Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Spirit of Nursing

Nursing is a high calling, one that brings us to the very threshold of heaven. It's a work that is as much a benefit and blessing to nurses as it is to the recipients of their care.

How so? What is it that drives us to be nurses? 

Crazy hours; tiring, sometimes even exhausting work (and that not only physically, but mentally and emotionally exhausting as well); a huge amount of responsibility; innumerable multi-faceted and multi-layered demands that stretch the concept of multi-tasking to the extremes of human endurance.

So why do we do it?

Well, starting with the obvious, there’s the paycheck, and it's true that compensation for nurses has significantly improved over the last generation. No one’s going to get rich being a nurse, but certainly you can make a comfortable enough living, and job security is virtually guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

O.K., there’s the paycheck, but is that enough? Well, there’s also a prestige attached to nursing and a real opportunity for professional advancement. Survey after survey shows that the American people trust nurses more than any other profession, and for good reason: The kind of people who make it in nursing are the kind of people you want in your corner no matter what the crisis or problem. 

And as a career, the sky’s the limit for nurses. We all start off at the bedside, but after that, we can go in countless directions: Research, management, entrepreneurship, a host of specialty areas, advance practice nursing – even education! With all that opportunity, there really shouldn’t be such a thing as a bored nurse!

So, a paycheck and professional excellence – that’s a pretty good combination for most career paths.  But for the Christian nurse, that’s only the start, for the heart of Christian nursing – the soul of Christian nursing, as it were – is an encounter with Christ Himself.

Jesus Himself refers to this encounter in His parable of the sheep and the goats: 
The King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
And so, the young girl dying from cancer; the elderly man in the nursing home with no family; the parents of the child in the ICU; the frightened woman facing a major surgery – are not all of these Christ? When we care for them, aren’t we ministering to the Lord Himself?  Aren’t we on Holy Ground?

I want to share with you my nursing hero. Most of us who choose nursing as a profession are inspired by at least one nurse-hero in our lives – maybe a mom or an aunt who was a nurse; maybe a friend, or maybe the example of a compassionate nurse who cared for us or our loved ones. Although the example of many nurses influenced my decision to go into nursing, the one that stands out is a woman I never met – a woman who died almost 80 years ago: Rose Hawthorne.

Rose was the daughter of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and grew up in a privileged home. Following a very profound conversion later in life, she determined to demonstrate her love for Christ through some form of service – but not just any service would do. For Rose, it had to be the hardest work, the least desirable; a work that was commensurate with the depth of her new Christian commitment.

At the time, cancer was a disease not very well understood, and those afflicted with it were shunned – much as lepers in biblical times and throughout history. People whose cancer didn’t respond to available treatments were considered hopeless, and they were often relegated to die lonely, miserable deaths.

So, Rose took a nursing course, went to the poorest section of New York City, and began taking in and caring for the indigent who were dying from cancer. In effect, she started a kind of hospice in her own apartment.

And what was this courageous woman’s philosophy? Why did she do this thing? Here are her own words:
I have set out to love everyone. I do very little, and am as stupid as I can be about it. But even this imperfect effort is so beneficent in being according to God’s plan, and, in so far as it goes, free from selfishness and sloth, that each person coming into contact with it is refreshed. I myself tremble to see the power, even in me, of a little of the right spirit. It is as if God brushed me aside each moment saying, ‘I am here.’
This, for me, was electric. Here was something I could dedicate myself to! Here was a work – an employment – that could be more than just a job; it was a work that could make me a direct instrument of the Lord’s love and mercy every day!

So, my friends, congratulations! You have reached a significant milestone on your road to a nursing career – a career that is both financially and professionally rewarding. 

But allow me to remind you – and those of your family and friends that are here gathered with you to celebrate your accomplishment – that your chosen career path is also one that will afford you many, many encounters with Our Lord Jesus in the face of the sick and the suffering. Watch for those encounters; do not neglect them; humbly embrace them and take full advantage of them. I assure you, they will be your greatest, your richest rewards.

This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (15 January 2005). A version also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Our Living Icon

It’s 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and Nicky is shuffling into our bedroom. My wife has gotten less sleep than me, so I take Nick by the hand and we head downstairs.

“You get your newspaper, Papa,” Nick says, “and I’ll get a book.”

It’s our routine. I grab the paper from outside, scan the headlines, and await Nicky’s arrival with his chosen volume. As a father of seven, I don’t like to pass up opportunities for one-on-one time with my kids, especially Nick. He’s a five-year-old towhead with a mischievous grin and clear blue eyes. He likes Van Morrison and They Might Be Giants, The Wiggles and old Get Smart reruns. He has a great sense of humor, is quick to hug, loves to chase robins in the yard, and waves and smiles at total strangers.

Oh. And Nick has Down Syndrome.

Nick’s condition came as a surprise to us the day he was born—we usually avoid prenatal testing and ultrasounds. But once the midwife put Nick into Nancy’s arms, we could see the distinctive shape of his eyes and knew something was different—an observation confirmed by the midwife moments later.

As we sat on our bed, gazing at our newborn son, we were quiet, but it was a quiet borne of reflection, not grief. His physical condition meant nothing to us with regards to his inherent worth and dignity, with regards to his identity as our son. Those things were a given.

The Down Syndrome did, however, open up an entirely new spectrum of parenting for us. Nick has five older siblings, but he is our first child with special needs. And although I’m a nurse and a nursing instructor, at that point I had little experience with Down’s, so I knew we had some learning to do and some extra challenges ahead of us.

The first challenge came the very day Nick was born. Down Syndrome (DS) is a chromosomal anomaly that is associated with a variety of health problems, including congenital heart defects, so our midwife urged us to get Nick checked out immediately. We took her advice, and instead of Nancy and baby luxuriating together for a couple days, we all had to jump into the van and head over to the doctor for our son’s first exam. This was a disruption to our normal post-partum routine, to be sure, but no big deal.

The greater challenge came later, at the conclusion of the doctor’s examination. He said that, yes, Nick’s physical features were consistent with a Down’s diagnosis, although only a blood test could confirm it, and, yes, Nick should get an echocardiogram that day to rule out serious heart problems. But then he got very serious and made vague references to our “options” regarding our family and Nick’s future.

Our options? What, institutionalize him? Put him up for adoption? We were shocked—this was a Catholic doctor we were dealing with! Instead of encouraging us as parents of a newborn with special needs, he was almost apologetic. The unknowns associated with DS notwithstanding, we were giddy God had blessed us with Nick and excited about this new addition to our family. The Down’s didn’t define him then, nor does it now. Nicky is just one of the gang—with special needs, to be sure, but no less loved or valued. The doctor’s ambivalence about Nick confused us, even scared us a bit.

Turns out, we were right to be a little scared, for the world at large has little use for Nick. His very existence is considered by many to be a mistake, even an outright offense. Our society, you see, does in fact define Nicholas in terms of his Down’s, particularly the accompanying physical problems and developmental delays. So, to the world Nick is a problem that we could have easily dispensed with before he was born.

Babies diagnosed prenatally with DS are routinely aborted in the US today, with estimates running as high as 90%. In other parts of the world, the rate is even higher, and some predict the complete eradication of DS babies thanks to improved prenatal diagnosis and legal abortion. These statistical realities send a message loud and clear to families with Down’s children: You messed up when you brought your child into the world.

It’s a message both infuriating and depressing to those of us who know such children as glorious Imago Dei’s. We like to think of Nick as our little living icon—a window into the heart of God—and a reminder that we’re not put here on earth primarily to be productive, but to love and be loved.

A version of this story appeared on the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association's FaithND website. It is excerpted from a longer essay, “When Healers are Expected to Kill,” which appeared in the spring 2009 issue of The Sign of Peace, Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Blessed Frederick Bachstein and Companions

We are in the midst of a Year of Faith launched by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2012—an auspicious twin anniversary, marking 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and 20 years since the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It follows that we have been encouraged to re-read (or read for the first time) the Council documents and the Catechism, and to internalize them in a deeply personal way. But we can’t stop at reading. In fact, the beatification of a group of Franciscan martyrs just two days into the Year of Faith set the tone for the entire observance, underscoring the Pope Benedict’s call for an “authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.”

Bohemia was a hotbed of popular unrest in the early 1600s, as Calvinists and followers of Jan Hus battled with the minority Catholic population for political and spiritual hegemony. Rudolf II, King of Bohemia and a nominal Catholic, sought to strengthen his hand by inviting the Order of Friars Minor to take over the ancient Church of St. Mary of the Snows in Prague. In 1607, Father Frederick Bachstein and a group of friars from all over Europe traveled to Prague and set about restoring the church and ministering to the Catholic population.

Through their preaching, refutation of heresy, and especially their charitable deeds, the Franciscans were able to strengthen the Catholic faithful and turn the tide of popular sentiment against the Calvinist and Hussite rebels. This precipitated a backlash, and the Protestant leaders stirred up resentment toward the expatriate friars and suspicion regarding their work.

On Shrove Tuesday, February 15, 1611, a violent crowd descended on St. Mary of the Snows intent on ridding the community of the meddling foreigners. Not content with destroying the church and its furnishings, the mob turned on the monastery’s inhabitants, showing no mercy. As the friars prayed and partook of the Eucharist, the attackers burst into the enclosure and used every kind of weapon to cut down the defenseless missionaries.

The attack took no more than three hours, but when it was done, the church and monastery were in ruins, and fourteen friars were dead. Their remains were left unburied by the crowd, but the local faithful returned to the church a few days later to reverently wrap the remains in canvas and bury them secretly in the transept.

Pope Benedict did not attend the beatification ceremony in Prague last October, but he called attention to it in his Angelus message the next day. “They were killed because of their faith,” he said. “They are the first persons who have been beatified in the Year of Faith, and they are martyrs: they remind us that believing in Christ also means suffering with him and for him.”

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

To Moses Emmanuel, As You Are Baptized

I'm writing you this note on your baptismal day, Moses. Someday, your mom and dad can read it to you; in time, you'll be able to read it to yourself. And I hope you will read it once in a while, especially when this day rolls around every year. It's a very special day, for you and for me.

Moses Saved from the Water, Raphael (1518-19)
For you, of course, it's your second birthday—the day you're born again and marked with the sign of a new spiritual life, the life of Jesus. You belonged to Him before, but now you belong
to Him in a very particular way. In fact, you now have His own life inside you, and He will always be with you. I hope you get to know Jesus very well.

It’s a special day for me, too, because I have the honor of being your godfather. This is no small thing, to be a godfather. It's hard enough to be a human father, and I'm still learning to do that. Your own dad will tell you it's difficult, and you never quite know if you're getting it right—but that's OK, and we love getting up and trying to get it right every day.

But being a godfather is a bit different because I'm an outsider. Your mom and dad and God loved you into existence, and they've been loving you ever since. That love will sustain you as you grow—day in, day out, every day, every hour, every second. And, like God, your mom and dad will be with you everywhere, and their thoughts will never drift far away from you. That's the way moms and dads are.

Godparents are like that, but not so much. I have my own family, and they keep me pretty busy, so I won't be part of your everyday life. Certainly I’ll be praying for you daily, and I hope I will see you a lot, but most of your growing up will happen when I’m not around.

Still, I have a part to play, and your mom and dad have entrusted me with a tremendous responsibility: To help you as you make your way on the road of faith. In a sense, I’ll be walking alongside you on that road, offering guidance and assistance when necessary, and always encouragement and spiritual support.
The Baptism of Christ, del Verrocchio and da Vinci (ca. 1475)

To do all that requires, first of all, that I be making some progress on that road myself—something I should be doing anyway, and something your mom and dad apparently assume I'm doing, or else they wouldn't have given me this job!  In any case, becoming your godfather makes me want to do it more and better. With God’s help, I will.

And with God’s help, we’ll both grow closer to Jesus—a funny idea, if you think about it, because now that you’re baptized, He lives in you just like He lives in me. How much closer can we get to Him?

I’m still figuring it out, dear godson, but I’m finding it’s a lot like a tree, or an ocean, or the sky. Next time it's a clear night, go out with your dad and look at the stars. No matter how often you do it, you see something new, don't you? And the sky is around us all the time, pretty much unchanging. We're the ones who change as we grow, and we see more.

Jesus won't change as He settles in our souls, but we will. We'll see more, hopefully every day. That's my prayer for you. Please pray the same for me.

A version of this story appeared on
MyYearofFaith.com, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Random Scourge of Violence

Scourging is having a renaissance—at least in the prayer petitions on Sunday mornings: “…for an end to the scourge of abortion, we pray to the Lord,” and “…for an end to the scourge of war, we pray to the Lord.” 

Such uses of the term “scourge” have a good precedent in the Church. Pope John Paul II used it in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae in his plea for an end to all violence: “Today this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenceless. In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale” (EV 3). 

As if to buttress and expand his predecessor’s appeal, Pope Benedict XVI himself used the word in his 2007 Easter Urbi et Orbi address: “How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world!... I am thinking of the scourge of hunger, of incurable diseases, of terrorism and kidnapping of people, of the thousand faces of violence which some people attempt to justify in the name of religion, of contempt for life, of the violation of human rights and the exploitation of persons.” 

But what exactly does “scourge” mean, especially when used in these ways?

Caravaggio, Flagellazione di Cristo (ca. 1607)
Technically, a scourge is a whip that was utilized in the ancient world for punishment and torture. Most scourges had numerous lashes, and frequently each lash had a knot or some hard article attached to its end. As a result, scourging generally resulted in the literal flailing of a victim’s back, with each lash catching and then ripping away chunks of flesh. 

The most famous scourging in history is the one Jesus endured—an event we recall and contemplate every time we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. This violent humiliation of our Lord at the hands of his captors is recorded in all four Gospels, and yet it is passed over as if it were but a prelude to the execution that was to follow. Nevertheless, it was unquestionably an excruciating ordeal, as every stroke of the whip brought new injury and introduced new pain to random areas of the Lord’s body.

And it’s this randomness of the scourge’s assault that makes it a particularly apt metaphor for both war and abortion, for both strike down human life without regard to identity or threat. This is absolutely true in the case of abortion—a reality Pope John Paul emphasized in his encyclical: 
The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby's cries and tears (EV58). 
The anonymity and complete vulnerability of abortion’s primary victim highlights the act’s utter irrationality. The baby—a gift from God and an icon of hope, no matter what the trying circumstances of her conception—is destroyed as if it were a rabid animal or a knife-wielding attacker. 

The insanity of modern warfare and terrorism is equally unnerving, particularly with regards to the comparable anonymity and vulnerability of its youngest victims. Consider the sons and daughters of our own courageous soldiers who will be orphaned as the result of war’s random violence. Consider, too, the sons and daughters of countless combatants and innocent civilians who will be left similarly stranded when parents are caught in the line of fire. Not to be forgotten are the high number of fatalities among the young themselves when the tides of violence sweep into war-torn areas, engulfing entire communities and often for no strategic purpose. 

Too easily do we dismiss such killings as “collateral damage” and “the cost of war.” Every human being is a child of God, created in His own image and extravagantly loved by Him. If a country’s efforts to secure its own interests and safety cause it to relativize the inestimable worth of human life, then that country is engaged in a morally dubious enterprise at best—a reprehensible and evil offense at worst. An army that heedlessly slaughters innocent children in the course of pursuing military objectives cannot possibly be fulfilling the will of God, no matter what justifications are offered. The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, puts it this way: 
The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.” Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions (CCC 2312-13). 
The scourge—universally feared in the ancient world, widely embraced in the modern world via the Culture of Death. Next time we meditate on the Scourging at the Pillar, let’s remember in a special way the victims of random violence throughout the world. Let’s pray, too, for an end to all war, especially the war on the unborn.

A version of this story appeared in Sign of Peace, Catholic Peace Fellowship

Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming a Better Catholic

Unsolicited question from a local Catholic high school student:
How do you help kids become better Catholics? What do you do to carry out the mission of the Church as the Director of Religious Education? 

My answer:
Our job as religious educators is not so much helping kids become better Catholics, but rather helping parents help their kids become better Catholics—or at least better catechized Catholics anyway.

St. Viator of Lyons (d. 390), catechist and martyr
St. Viator of Lyons (d. 390), catechist & martyr
Ultimately, it's the Holy Spirit's job to help us become better Catholics, but even He can only do so much if we refuse to cooperate. Hence, the need for solid formation in the faith and good catechesis—a fancy Greek word for religious education.

And the party primarily responsible for that formation and catechesis? The parents. Religious educators only serve to assist parents in their critical responsibility of raising their children in the faith. In religious ed classes for those not in Catholic schools, participants have contact with their catechists maybe once or twice a week. Kids in Catholic schools? Maybe once a day, along with an integrated Catholic perspective throughout the curriculum hopefully.

But regardless of type and amount of formal instruction, the real place young people are formed in their faith is at home, where they see moms and dads, older siblings, and other family members putting that faith into action. All the classroom instruction in the world won't mean a thing unless it's accompanied by exposure to what it looks like in real life—especially in the real lives of those we love and respect and look up to.

St. Charles Lwanga (1860/65-1886), Ugandan catechist and martyr
That's the thing: Catholicism is not a set of beliefs and doctrines that you need to learn as if you were preparing for a test. Instead, it's a way of life that has to be witnessed and adopted and lived. Jesus Himself said that He was the way, the truth, and the life—that's literally true. He is literally the way we must go; He is the path we must follow and trod upon. Far from being just a mystical guru teaching us about love and peace and goodness, He is instead love itself, peace itself, goodness itself. We don't learn about Jesus in Christianity; we become Jesus.

So, my role as a DRE? I try to recruit catechists (teachers) who have that same vision and are trying to live it out themselves—that's the first requirement. Curriculum, teaching strategies, classroom management, and all that technical stuff is way down on the list. What matters first and foremost is that a potential catechist affirms the Faith of the Church and aspires to live it outthat he or she has embraced Christ and is striving to grow in that embrace.

If I can identify and recruit enough people like that to lead our religious education classes every fall, then the rest will follow. Say a prayer for us as we look forward to finding additional people like that for next year, and please consider becoming a catechist yourself!

A version of this story appeared on MyYearofFaith.com, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Baroness. Pauper. Wife and mother. Celibate. Activist. Contemplative. Catherine de Hueck Doherty's tumultuous life included all these elements and more. Like Francis of Assisi, whom she sought to emulate as a Franciscan tertiary, Catherine was single-minded in her quest for God, and the force of her personality drew along many in her wake.

Photo of Catherine taken by Thomas Merton (1941)
Catherine was born in 1896 into Russian minor nobility. As a young schoolgirl, she displayed her innate piety when she tried to clean away Christ’s bloody wounds on the crucifix. Raised in the Orthodox Church and educated largely in Catholic schools, she grew up breathing with both lungs of the Church, East and West. Eventually Catherine became a Catholic, but she never lost her love for eastern Christianity. 

At age 15, Catherine married her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution denied the couple an idyllic married life in society’s upper-crust. Instead, the de Huecks left Russia for Ontario, Canada, where Catherine gave birth to a son, George. The upheaval in their lives hit Boris hard, and he fell into dissolute living. The de Hueck marriage unraveled and was subsequently annulled, leaving Catherine a single mother in a foreign land. She leaned heavily on her faith during this time, and even as she found success as a writer and lecturer, Catherine felt the Lord preparing her for a special work.

An immigrant and outsider herself, Catherine knew the pain of poverty and the shame of social exclusion. Taking her cue from the papal social encyclicals, she applied her awakened social consciousness to the fight against racial prejudice. “A love that is not incarnate is not real love,” she used to say, and it was a sentiment she put into action. 

Doherty with Dorothy Day in Rome (1957)
Catherine’s Friendship Houses—first in Toronto, then in New York City—focused on interracial bridge-building, and despite opposition and poverty, the work flourished throughout the 1930s and 40s, spreading across North America.

Worn out by years of selfless charity and civil rights activism, Catherine retreated to the prairies of Ontario in 1947, and established Madonna House with her new husband, Eddie Doherty. What started as an attempt at “poustinia”—a Russian term for desert spirituality—became a destination for a regular stream of visitors.

A community of like-minded men, women, and priests began to take shape, and, recognizing God’s hand at work, the Dohertys surrendered themselves to the new undertaking—a surrender that led them to take a promise of chastity and embrace celibacy for the remainder of their lives. “Acquire inner peace,” Catherine wrote prophetically, quoting St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, “and a multitude will find their salvation near you.” Today, Madonna House includes over 200 permanent members with satellite communities around the world.

Catherine Doherty died in 1985. Pope John Paul II opened the cause for her canonization in 2000, bestowing on her the title Servant of God.

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sand, Oceans, and Kneeling

Point Pleasant on the Jersey coast was a frequent summer destination when I was a kid. I had an aunt and uncle there, and cousins, and heading down to the shore was a way of connecting with family while taking advantage of the nearby beach.

So it is that the ocean looms large in my childhood memories. Even now, landlocked in the Midwest, and decades since I've visited a coastline, I can close my eyes and see the surf, smell the Coppertone, hear the gulls, and taste the saltwater taffy.

And I can feel the sand—the hot sand burning my feet as I bolt from the station wagon toward the water, heedless of my mother's admonition to put on sandals. I wanted to feel that heat and that grittiness. It was what I looked forward to as much as the Atlantic itself. The sand presaged an encounter, an event, and it was always eagerly anticipated—the hotter, the better! And if we chose an access point that was more boardwalk than beach? Somehow, the ocean was diminished when we got there—smaller somehow, less majestic.

Kneeling is like that I think, and it's the best part of getting to Mass early. With seven kids in tow, making it to Sunday Mass before the Gospel reading can itself be a stretch, so getting there on time is a treat, let alone arriving early. But when it does happen—like for the "Big Liturgies," requiring early arrival to reserve seats, or when I'm on my own during the week—kneeling before Mass is like feeling that sand push up through my toes. It announces, “Get ready. Something huge is ahead. Like an ocean.”

My affection for kneeling goes back to my first encounters as a Presbyterian with Catholic liturgy, and the revelation that kneeling could be—ought to be—incorporated into the very act of worship itself. Real Presence and Transubstantiation were both mind-boggling and appealing, but my first infatuation with the Mass was its incorporation of posture into public prayer. "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess," St. Paul declares. The confessing part I knew as a born-again Christian. The knee-bowing thing? In church, for real, and not just in the abstract? That was a revelation. 

Joos van Wassenhove, The Institution of the Eucharist (1473-1475)
It was also a revelation that the call to kneel, while explicit in Scripture and the rubrics, was profoundly implicit in the solemnity and sacredness of the liturgy itself. The incense and candles, the vessels and vestments, the choreographed movements and the Canon—it was all overwhelming in its numinous opacity, and kneeling came as a relief. As a young Catholic-wannabe, I became utterly convinced that if any of it was true, and God really was making an appearance there, then I was glad for the invitation and permission to kneel—if not to fall prostrate.

So, unlike many post-conciliar churches that abandoned kneelers and kneeling, I can’t get enough of it. This is all the more important as I age and grow in my awareness of the luxury of kneeling—at least on the knees God gave me. I'm a nursing instructor, and my students and I care for plenty of folks following their total knee replacements. Consequently, I'm regularly reminded of how transient kneeling on our own joints can be.

Given that, I’ve even taken to skipping the padded kneelers altogether whenever convenient. Instead, I like to kneel directly on the floor—whether carpeted, wood, or stone. I saw a friend of mine do this once, and the thought of direct knee-to-ground contact appealed to me. Yet I was reluctant to follow his example for a long time out of fear of appearing overly pious—like a Pharisee broadening his phylacteries for all to see. 

But then I remembered the beach, and the pleasure of direct contact with that gritty heat and its accompanying shiver of anticipation as the waves beckoned. Give me the floor, I say, as long as I’m able. And I can't even count it as a small gesture of penance or self-denial for the suffering souls. It’s too enjoyable to be a real sacrificeI look forward to it with relish every day.

God is an ocean of mercy, and the Mass, our Sacramental shoreline. Kneeling, then, is like a stretch of sand. While we are able, let’s kick off the sandals and run!

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thomas B. McNulty, Jr. (1930-2013)

Whoever has a true desire to be in heaven is in heaven spiritually at that very time.
~ Anon., The Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.)
I'm the son-in-law—husband of Nancy, Tom's daughter. So, I’m not a blood relation, but Eleanore has given me the privilege of saying a few words about Tom, and I’m truly honored.

My first introduction to Tom was through Nancy of course, and, specifically, through his books. I think it was the first time Nancy and I really spent time together—I’d just moved into a house across from her place, and she invited me over for a cup of coffee and a get-acquainted chat. Maybe this is a peculiar habit, but when I visit someone’s home, I can’t help but look at the books in the bookcases. It tells me something about the people I’m visiting, what they’re interested in, what they care about.

As I looked through Nancy’s bookcases while she prepared the coffee, I was struck by how many volumes we had in common—a full set of the Catholic encyclopedia, for example, and lots of Classics of Western Spirituality. Even then, on our first meeting, I thought that we’d have to give away a lot duplicate books if we got married.

Carl Spitzweg, The Bookworm (ca. 1850)
As you can guess, the majority of the books in Nancy’s collection were from Tom, so looking through the shelves in her apartment told me as much about her dad as about Nancy. You all know this about Tom, I’m sure. He was an insatiable book hound and book pusher—and not just to his family. Has anyone here not been given a book by Tom?

The book thing was underscored when I visited the McNultys here in Omaha shortly after Nancy and I got engaged. There were books everywhere in the house—really, everywhere. And then Tom took me out to his favorite used bookstore in town—the Antiquarium, where he was on a first name basis with the proprietor—and we spent time getting to know each other by hunting for bargains and swapping favorites. Pretty much whenever I saw Tom after that, a bookstore prowl was something I count on.

Something else I could count on when coming to Omaha was an endless supply of candy, ice cream, and other things that we tried to reserve as special treats in our own home. This meant that, most assuredly, our seven kids always anticipated visits to or from Grandpa McNulty with great enthusiasm knowing that they’d be showered with Tootsie Rolls continuously.

That’s an example of Tom’s famous generosity, but it did have its limits. For example, he was, shall we say, a determined driver, and he did not suffer fools gladly. Many the trip to the grocery store or a bookstore with Tom behind the wheel combined a high level theological stream of conversation with an intermittent sampling of strong language and epithets directed toward other drivers who crossed him in some way.

Speaking of theological conversation, Tom was one of the most educated, articulate laymen I’ve ever met. He was a perpetual student—which accounts for his vast, ever expanding library—and a perpetual teacher. He loved the Bible particularly, the Old Testament especially, along with the great spiritual masters and mystics. And, as Mary Kate and Steve mentioned at the wake, Tom didn’t just know that stuff—he also lived it. 

Tom reading to Nick and Cecilia
Then, there’s his family. I’m a convert to Catholicism, so growing up I didn’t have a vision for what Catholic family and fatherhood was all about. Tom and Ellie and the McNultys filled in those gaps for me, and Tom in particular gave me an idea of how a Catholic man—despite faults and shortcomings—ought to love his wife and his children, how to put them first, ahead of work, career, personal interests.

He provided and protected, of course, but he also led—in faith, first and foremost. Mass (daily Mass in fact), Sacraments, the Rosary, Catholic education and formation—these were all non-negotiables for Tom, and I know he prayed for his growing family—children, their spouses, the grandchildren—regularly, every day. He was a prayer warrior then; I’m sure he continues to be one now. 

And not just leadership in faith, but also in courage, and in this he was a warrior as well. I think my favorite story about Tom revolves around the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

For years on the anniversary of the decision, Tom brought members of his family downtown to march around the federal courthouse, despite the bitter January cold and snow. He knew the momentous gravity of what happened that day, and he knew that it was important to publicly demonstrate his opposition—important to himself, but especially important to his children.

It was a matter of principle, after all, for the actual impact of the picketing on the course of politics or legislation made little difference, but Tom knew it made an impact where it really counted—at home. It was legacy of integrity and fortitude and strength—and it was a legacy of kindness as well, as he was known to cross the street to the bus station to buy all the other marchers hot chocolate.

That legacy lives on in his children, and, God willing, it will live on in his grandchildren—my children—as well. Rest in peace, Tom McNulty. Well done, good and faithful servant; well done, faithful warrior. But don’t leave the ramparts just yet. Keep doing battle for us, and strengthen us through your prayers.

Remarks at the conclusion of Tom's funeral Mass on June 28, 2013, at Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha, Nebraska.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

We Can't All Be Ben Folds

Upfront, I confess I know nothing about Ben Folds himself, but I like his music—what I've heard of it anyway.

From time to time, my daughter makes a point of having me listen to a song of his, and she plays his stuff in the car pretty regularly. It's exuberant, fun, occasionally meditative—not a downer in other words. Joyful. Happy even.

Van Morrison is like that. With few exceptions, it's hard to listen to a Van Morrison song without feeling better. Not any particular lyric necessarily, or any particular song. It's something in his attitude, his disposition. There's a smile that runs through all of Morrison's songs, and it's catching. Paul Simon, too.

My impression is that Ben Folds' music does something very similar—it has a mood, a flavor, and it reminds you of goodness. People naturally gravitate to music like that, and the musician that stands behind it. We want to be like Ben Folds, to internalize his vision—to be Ben Folds perhaps.  We think, "If I could just write great songs that make people happy and do concerts and tour the country, my life would be great!" But not very many people get to hit that jackpot, and I'd imagine Ben and the others would tell you it's got plenty of downside in any case.

But there is a key to the good life in all this I think: Ben Folds' music makes us grin and tap the steering wheel and put aside our burdens for a moment because it communicates a hopefulness and a buoyancy that all of us crave. "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly," wrote Chesterton, and that angelic attitude is just what we need in these oh-so-serious times.

We need it, and we try to internalize it, but here's one more thing to keep in mind. That hopefulness and buoyancy and joy is especially accessible when you're 16 or 20, and healthy, and well fed, and open to a future of possibilities. It's a bit harder to bring it to the surface later in life, when you've got too many bills to pay, and your back hurts after a long day at work, and the car breaks down, and the mechanic says it can't be fixed.

Then, Brown Eyed Girl comes on the radio, or maybe Tupelo Honey. And you pause and listen, and you know it's all OK, despite all the junk and the noise, and that you have a lot to be grateful for, that you want to give something back. Twenty years from now, or 30, will Ben Folds' music do that for you?

I suspect it will. Assuming that's the case, bravo, Mr. Folds. And thanks.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bird Poop and Providence

It’s Tobit week at daily Mass, and you know what that means: bird poop! A biennial favorite for those in the know, it's the week when you can expect to watch your lector struggle to keep a straight face while reading aloud about warm bird droppings (“warm” no less!) falling into Tobit’s eyes. In case you missed it, it was yesterday—mark it on your calendar for 2015!

Anna and the Blind Tobit, Rembrandt (ca. 1630)
The book of Tobit is one of the Old Testament deuterocanonical books—otherwise known as “the Apocrypha” among Protestants—so it wasn’t a Scriptural text I grew up hearing in the Presbyterian Church. Consequently, sitting at Mass as a new convert some years back, and hearing the bird poop reading for the first time, I just about bust up laughing—can you blame me? It’s truly a comical scene: Having risked his life burying a fellow Jew in defiance of the law, Tobit lays down for a nap next to a courtyard wall, and sparrows perched above poop in his eyes. I can’t be the only one that looks forward to hearing that ancient anecdote proclaimed in church every couple years.

To be sure, the rest of the story isn’t quite so comical. Tobit contracts an eye disease and goes blind, his wife has to go to work weaving cloth to support him, and his whole life seems to fall apart. “Lord, command that I be released from such anguish; let me go to my everlasting abode,” he prays. “For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life” (3.6). 

What follows is pretty complicated—there’s an archangel and a demon, a marriage and several murders, a journey, a debt repaid, and recovered vision. Along the way, Tobit also recovers his fundamental trust in God—despite the disappointments and adversity—and his faithfulness is rewarded abundantly. In a Job-like way, Tobit’s story calls us to live lives abandoned to the Lord, come what may. God is God; we’re not. We can’t possibly see things the way He sees them, so no matter the difficulty or setback, we’re reminded to keep banking on Him and hoping in His love. “Blessed be God who lives forever,” Tobit prays after his reversal of fortune. “For he afflicts and shows mercy, casts down to the depths of Hades, brings up from the great abyss” (13.2).

The Healing of Tobit, Bernardo Strozzi (ca. 1625)
But there’s one additional element in Tobit’s story that makes me prefer it to Job’s better known tale. It’s the role of Raphael, the archangel mentioned earlier. His name means “God heals,” and Raphael is truly the Lord’s instrument in restoring relationships, health, and even property to the story’s chief characters. 

What’s particularly striking about Raphael’s actions, however, and what sets them apart from God’s restorative actions in the Book of Job, is the way Tobit’s author weaved them together in the narrative with the very travails that beset all the key players in the first place. Bird droppings and blindness for instance? All part of God’s plan to match up Tobit’s son, Tobias, with Sarah of Media. And when a fish attacks Tobias on his way to Media? It’s a propitious opportunity for Tobias to acquire the very balm that will heal his father’s sight.

Raphael Taking Leave of the Tobit Family, Rembrandt (1637)
This mixing and connecting of conflict and resolution throughout Tobit is highlighted by Raphael in his parting words to Tobit: “I was sent to put you to the test,” he says. “At the same time, however, God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah” (12.14). Junk happens; we don’t understand it; we cry out to God for understanding and relief. But, more often than not, it’s the very junk we wail about that ends up being the source of our growth and transformation and even salvation.

Providence seems to work that way often. We see obstacles; God sees opportunities. And often our stubbornness is such that He is forced to resort to those maddening obstacles to divert us from our ruts of pettiness and sloth and greed and pride.

Forced? No, I suppose not. We are speaking of God, after all. Yet it does seem to be the way He prefers to do things though—working through circumstances, orchestrating events, prompting and upsetting, prodding and tripping. We're so blind to the obvious ways we're called to live that sometimes He has to, well, make us blind in order to make us see.

All the same, let's be clear: Sometimes bird poop in the eye is just bird poop in the eye. Still, next time it happens, wipe it off, and glance around. It just might be a sign that an angel is nearby and God is up to something.