Sunday, May 26, 2024

Catholic Higher Education and the Pursuit of Holiness

“Why do we educate our daughters? Briefly we educate them for exactly the reason for which
God made them: to know, to love, to serve, to glorify Him now and forever.” 

Friday, May 17, 2024

Of Shopping Carts and Service: A Pinning Reflection

I was honored to give a faculty reflection at the Saint Mary's College Nursing Pinning ceremony today. The graduating class is the first cohort of students I had the privilege of teaching since coming to Saint Mary's two years ago, and I wanted my reflection to be a gift to them and their families. I wanted it to be something really special and meaningful. 

So I ended up writing two. 

This was the first one, but I wasn't satisfied that it struck the right note. Neither was my wife, and I trust her opinion, so I buckled down and hammered out another (which I managed to deliver with a minimum of sobs, believe it or not). Still, I kinda' like this one, and I did write it for my students, so I'm going to post it here to make it easy to forward to them. 

Welcome honored guests, friends and family (moms and dads particularly), and, of course, you – Saint Mary’s College class of 2024 nursing graduates. Congratulations! You made it! 

Before I get rolling, a quick shout out to Torie Hardt’s mom. Thanks for teaching your kids to put away stray shopping carts in the grocery store parking lot. Hearing that from Torie last week was just the affirmation I needed as I prepared this address. 

Shopping carts, you ask? Parking lots? Stay with me here. Now, think back, if you will, to the height of Covid with social and economic upheaval, including disruptions in the labor market. Among other things, that meant that collecting shopping carts from the parking lot was often a lower priority for the grocery stores trying to keep shelves stocked. 

If you’re like me, you started bringing in your own shopping cart from the parking lot to make sure you’d have one. I generally tried to grab one that hadn’t made it into one of those stalls – the ones that roll around and scratch your paintjob on a windy day. 

Sure, I’d grumble: Couldn’t this person have walked ten feet to put away the cart? No matter – I grabbed it for myself. Then I started feeling guilty about bringing in my own parking lot stray when I saw others inside cart-less and stuck. I started bringing two – sometimes three or more when I was feeling ambitious – and then leaving the extras for others who hadn’t thought ahead. 

So that was one level of attitude change; here’s the next. That grumbling about the abandoned carts? I began imagining the folks who didn’t stow their carts properly, and I was convicted that some – most even – probably had good reason. Maybe a mom struggling with numerous kids; maybe an elderly woman for whom that extra ten feet of walking would be a real challenge. 

And, besides, who cares why those carts were loose or who’s responsible. I had the time; I had the energy. It’s a good thing to grab ‘em and bring them inside to benefit somebody else. I’m still doing it, but I’d like to think that my heart is softening little by little as well – that I’m more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to whomever left their carts adrift. 

So how is my guilt trip about shopping carts connected to nursing? Think of it like this: The shopping carts are like the job of nursing – the various tasks that nurses perform throughout the day, passing meds and doing assessments and all the charting, stuff like that. New nurses tend to focus on getting their tasks done – grabbing a cart for themselves, that is. Eventually, as they get more comfortable and confident in their skills and routines, they’ll begin grabbing carts for others – helping out nurses with busy patient assignments, for example, or going beyond the minimum in their bedside care.

But then, some nurses go even further: They manifest a generosity of spirit and a charitable demeanor that permeates all their interactions with others – patients and their families, for sure, but also fellow nurses and other staff as well. Even doctors! 

Let me give you a recent example: My chronic med-surg juniors do their clinicals on a local cancer unit. Toward the end of the semester, my student Allison told me about rounding on patients after morning report with her staff nurse, Amber. Entering one room, the two discovered that the patient’s I.V. had infiltrated and was leaking all over the bed. There was fluid and dried blood everywhere, and the patient was a mess.

Now, my kneejerk reaction might be to speculate why the night shift staff hadn’t caught this problem and dealt with it themselves. “My busy day is just beginning,” I might grumble to myself, “and now I have to make time for fixing somebody else’s problem.”

But Amber’s response? Without comment, Amber got right to work and enlisted my student to help. They pulled the I.V., cleaned up the patient, and changed the linens. Sure, they were delayed in their rounds, but it was the right thing to do – and they did it! No backbiting or criticism; no complaining or grumbling. It was a superb object lesson for my student in metaphorically grabbing an extra cart without judgment – just doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, even if you never get the credit.

And my student caught it – she remarked that Amber’s the kind of nurse she wants to be. That remark itself is a sign that she’s well on her way.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling a story about a junior BSN student instead of one of these graduating seniors, right? Here’s the thing: As a rule – and I can say this because I’ve had all of these graduates in my class, and half of them in my clinicals – as a rule, catching on to Amber’s demonstration of charity and generosity is standard fare for Saint Mary’s nursing students. I see it, we all see it – heck, the patients and staff nurses see it, too! Telling about Allison, in other words, is telling about all our students, these graduates included. 

It's the ethos of this place, of Saint Mary’s – its culture and legacy of selfless service, initiated by the Holy Cross Sisters nearly 200 years ago, and carried forward to the present. It impacts all our graduates, but it’s no surprise that it’s particularly evident in our nursing grads. 

In other words, they didn’t just learn how to be a nurse here at Saint Mary’s – you can do that a lot of places. No, they got way more, and they’ll spend a lifetime in caring for others – at the bedside as nurses, at home with their families, and who knows where else – with a grace that’s borne of this place’s unique dynamism. 

So, again, congratulations graduates. God bless you as you launch into your nursing future and everything that’ll go with it. And friends and family, moms and dads? Next time you’re at the grocery story and see a stray cart, say an extra prayer for your graduate and then bring it inside as an act of solidarity. You’ll both benefit, and the world will get one more cart’s worth kinder as a result.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Eddie L. Miller, PhD (1937-2024)

I don’t recall exactly how I drifted into the orbit of Dr. Ed Miller, but it was a fortuitous event. At the time, I was a graduate student in medieval history at the University of Colorado; Miller was a longtime philosophy professor there.

As a Catholic convert contemplating the priesthood, I was interested in theological and ecclesial matters – interests not shared by my fellow grad students nor my faculty. My penchant for things religious must’ve come to the attention of one of Dr. Miller’s acolytes, for somebody at some point invited me to participate in his Theology Forum – a loose, irregular pastiche of people that met occasionally to argue (amiably) about Christian themes and issues. 

One of the meetings I attended featured New Testament scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg who presented an Evangelical view of Biblical historicity. I boldly asked Dr. Miller if I could prepare a Catholic response, and Miller, who barely knew who I was, readily agreed – a tiny token of the freewheeling openness he both espoused and practiced. 

My subsequent talk was well received, and it led to my having a follow-up meeting with Dr. Blomberg himself. More importantly, it resulted in my becoming a regular at Theology Forum events, and eventually an Ed Miller disciple – a role with a very peculiar cast. 

You see, to be a Miller disciple was less about aligning oneself with a master's beliefs and worldview than it was about adopting the good professor's manner of evaluating such matters. Plus, it was about imitating his curiosity about…well, about everything. Like Kierkegaard autograph manuscripts, for example, and the history of the tragic Sand Creek Massacre. Dr. Miller wrote an entire book about the punctuation of John 1.3-4, and he'd ably persuade anyone who’d listen as to why it was an important question – even if, especially if, one didn't end up agreeing with his position. 

Indeed, convincing others to see things his way wasn’t the point. Miller was primarily interested in getting us to see at all – to see, to ask, to ponder, to be disturbed enough to seek answers. It was especially the disturbing that characterized his effect on people; it was the disturbing that kept us hanging around. 

Miller’s ruminative mien evoked what Walker Percy called the “eerie neck-pricklings” that one typically experiences reading A Canticle for Leibowitz – that is, those who encountered Ed Miller and his shtick experienced “a slight shiver, or annoyance, or nothing at all.” 

You either got it, in other words, or you didn’t. And it was hard to pinpoint precisely what “it” was. 

One day I was sitting in Dr. Miller’s office, ostensibly trying to identify grants and funding sources for Theology Forum, and Miller was leaning back in his office chair, smoking his pipe. There was an easy silence – no awkwardness, no pressure to fill the void with chatter. Then, without warning, Dr. Miller fired a volley: “Mr. Becker!” he exclaimed, gesturing with his pipe. “You’re absolutely right.” The pipe returned to his mouth and he re-entered his pensive zone. 

I was too startled to make any kind of sensible rejoinder, so I kept my peace. Later, when I tried to wheedle out of him what I was so damn right about, he refused to answer. 

And that refusal, I must say, was Dr. Miller’s greatest gift to me. It was a superlative act of validation all wrapped up in a shroud of mystery, a simultaneous testimonial and incitement, gratuitous praise that goaded me onward, upward. I still don’t know what prompted his affirming outburst that day, but I’m happy to occupy the disturbing space of wonder for the time being. 

God willing, I’ll have the chance to ask him about it again on the other side. I can see his wry smile now, and I’m pretty sure he’ll still balk at answering. All the better.

Rest in peace, Dr. Miller. Thanks for neck-pricklings. Please pray for me.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Saint Wannabes

Saints don’t have to found activist movements, start religious orders, or run colleges. They can also become saints by getting the kids to soccer practice, making dinner, and reading bedtime stories. 


Sunday, April 7, 2024

Dance Marathon II: Racing for Riley

Thanks for having us back. We loved being a part of this event last year, and it’s always a pleasure to support good works – and the work of Riley Children’s Hospital is certainly a good work. 

I love the NASCAR theme this year – a theme revolving around the idea of racing. It’s an apt theme in two ways. First, because of the other theme this week: Easter! You’ll recall on Easter Sunday hearing about Mary Magdalene reporting to the Apostles that she saw the risen Christ, and then both Peter and John raced to the tomb to see for themselves. 

Then, Easter Wednesday, we heard the story about the Road to Emmaus and those two disciples who encountered Jesus on the way, and then they raced back to Jerusalem to make their report. 

Finally, Easter Friday we saw the Apostles going fishing, and when they spied Jesus on the seashore, Peter jumped into the water and swam to shore, winning the race against the others in the boat.  

It was all about racing toward something – in this case, Someone – worth the effort. The prize was worth the sacrifice. 

And that’s the other reason racing is an apt theme today, because so much of the work of Riley Hospital is like a race – a race against the clock. Fortunately, most of us don’t need cutting-edge, advanced healthcare for our kids most the time, but when we do, we’re so blessed to have it right down the road. 

Take our first go-around with Riley Hospital. We brought our daughter Margaret to the doctor for what we thought was the flu, but it turned out to be peritonitis due to a ruptured appendix – and Meg was in serious shape. She was immediately transported to Riley where they drained the infection from her abdomen and, once she was stabilized, removed the appendix itself. 

Then there’s Nick. When he was born, we knew he had a heart murmur, but the echocardiogram did not indicate any need for immediate interventions. Later, when he was just a year old, he did begin showing signs of compromised cardiovascular function, and he was rushed to Riley Hospital for evaluation – and then, rushed into surgery. He had four repairs on his heart and spent some time in the pediatric ICU as he recovered…but look at him now. 

All because of Riley, and we, like so many, are so grateful. Thanks, Riley Hospital, for being there so close when we have to race for help. And thanks to you, all you dance marathoners, for helping Riley help folks like us – like Nick.

But don't take my word for it. Here's Nick to tell his own story!

Nick was privileged to share about his life at the 2024 Saint Mary's College Riley Dance Marathon on Saturday, April 6. The annual event raises funds for Riley Hospital for Children, which provides critical life-saving treatments and healthcare services for kids from our region. For more information or to make a donation, follow this link.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Springs of Salvation & Safety Precautions

With joy you will draw water from the fountains of salvation (Is.12.3).

This is a PSA for anyone who attended the Easter Vigil last night at St. Matthew Cathedral. I was one of the cantors, and I got to sing four of the seven Psalms. 

Maybe you noticed during the second reading that I kept leaning over to my left. Maybe you noticed that I left the sanctuary during the fourth reading and came back during the fifth with a fistful of paper towels. Maybe you noticed that I was a bit distracted as I intoned the fifth and seventh Psalms. 

Here's the deal (or "tea," as they say), not that you care: As I sat down after the first Psalm, my alb knocked over my uncapped water bottle, and a sea of Kroger-brand purified H2O suddenly materialized on the marble floor. 

Damn. I was sitting up in front of a fairly full house. It was pitch black except for the reader's lamp, and the lectern was right in front of me, so all eyes were fixed in our direction. For liturgical decorum's sake, I could've just left the puddle alone, but my nursing conscience kicked in: A pool of water? On a marble floor? And people of varying ages and mobility possibly moving through the area? No way.

So I did the best I could under the circumstances. Sorry if my fussing about was a distraction to you. Sorry to Anna, the sacristan, who had to clean up the mess I left behind. Sorry, too, to Jon, my co-cantor, who was no doubt bewildered by my strange behavior during the solemn liturgy. And I'm sorry if the damp floor resulted, God forbid, in anyone taking a spill (pun intended). I was glad that there were no messages from law firms on our answering machine this a.m. 

Finally, I could use this moist anecdote to segue into an Eastery discourse on baptism and its attendant risks – that allowing yourself to be splashed with salvation means peril, suffering, and death to self – but that would be a metaphorical stretch, so I'll skip it. You're welcome.

Happy Easter! Alleluia!

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Nursing School, Prayer, and Avoiding Burnout

I'm teaching a new Nursing 101 course at Saint Mary's College. It's designed to help sophomores in their transition from classroom to clinical next year. Recently I solicited anonymous feedback from my students, which resulted in this (edited) online announcement.

A few of you turned in notes with comments and questions the other day, and I intend to follow up accordingly. However, two of the notes are worth addressing sooner rather than later, for they overlap and concern our theme for next week. 

The first concerns prayer. "I'm trying to be patient and respectful," one of you wrote, "but I don't understand why we are praying at the beginning of every class." That's a fair question, especially if you haven't yet encountered prayer in the classroom at Saint Mary's. 

But, as you know, SMC is a Catholic institution, and so one can expect that the culture on campus, both in and out of the classroom, will reflect Catholic values and practices to one degree or another. Obviously, there are many at SMC (students, faculty, staff) who aren't Catholic (or even Christian, or religious in any way), and it goes without saying that they are all valued members of the community. Be assured that there will never be pressure or incentive for anyone to become Catholic or adopt Catholic perspectives on anything, in my class or any SMC class.

Nonetheless, a majority of SMC students are Catholic, and they've come to SMC, in part, because it's Catholic. They (and their parents) anticipated that an SMC education would include an integrated Catholic vision of various subjects of study among other, often competing visions, and that there would be room and even encouragement to experience growth in the Faith. The faculty who aren't Catholic might provide less of those things, but it's reasonable that your Catholic faculty would provide more. 

That's what Pope St. John Paul II meant when he wrote that while all professors at Catholic colleges are to be inspired "by the principles of an authentically human life," Catholic professors are called to a higher standard: "Christians among the teachers are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom" (Ex Corde Ecclesia, #22).

I know I don't do it perfectly, but that's what I'm striving to do, and prayer is at the heart of it.

Which brings me to the second note: "What are some ways to prevent nurse burnout," somebody asked. "I am worried since this is always a topic of conversation in healthcare." True enough, which is why we'll be talking about "self-care" next week, strategizing for how to build up your emotional and mental reserves as you head into clinicals next year and your nursing career after that. Prayer can play a key role in that regard. In fact, for those who follow a faith tradition, I'd say it's absolutely vital.

Indeed, I know our guest speaker next week will be talking about prayer along with meditation and other self-care practices, but it's also good to keep in mind that many of your patients may actually seek your prayerful support, which can be an important part of spiritual care. "Regardless of the faith tradition or practices of the patient, family, or nurse," suggest the authors of an article in RN Journal, "the moments taken to pray may provide comfort and renewal for all present."

So, by all means, pray along with me when we pray in class if you wish, or else use it as an opportunity to learn about SMC's Catholic heritage and the ways in which Catholics express their faith. For further conversation about this matter (or anything else), please don't hesitate to make an appointment or come by during my office hours. I'd love to hear from you!