Catholic minority there.

Fr. Ogilvie, disguised as a horse trader, arrived back in Scotland in 1613. He immediately began his underground service to the tiny Catholic flock around Glasgow, secretly saying Mass and administering the sacraments despite the threat of imprisonment and death. Just a year later, an informer, posing as a would-be convert, betrayed the Jesuit to the authorities. Ogilvie was arrested, tried, tortured, and sentenced to hang.

There’s a hint in the trial proceedings that Ogilvie held his precarious predicament lightly. When interrogated about his loyalty to King James as head of the English church, the Jesuit retorted that he’d no more acknowledge a king who played “runagate from God” than he would “this old hat.” Then, just before mounting the gallows, a clergyman asked him if he was afraid to die, Ogilvie shot back, “I fear death as much as you do your dinner.”

G.K. Chesterton observed that the “the martyr is noble, exactly because…he sets his heart outside himself.” Maybe it’s that selflessness, borne of a martyr’s total surrender of self to God, which also makes possible his mirth.

Fr. John Ogilvie, S.J., was executed by hanging at Glasgow Cross on March 10, 1615. Pope St. Paul VI canonized him in 1976.
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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Blessed Tommaso da Olera (1563-1631)


Sometimes holy people are declared saints right after they die. Take Benedict Joseph Labre for instance. Within minutes of his death, the youth of Rome were running through the streets shouting, “The saint is dead! The saint is dead!” – an assessment later affirmed by unanimous acclaim.

On the other hand, sometimes canonizations grind on and on...and on. Like Joan of Arc, whose sainthood wasn’t recognized until 500 years after her death.

Brother Tommaso da Olera’s cause falls into the latter class, which is in line with other delays that pepper his life story.

Born in 1563 in northern Italy, Tommaso labored as shepherd in his youth to help support his family. With no resources and no schools nearby, he missed out on an education, but eventually he did acquire a rudimentary literacy after joining the Capuchins at age 17.

Tommaso flourished in his vocation and advanced quickly in the spiritual life. A collection of his mystical writings, Fuoco d’amore (“Fire of Love”), was published 50 years after his death, and it reveals a sublime grasp of ascetical theology. It was among Pope St. John XXIII’s favorite spiritual works, and the Pontiff had portions of it read to him on his death bed.

The humble friar’s daily tasks included washing pots, collecting alms, and visiting the sick, but he also joyfully shared the Gospel with everyone he met. His reputation for holiness spread, and in 1619 Archduke Leopold V of Austria requested Tommaso’s assistance in confronting the spread of Lutheranism. Barely literate, Tommaso avoided disputation. Instead, with great success, he simply witnessed to Christ’s impassioned love for his Church.

Br. Tommaso died in Innsbruck in 1631, and it took another 356 years before Pope John Paul II proclaimed the friar Venerable in 1987. Pope Benedict XVI authorized Tommaso's beatification in 2012, and the beatification Mass was finally celebrated by a representative of Pope Francis in 2013.

Franciscans observe Bl. Tommaso's feast on May 4.
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A shorter version of this reflection originally appeared in
Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville