Extra Ecclesiam, Ecclesiam

19 Oct

“All the way to heaven is heaven.”
~ Catherine of Siena

“You got any change, man?”

I’d only made it a few blocks from the Denver Sheraton, and I’d already heard that request three times. “Sorry, I’m tapped out,” I mumbled.

“That’s OK,” he replied with a smile as bright as his20060526_101616_twilight big orange Broncos sweater. Something in his tone made me think it really was OK, so I hazarded my own request. “Can you tell me how far up the Cathedral is?”

“Sure,” he said. “Just a couple blocks more, and then one block over. ‘Can’t miss it.”

I was in Denver for a conference – downtown, near Capitol Hill. The conference was well worth the trip, but the schedule was pretty packed every day, sunup to sundown. In fact, I had to duck out early from one of the Sunday morning sessions and hoof it double time to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception so I could get to Mass.

The Basilica was up a ways on Colfax at Logan, and if my trek was any indication, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much in the quarter century since I lived in Colorado. Gritty, a bit raw, the Basilica’s immediate vicinity retains a rough edge despite loads of redevelopment and rezoning. You see it in the mix of storefronts along Colfax – bars and sandwich joints mingling with upscale dining and boutiques – and you see it in the immense variety of folks on the street from all walks of life. The whole scene reminded me of 1980s NYC and Chicago; it was a homecoming in more ways than one.

I reached the Cathedral just in time for Mass and approached the west transept entrance on Logan to avoid the crowd at the main entrance on Colfax. Immediately across the street was the Fork & Spoon, and I couldn’t help pausing to admire their mural on the wall opposite the church. It was a tribute to Jack Kerouac, featuring the beat author’s profile along with a quote from a Buddhist-inspired letter he wrote his first wife, Edie Parker. “Practice kindness all day to everybody,” the quotation read, “and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”


Was it an intentional challenge to the Cathedral across the street and its habitués? The mural’s placement could be interpreted as a rebuke, or perhaps a wake-up call to the hoodwinked faithful. Alternatively, it could be argued that Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing led him to unconsciously represent the very teaching of the Church herself. About seven years after Kerouac wrote his letter, the Council Fathers had this to say in Lumen Gentium:

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

If that’s the case, though, why go to Mass at all? And why endure the rigors of the Church’s moral requirements when you can just be nice and achieve the same result – hand out a few coins on the street, for example, and call it a day, à la Kerouac?

Why indeed.

I entered the Cathedral anyway.

People were filing in, finding their places in the pews. It was a typical Cathedralish cross section of the population: Families, individuals here and there, regulars and visitors, random groupings of people that defied easy classification. I grabbed a seat on the aisle right in front of a transept pillar – it was close by and adequately inconspicuous for a visitor. On my right was a group of folks that were apparently related – a father, it seemed, with his grand, white, Amish-like beard,  along with his clan. In front, a couple with a toddler in tow, and a young woman, stylishly attired and sitting by herself. Mass was just about to get under way…

*Whoosh!* A rolled-up newspaper flapped in front of my face. I turned in the direction of the flap, and there was a woman with multiple layers of clothing and shopping bags, clearly annoyed, waving her paper at me as she walked by. I think she was indicating that I had usurped her usual pew for Sunday Mass, but by the time I figured that out, she’d already taken a seat a couple rows ahead of me.

20120529_080154_photo3Stealing somebody’s regular pew is a major breach of Mass attendance protocol, but what could I do? Figuring I’d only make matters worse if I tried to rectify the situation, I stayed put. It was a good call for nothing else came of it, and I think she even acknowledged me at the sign of peace. In a way, by overlooking the unintended affront, she in effect became my host, and I, her guest, the recipient of her sacrificial hospitality almost like an estranged family member whom she welcomed home.

The Gospel that day reflected a similar theme. It was Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast where all the seats ended up being filled by outsiders and hoi polloi:

Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

Among other things, that image of a wedding feast and invitations assumes that God’s kingdom has boundaries and limits it’s a party, to be sure, but not a free-for-all. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus goes the ancient patristic dictum “outside the church there is no salvation.” This is still the teaching of the Church, although the Catechism frames it in a new way:

Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.

The institutional, big “C” Church is of divine origin, but it has boundaries and edges because it’s run and inhabited by finite humans. It’s like the Basilica itself, which has walls and doors; the liturgy as well, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there are rules and standards and expectations for those who wish to be a part of these things.

The small “c” church catholic, however, is a mystical body, with boundaries known to God alone. Its membership, unlike the visible Church, isn’t always clear cut. The normal way people attach to that body is through the Sacraments and practicing the Faith, but apparently there are other ways as well and that’s only God’s business.

In other words, outside the visible Church there’s likely a good deal of invisible church (or at least potential church), but we just don’t always have the eyes to see it  yet. In any case, since we can’t know who’s in the invisible church, those of us inside the visible one have a duty to welcome in everybody, no matter what. Lumen Gentium continues along these lines:

Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

womAll Christians have a hand in this to be sure, although as laity our preaching can take many forms. Primarily, we preach through our acts of charity and service, through caring for our families and neighbors, through working hard to improve our little corners of the world living our lives, that is, in a way that always invites rather than excludes. The more we do that, the more we literally extend heaven to those around us, deepening our own interior affinity for heaven in the process.

The irony, of course, is that many of those folks on the outside are already doing this very thing.

The recessional hymn concluded, and following a brief prayer of thanksgiving, I genuflected and exited my pew with a glance at my watch – just enough time to get back for the start of the next conference presentation. There was a light rain outside, and I made sure to slow down and hold onto the handrail as I descended the slippery stone staircase from the west transept door.

Right behind me was an elderly couple, and the woman was attempting the navigate the stairs with a cane. She was doing alright with her husband’s help, but I stuck around just in case – and I wasn’t the only one. An usher and another man stood at the top of the stairs watching the couple take each step. Once the woman made it to the sidewalk, the two men nodded to me as if we three had all been part of a covert stair-descent safety team, and then they re-entered the church.

Nothing particularly virtuous about our watching out for that woman pretty much any decent soul would’ve done the same. And that’s the point we’re all in this together, insiders and outsiders alike.

Jack was surely onto something.


Of Flicking Bubbles and Wrangling Babies

12 Oct

Jesus asks for childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children’s smallest needs (CCC).

One of the hardest things to teach beginning nursing students is how to get rid of syringe bubbles. It’s an important part of learning to give shots – but not for the reasons you’d think.

Student nurses are like most folks in assuming that those renegade bubbles are really, really dangerous. “What if one gets into a vein or something,” they ask, eyebrows raised. “An air bubble can stop the heart, right?”

Wrong. It would take a whole lot more air than a tiny bubble’s worth to do that kind of damage – probably it would take a big syringe full. Our blood already carries a whole bunbuble-syringe-out2ch of dissolved gas – oxygen, for one thing, and CO2 for another – so a bit of air in a shot, even if it made its way directly into your blood vessels, would be absorbed pretty quickly and you’d breathe it out.

The more pressing concern with syringe bubbles is dosage accuracy. If a patient is supposed to get 20 units of insulin, for example, and a bubble displaces what would’ve been 2 of those units, then the patient actually ends up getting 10% less than he needs. In the case of some brittle diabetics, that could be a big deal indeed.

So, to preserve dosage accuracy means getting out those tenacious bubbles, and that entails flicking – no doubt you’ve seen nurses do it many times. With a fingernail or a pen, she’ll flick, flick, flick away at her syringe until the bubbles rise to the top and can be pushed out. After that, she can finish drawing up the correct dose of the medication without fear that extra air will mess things up.

Flicking bubbles effectively, however, is a tricky skill because it requires holding the syringe in such a way that it shakes a bit in the nurse’s hand. This takes some finesse, a light touch, and lots of practice: The nurse has to maintain enough control to prevent the syringe from flying across the room with the first determined flick, and she simultaneously has to allow movement to create adequate agitation within the syringe barrel. Without that gentle turbulence, the bubbles will cling to the sides of the barrel like barnacles, and the nurse will be flicking away until the proverbial cows come home.

New nursing students grasp the importance of eliminating syringe bubbles, and they take to the flicking with relish. What they don’t take to as readily is the idea of holding the syringe in such a way that it can move a smidgen with each tap. Instead, novice shot-givers have a tendency to clench their syringes – no doubt out of a healthy respect for family-in-church-202x300the sharp needles that are often attached – and so frustration abounds when the bubbles won’t budge, despite vigorous, even aggressive, flicking. Eventually, though, the students catch on, and they will all go on to develop great agility in holding while allowing movement.

This is precisely the same skill all parents learn when it comes to holding babies, especially in church – something I was reminded of recently when I had the privilege of holding my squirmy godson at Mass. Even though it’s been a number of years since I had to manage my own infant children in a pew, I think I did pretty well – like riding a bike, it’s a knack that comes back to you pretty quick. I held Dominic lightly, at one point encircling him under his arms but not embracing him, and then later placing him on my lap, but not actually holding him. Instead, I kept my arms out and about his frame, holding up my watch’s flex band for him to play with, and always on the alert in case he suddenly flung himself in one direction or another.

If you’re in church, and you have a fidgety kid, holding him tightly and restricting his movement too narrowly will only lead to squalls and maximum disturbance – in other words, papoose holds have no place in the pew. Instead, the key is to allow movement and activity, but within a limited range. You supervise the young’un, keeping him safe, preventing his fall or escape, but giving him as much freedom as possible to explore and manipulate his environment as you attempt to pay attention to Father’s homily or the canon of the Mass.

Perhaps, in time, after years of this kind of loose supervision, the child will, of his own accord, attend to what the parent seems intent on – namely, God. Until then, patience is a must, along with an unconditional surrender to distracted worship. Children for the most part will eventually follow the cues of the grownups in their lives, and they’ll be still when their parents are still; they’ll contemplate what dad is contemplating; they’ll attend to what mom is attending. But it’ll be the kids themselves who chonicolaesmaes_christblessingthechildrenose to be still and contemplate and attend – not because they have to, but because they want to.

It’s basically the template for all parenting, right? The delicate balance of healthy limits and true freedom is as elusive as it is essential, and even though it’s incredibly difficult to peg, we have to constantly recalibrate our parenting approach in order to achieve it as nearly and as often as possible.

In this, God the Father, not surprisingly, is our model and our only hope, for it’s exactly how he treats us as his own children. Yesterday at Mass, we heard St. Paul express it this way to the Galatians:

Before faith came, we were held in custody under law…. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian. For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.

Like any good dad, he grants us plenty of freedom, but not without his constant superintendence and influence. By walking this divine tightrope, he somehow manages to give us the time and breathing room we need to choose what he would otherwise choose for us anyway. “God is the sovereign master of his plan,” the Catechism teaches us. “But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ co-operation.”

Think of it: The Creator of the universe bestows on us – bestows on me of all people! – the audacious privilege of cooperating with him in running the world. It’s wild and seemingly foolhardy, but there’s method in his apparent madness. Again, the Catechism:

This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other.

It’s a dignity rooted in freedom, not compulsion. He nudges instead of regimenting, and the bubbles of our wounded and weak souls rise to the surface and dissipate. He gives us leeway to rebel, to make mistakes and learn from them, which allows us the time and space to adopt his divine will of our own accord.angel__guardian-basilica_window_detail_

It’s all gift, all grace – the light touch of the Father. Providence is another word for it, and we see it at work all the time in our lives: “Chance” meetings that lead to serendipitous relationships, even marriage; “coincidences” that alter the course of our careers, our fortunes, our lives; “accidental” events that clearly couldn’t have been accidents.

Ah, and he’s clever how he goes about it – very cagey and subtle – but we have the inside line on one aspect of his modus operandi: angels.

Just last week, we celebrated the feast of the Guardian Angels – the Church’s universal acknowledgement that God is intimately, quietly involved in our puny lives day to day, hour by hour, even minute by minute – remember your bedtime prayers?

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day, be at my side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide.

The guardian angels are God flicking at our bubbles; they’re God encircling us with his divine superintendence without smothering us. We grew up relying on God’s providence because we grew up believing in our guardian angels – talking with them, arguing with them, laughing with them.

Keep believing, and pass it on.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Even When He Tells You, It’s Still a Mystery

5 Oct

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.14).

1528CorregioNativityOn the way to Mass last Wednesday for the feast of St. Thérèse, Nick and Katharine were in the back seat having a debate about God’s relations.

“God doesn’t have a mother,” Kath lunged, apparently in response to something Nick had said.

“Yes, he does,” Nick parried. “Jesus is God, and Mary was his mother.”

Not bad for a ten-year-old, and pretty much the reasoning of the Council of Ephesus. In 431, the Council confronted the Nestorian heresy by adopting a Marian title proposed by St. Cyril: TheotokosMother of God. Really, it’s a name that boils down to a simple syllogism: (a) Jesus is truly God; (b) Mary is Jesus’ mother; (c) thus, Mary is God’s mother. Q.E.D.

“I meant God the Father,” eight-year-old Kath answered Nick, unwilling to yield. “God the Father couldn’t have had a mother because then he wouldn’t be God.”


In fact, Katharine’s objection is a fairly common one, and it summarizes very neatly a complicated philosophical argument against the “Mother of God” appellation. It’s an argument that involves differentiating between function and ontology, and it requires a grasp of formal logic that is beyond me and, presumably, way over the head of my two grade-school theologians sitting in the back seat…or maybe not.

In any case, I diplomatically affirmed both children, and praised them for their acumen and orthodoxy. They’re the youngest of our seven children, and they’re the best of pals. They play and fight, giggle and argue, but even when they disagree, there’s an amiability between them that serves as a constant bond.

That’s good, because they live in a household full of big ideas, loud opinions, and strong personalities. Nick and Kath’s friendship provides them with an oasis of mutual support and age appropriate interaction amid the maelstrom of a domestic environment otherwise populated by teens, pre-teens, and aging, cranky parents.

Yet, despite the intense and sometimes conflicting messages regarding school and work, politics and religion, and just plain living, I’d like to think there’s an underlying framework of faith that connects it all, even when it doesn’t always macyrilke sense. It’s not a forced framework  it just is, even when we disagree with it or rebel.

That my youngest children have at least integrated this idea somewhat was made clear when Kath made her parting shot as we arrived at church. “It’s all a mystery anyway,” she observed. “You can never figure it out, because even when he tells you, you’re going to get confused.”

Ah, yes, that standard aphorism of Catholic apologetics: It’s all a mystery. It’s also a parenting expedient I don’t know about you, but we trot that one out pretty regularly with our kids. “But, WHY?!” comes the plaintive cry of the rebuffed adolescent suppliant. “It’s all a mystery,” I’ll sometimes reply, especially when I’ve tired of the standard, “Because I said so.”

I should be more careful, I suppose, because “It’s all a mystery” is also the conclusion of many a dinner conversation that drifted in the direction of convoluted doctrinal conundrums. “How can God be outside of time and still become incarnate?” It’s a mystery. “Why do we pray if God already knows what we’re going to say?” It’s a mystery. “If God really all good and all powerful, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?” It’s all a mystery.

My Protestant students also get used to hearing this phrase once they find out I’m a practicing Catholic and they get up the courage to ask hard questions: How can Mary be sinless if the Bible tells us that everyone is a sinner? What about purgatory and indulgences – what’s the point of praying for the dead if they’re already destined for heaven? And do you really believe that wafer is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Really? How come Catholics don’t act like they believe it?

All good questions my students are a smart bunch and I do my best to explain, but more often than not, I’m forced to come down to the old stand-by: It’s a mystery. It’s never satisfying, of course, and they roll their eyes as do my teens. But, look, all of us who profess any kind of religion get to the same place eventually, right? Even if you limit yourself to Christianity, consider the biggies we all hold in common  Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, the Blessed Trinity. They all require a shrug in the end, and a demurral that, ultimately, they’re matters that are beyond our human understanding. In essence, that’s exactly what Katharine voiced: You can’t know everything, so don’t expect to.

But it’s faith, after all, not math. There’s always a leap involved, as Kierkegaard insisted, and there’s no guarantees that we’ll figure it out this side of heaven.

And perhaps it’s no mistake that I overheard Nick and Kath’s exchange on the feast of St. Thérèse the Doctor of the “Little Way.” As Monsignor later explained in his homily, “The essencelaundry of St. Thérèse’s Little Way is this: Let God love you, and let God love others through you.” Should we devote ourselves to theological inquiry? Should anyone invest time and energy in deciphering the mysteries of God? Yes, to be sure, but not at the expense of adopting the childlike surrender of Thérèse. She wrote:

I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice, and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.

Anyway, Nick and Kath and I arrived at Mass, found our seats, and waited for God to appear. There, up in front of the church, the lector would enunciate God’s word, and then, after that, the priest would turn bread and wine into the Bread of Life. This is all a big mystery; we can never figure it out; we still get confused.

And it’s alright.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Ranking God’s Word

28 Sep

Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught,
either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
~ St. Paul to the Thessalonians

A former student of mine is thinking of becoming a Catholic, and she had a question for me. “I don’t understand the deuterocanonical books,” she ventured. “If the Catholic faith is supposed to be a fulfillment of the Jewish faith, why do Catholics accept those books and the Jews don’t?” She’d done her homework, and was troubled that the seven books and other writings of the deuterocanon had been preserved only in Greek instead of Hebrew like the rest of the Jewish scriptures – which is part of the reason why they were classified, even by Catholics, as a “second” (deutero) canon.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTcyNDg2MTU1My student went on. “I’m just struggling because there are a lot of references to those books in Church doctrine, but they aren’t considered inspired Scripture. Why did Luther feel those books needed to be taken out?” she asked. “And why are Protestants so against them?”

The short answer sounds petty and mean, but it’s true nonetheless: Luther jettisoned those “extra” Old Testament books – Tobit, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the like – because they were inconvenient. The Apocrypha (or, “false writings”), as they came to be known, supported pesky Catholic doctrines that Luther and other reformers wanted to suppress – praying for the dead, for instance, and the intercession of the saints. Here’s John Calvin on the subject:

Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus they will borrow not a little. For from whence could they better draw their dregs?

However, the deuterocanonical literature was (and is) prominent in the liturgy and very familiar to that first generation of Protestant converts, so Luther and company couldn’t very well ignore it altogether. Consequently, those seven “apocryphal” books, along with the Greek portions of Esther and Daniel, were relegated to an appendix in early Protestant translations of the Bible.

Eventually, in the 19th-century sometime, many Protestant Bible publishers starting dropping the appendix altogether, and the modern translations used by most evangelicals today don’t even reference the Apocrypha at all. Thus, the myth is perpetuated that nefarious popes and bishops have gotten away with brazenly foisting a bunch of bogus scripture on the ignorant Catholic masses.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, it was Luther and Calvin and the other reformers who did all the foisting. The Old Testament that Christians had been using for 1,500 years had always included the so-called Apocrypha, and there was never a question as to its canonicity. Thus, by selectively editing and streamThomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedlining their own versions of the Bible according to their sectarian biases (including, in Luther’s case, both Testaments, Old and New), the reformers engaged in a theological con game. To make matters worse, they covered their tracks by pointing fingers at the Catholic Church for “adding” phony texts to the closed canon of Hebrew Sacred Writ.

In this sense, the reformers were anticipating what I call the Twain-Jefferson approach to canonical revisionism. It involves two simple steps.

  • Step one: Identify the parts of Scripture that you find especially onerous or troublesome. Generally, these will be straightforward biblical references that don’t quite square with the doctrine one is championing or the practices one has already embraced. Mark Twain is the modern herald of this half of creative textual reconstruction: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me,” Twain wrote, “it is the parts that I do understand.”
  • Step two: Yank the vexing parts out. It’s what Thomas Jefferson literally did when he took his own Bible and cut out the passages he found offensive – a kind of “scripture by subtraction” in the words of religion professor Stephen Prothero.

The reformers justified their Twain-Jefferson humbug by pointing to the canon of scriptures in use by European Jews during that time, and it did not include those extra Catholic books – case closed! Still unconvinced? Today’s defenders of the reformers’ biblical reshaping will then proceed to throw around historical precedent and references to the first-century Council of Jamnia, but it’s all really smoke and mirrors.

The fact is that the first-century Jewish canon was pretty mutable and there was no universal definitive list of sacred texts. On the other hand, it is indisputable that the version being used by Jesus and the Apostles during that time was the Septuagint – the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures that included Luther’s rejected apocryphal books. SCORE: Deuterocanon – 1; Twain-Jefferson Revisionism – 0.

But this is all beside the point. It’s like an argument about creationism vs. evolution that gets funneled in the direction of whether dinosaurs could’ve been on board Noah’s Ark. Once you’re arguing about that, you’re no longer arguing about the bigger issue of the historicity of those early chapters in Genesis. The parallel red herring here is arguing over the content of the Christian Old Testament canon instead of considering the nature of authority itself and how it’s supposed to work in the church, especially with regards to the Bible.

Jesus - Mat 11,28I mean, even if we can settle what the canon should include, we don’t have the autographs (original documents) from any biblical books anyway. While we affirm the Church’s teaching that all Scripture is inspired and teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings” (DV 11), there are no absolutes when it comes to the precise content of the Bible.

Can there be any doubt that this is by God’s design? Without the autographs, we are much less tempted to worship a static book instead of the One it reveals to us. Even so, it’s true that we are still encouraged to venerate the Scriptures, but we worship the incarnate Word – and we ought not confuse the two. John the Baptist said as much when he painstakingly distinguished between himself, the announcer, and the actual Christ he was announcing. The Catechism, quoting St. Bernard, offers a further helpful distinction:

The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”.

Anyway, with regards to authority and the canon of Scripture, Mark Shea couldn’t have put it more succinctly than his recent response to a request for a summary of why the deuterocanon should be included in the Bible:

Because the Church in union with Peter, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) granted authority by Christ to loose and bind (Matthew 16:19), says they should be.

Right. The Church says so, and that’s good enough.

For it’s the Church who gives us the Scriptures. It’s the Church who preserves the Scriptures and tells us to turn to them. It’s the Church who bathes us in the Scriptures with the liturgy, day in and day out, constantly watering our souls with God’s Word. Isn’t it a bit bizarre to be challenging the Church with regards to which Scriptures she’s feeding us with? “No, mother,” the infant cries, “not breast milk! I want Ovaltine! Better yet, how about some Sprite!”

Think of it this way. My daughter Margaret and I share an intense devotion to Betty Smith’s remarkable novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a bittersweet family tale of impoverishment, tragedy, and perseverance, and we often remark how curious it is that Smith’s epic story receives so little attention.

I was rooting around the sale shelf at the public library one day, and I happened upon a paperback with the name “Betty Smith” on the spine. I tookbetty-smith a closer look: Joy in the Morning, a 1963 novel of romance and the struggles of newlyweds, and it was indeed by the same Smith of Tree fame. I snatched it up for Meg.

The other day, Meg thanked me for the book, and asked me to be on the lookout for others by Smith. “It wasn’t nearly as good as Tree,” she said, “and I don’t expect any of her others to be as good. But I want to read everything she wrote because Tree was so wonderful.”

See, she wants to get to know Betty Smith because of what she encountered in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And all we have are her books and other writings; Betty Smith herself is gone.

But Jesus isn’t like that. We have the book, yes, but we have more. We still have the Word himself.


A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Of Giving Shots and Making God

21 Sep

“Do not neglect the gift you have.”
~ St. Paul

Our skills lab for nursing fundamentals starts at 7:00 a.m., and so students frequently have trouble staying awake during our tedious PowerPoints and videos. We try to keep them engaged – regaling the students with hilarious anecdotes from our own years as staff nurses, for example – but there’s only so much you can do to make things like bed baths and body mechanics interesting.

nursing-practice-shots-nurse-oceancity'10-275Nobody sleeps on injections day however. Eyes are open wide; attention is rapt. “This is important,” their demeanor suggests. “We’re learning to give shots.”

They’re right – it is important. Of course, we think that everything we teach our beginning nursing students is important, yet there’s no denying that shots are different. Not only does it involve the administration of potent medications – important enough in itself – giving shots also involves jabbing strangers with sharp objects.

The surprising thing, however, is that the teaching part isn’t all that difficult – in fact, it’s actually a lot of fun. Each new detail is like a revelation to the students, and we nursing instructors get a kick out of seeing their reactions. We put syringes and needles in their hands – wonder of wonders! The students watch us demonstrate proper technique by administering injections to manikins – fascinating!

And then the moment comes they’ve all been waiting for: Stabbing a needle into a vial of fluid, drawing up a mock dose of medication into a syringe, and giving that first shot – into an injection pad, granted, but still an honest-to-goodness shot!

It’s all very Montessori-esque and kinesthetic, as the learning unfolds manually, hands on, and not solely by way of abstract whys and wherefores. After the students’ initial lab experience, they will practice – lots of practice, on the manikins and injection pads, and maybe oranges and hot dogs – and they will make the skill their own. Eventually, each student will provide a return demonstration (on a manikin), and only those students who perform the skill safely will be permitted to attempt a real injection on a real patient.

Frankly, that’s when the true challenge comes for the nursing instructor. Teaching shots in the lab is one thing; coaching students to give actual shots to people they’ve just met is quite another.

We’re teaching injections right now at my school of nursing, so all this stuff was in the back of mind when I was at Mass the other day and our assistant pastor reminded us that he’d only been ordained for a year. Thus, a little more than a year ago, Father would’ve still been in the seminary chapel, practicing the Eucharistic Canon as a transitional deacon, and anticipating his first real Mass on ordination day. It got me thinking: What an exciting and strange thing it must be to teach men to say MassDoubt-427x276. What an exalted privilege. And lots of fun to boot – probably one of the best parts of teaching future priests.

Sure, seminaries have to instruct men how to preach and teach, how to counsel and collaborate, and how to run a parish – the Code of Canon Law demands as much, and it’s what you’d expect. But lay people and deacons receive formation in such matters as well, and they often carry out those duties as a part of their ministries. What sets priestly formation apart, among other things, are those dimensions that are specifically geared to the “sacred power (sacra potestas)” conferred at ordination – which, for the priest, includes especially the power to confect the Eucharist. The power, that is, to make God.

For that’s what the word “confect” means – to put something together. In the case of the Mass, it’s the priest putting together bread and wine, along with his spoken words and intention, and, voila!, there’s God himself on the altar! It’s a miracle every time, regardless of how routine it might become for us – or even for the priest. And that’s where I was thinking the parallels between teaching nurses and teaching priests are particularly noteworthy.

I mean, I was already picking up on a correlation in the instruction arenaboth groups of educators guiding their respective students in the mechanics of future privileged duties, and delighting in their charges’ anticipation of the day they themselves would be able to fulfill those duties. Moreover, there are additional similarities with regards to the interior preparation naturally accompanying such practical instruction – instilling in our students the attitudes and dispositions that will facilitate a lifetime of service to the people entrusted to their care.

Finally, there’s also a parallel with regards to the day – for the nursing student, the first real shot; the priest, the first real Mass. No more pretending in the lab or seminary; no more dry runs and rehearsals. This is it – the time has come. The new priests will surely have rattled nerves considering what they’re about to undertake. Do seminary instructors have to coach their students at that point like I do mine? Urging them to project a confidence they don’t possess yet, relying instead on our confidence in them?

But that’s about it with regards to the analogies, I’m afraid, for there’s no comparing the actual tasks at hand. Giving a shot correctly and well – even the first time – is imperative for the recipient and the student nurse alike, and for obvious reasons. But saying Mass? Calling down the host of heaven, and traversing millennia 22bprhoadespopeJPII478to drag into the present Calvary’s awful paradox; holding up created matter, and commanding it to become the Creator himself – this is what the priest does, even that very first time he stumbles and falters his way through the Eucharistic Prayer.

And he’ll be doing it again and again, probably daily, and for the rest of his life. I know nurses can lose touch with the passion for care and service that drove them to nursing school in the first place, and we have to actively guard against that. Do priests have to do the same? Can they forget, in other words, their first love?

Pope John Paul II thought so, which is evident in his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. “Live the mystery that has been placed in your hands,” St. John Paul wrote, calling to mind the charge given priests in the Rite of Ordination, “when the offerings of the holy people for the eucharistic sacrifice are placed in his hands.” That mystery is the Lord Jesus himself, of course, who is the source and summit of the Christian life, and whom the priest is directed to enflesh in a particular and irreplaceable way through his life and ministry. The Pope continued:

For this to be so, there is need for great vigilance and lively awareness. Once again, the Rite of Ordination introduces these words with this recommendation: “Beware of what you will be doing.”

“Beware,” the Rite warns – these are dire matters indeed.

Please join me in praying for our priests. We all require the medicine God provides us through their hands; they, in turn, deserve our unflagging support and gratitude.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Philippine Epiphanies

14 Sep

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.
~ G.W. Kitch­in and M.R. New­bolt

“The BBC,” the voice-over asserted. “The world’s radio station.”

It was a spot on “All Things Considered” the other day – our local NPR station carries the BBC daily from midnight until 5 a.m. – and it brought on a flood of memories.

I used to listen to those broadcasts driving home after evening shifts as a new nurse, but I’d already developed an affection for the BBC decades before while in the Philippines as an intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Jeff, another intern, and I were assigned to a mission up in Mountain Province – literally out in the “boondocks” (a Filipino word) – and the radio was our one routine connection to the outside world, a kind of electronic comfort food.

In the late evenings, after the dishes were done and the chores complete, the missionaries would fire up their shortwave radio, and we’d all gather round to listen in. It was the summer of “Ebony and Ivory,” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, as well as John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” – constants on Voice of America every time we tuned in. The BBC was always meatier fare, and Carabao in rice field, near Baler, Aurora, Luzon, Philippineswe’d look forward to updates about the Falklands conflict as well as other international happenings, all while swatting mosquitos, shooing away geckos, and cooling ourselves with jury-rigged fans.

What an eye-opener that summer was – showering in swimsuits under drenching rain, enjoying strong, fresh coffee near the very tree that produced it, carabaos wandering freely about outside our nipa hut day and night.

And the people, of course. Filipinos are known the world over for their cheerfulness and hospitality, and we experienced it firsthand. The villagers could always scrape up a meal for Jeff and me when we came around visiting – even if it meant, as it did on one occasion, serving rice and “wild bird” (which turned out to be bat meat). The local folks were often initially shy in the presence of us Westerners, but once that stage was passed, they loved to hear about our lives back in the States – especially snow. It seemed like the Filipinos in our mission area could never hear enough about snow, and the postcard of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains I’d brought along from home was a huge hit.

The welcome and embrace of the Filipino people was the best part of that summer intern experience, but the actual missionary endeavors we’d come to further turned out to be quite troubling – at least for me. After the Wycliffe organization had accepted my internship application, I set about learning as much as I could about the land I’d be traveling to and the people I’d be evangelizing. I dug into the history of the Philippines, as well as the current political tensions during those waning days of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign. I also researched the cultural and religious character of the multi-island nation, with its minority Muslim population in the south and the rest overwhelmingly Catholic.

Wait, Catholic? Weren’t they already, well, kinda’ Christian already? Why was I going all the way across the ocean to bring the Gospel to people who already knew it quite well?

I kept these unsettling thoughts to myself as I completed Wycliffe’s orientation at their Texas Summer Institute of Linguistics early in the summer, and continued to quietly harbor them as I traveled with my fellow interns overseas. It never occurred to me to share them with anybody associated with the trip – why invite scrutiny? I figured at some point I’d just “get” it, and the perplexing dimensions of our journey – a handful of zealous, young Christians flying to a country full of Christians to teach them about Christianity – would dissipate and fade away.

But it didn’t. In fact, when I got to Manila, and before we were shipped up to our rural mission placement, the question became all the more disturbing. I encountered evident faith and piety at every turn in that crowded city, and I witnessed a passion for Jesus and his Blessed Mother that made my cautious evangelical sensibilities seem anemic by comparison.

Further investigation was clearly warranted, but I had to act fast. Our days in Manila were few, and they revolved around jet-lag recovery, a few touristy jaunts, and more orientation. So I got up my courage and approached the Wycliffe staffer assigned to our team.Manila_Cathedral_Facade

“About worship on Sunday…,” I tossed out vaguely.

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked.

“The Cathedral,” I replied, then adding cautiously, “I’d like to find out more about the local culture.”

She was surprised by the suggestion, but she agreed to accompany me there. The other interns turned down the offer to join us, choosing instead to worship with the missionaries at the compound. I didn’t mind. It was already a quixotic quest, and having to share it with the Wycliffe staffer was going to be awkward enough.

After a jeepney ride or two, we got to Manila Cathedral, and nothing could have prepared me for the cross-cultural jolt I received there. Even if I’d arrived in the Philippines a lifelong, born and bred Catholic, I would’ve still gaped at the Cathedral scene: People coming and going indiscriminately, in and out of pews, in and out of the building; worshippers praying at side altars, lighting candles and saying rosaries; folks talking and laughing and wrangling children inside the church, men (mainly) talking (and smoking) outside the church. All of that while the priest and his retinue were praying the Mass in the clouds of incense up front around an elevated altar.

I was captivated.

What’s more, I was convinced. The practices and postures were foreign to me as an evangelical Protestant, and the Sabbatarian informality made me very uncomfortable, but I knew these people were already Christians, and I had very little to offer them. Moreover, I suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that I’d encounter the same level of passion and piety in the mission area to which I was being sent to evangelize. Yet, even then, I was yearning to receive evangelization myself from those people, to know Jesus as familiarly as they did, to know his mom and his friends, to feel at home in his house. It was all backwards, and the summer ended up a disaster as far as the internship was concerned.

It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the experience planted seeds – seeds of curiosity and longing that, in time, led to my reception into the Catholic Church. Plus, it was an object lesson in an organic missiology that seemed revolutionary to an impressionable Protestant missionary intern at the time – the idea that drawing others to Christ could be accomplished simply by living out the faith, regardless of whether the Gospel was verbally proclaimed or not. Avant-garde, to be sure, and radically effective as well.

It was the missiology at work in the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day – to proclaim Jesus by being Jesus. It’s the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association today. And it was Tamanrassetthe guiding light of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Saharan desert who converted no one, but whose remarkable life of heroic witness continues to inspire so many today. Of his missionary approach, he wrote:

In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. God continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the holy Eucharist. So we too must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way.

This is precisely what the Church teaches us with regards to how the Church goes about doing missionary work. Here’s the Catechism’s summary of that teaching in its section on Missionary paths:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience.

Yes, it requires patience, but not like we might think. It’s not the patient waiting for the heathen to respond positively to our Gospel proclamation, but rather the patient perseverance required in our own personal conversions. Here’s Bl. Charles again:

Everything about us, all that we are, should ‘proclaim the Gospel from the housetops’. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

In that sense, we’re to be like mini-BBCs, don’t you think? Broadcasting Jesus wherever we go – around the world to the boondocks of the Philippines, if we’re so called, but even more importantly, right here at home.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Paper or Plastic?

7 Sep

That which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we have looked upon
and touched with our hands… (1 Jn 1.1).

Holy cards abound in our home. They stick out from books and Bibles, and are randomly scattered about on shelves, dressers, and desks. An old wooden cigar box and at least one plastic tote contain the overflow in the basement.

holy-cardsSound like your house?

Of course, when you’re searching for a specific holy card, that’s the very one you can never locate, and such was the case recently when I decided to relearn the Holy Spirit prayer. I can remember the first lines – Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful… – but the second part about becoming truly wise has always escaped me (no surprise).

I could’ve taken the opportunity to do some organizing – like alphabetizing cards by name or charism in little file boxes – or I could’ve printed a hard copy of the prayer and laminated it myself. Instead, I took the path of least resistance and stopped by Aquinas Books to buy a new one. Mike, the proprietor, hunted around a bit, and then gave me the bad news.

“Looks like we’re out,” he said. “Do you want me to order it?”

“Sure – no rush though,” I replied. “And I might want more than one – how much are they?”

“That depends,” he said. “Do you prefer paper or plastic?”

Good question.

Plastic has certain practical advantages, especially if you’re going camping, let’s say, or opening a museum. Holy cards with a plastic coating are waterproof and more durable, plus there’s no way stray marks or smudges will obscure the text. Hence, if the content of the card is of utmost importance, then, by all means, plastic is the way to go.

But consider which holy cards you treasure the most – the ones which don’t end up in the cigar boxes or on random shelves, but stay planted in your breviary and bedside New Testament. Probably they’re the paper cards, worn out, stained, and faded, with maybe even a date penned in the corner, or some other kind of notation. Those are the ones we hold onto because they retain physical signs connecting them to specific times, locations, and life events.

In other words, it’s the very fragility of paper holy cards that tend to make them more particular, and, thus, well, more sacramental. A plastic holy card depicting your Confirmation saint is one thing; a shabby paper version of the same card with a note on it from youNP_20140730_JJGUARDIANS-05U_560427r Confirmation sponsor is quite another. The latter is invested with substantial meaning that is directly related to the object’s temporality.

It’s an idea that was illustrated in an especially exuberant way this summer in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Peter Quill, or “Star-Lord,” cherishes a cassette tape labeled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” – a collection of pop hits from the 70s and 80s that his mom had made for him prior to her death. In fact, Quill goes to great lengths in order to rescue his tape after it was stolen, much to the consternation of his companions.

In this age of internet, iTunes, and MP3 downloads, the hero’s antics seemed anachronistic, and therein the humor: He could’ve easily replaced all the music on that tape with a couple computer keystrokes. It’s clear by the end of the movie, however, that it wasn’t the music on the tape that the hero valued, but the actual tape itself – that particular tape which had been physically handled and manipulated by his long deceased mother, and which thus provided a concrete connection to her beyond whatever mere abstract memories he was able to conjure up. The tape was, as it were, a relic of sorts, and it allowed for a conversation between mother and son that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible. It was, in a purely human fashion, a sacramental.

Books – the old fashioned kind, the ones made out of paper, the ones with pages – are sacramental in the same way. This is especially the case when and because they are actually read – which may sound odd, but it’s a consideration that cannot be taken for granted. “Books are for use, not for show,” declared Yale English professor William Phelps way back in 1933. “You should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down.”

And yet, these days, the problem isn’t merely that books are reserved for show and not actually devoured. Instead, the current book revolution involves the rapid replacement of physical books with their digital counterparts. In fact, in some classrooms, books and texts are already a thing of the past. Books etc 015

That creeps me out in a big way. I may be a relic myself, but give me a tattered old paperback over a Kindle any day. Actual physical books have heft and odor and tangibility that serve to connect the reader with what is being read; screens have flickering light and blips of data fluttering past and, let’s face it, radiation. Books have a sacramental quality that engage our senses and draw us in; ebooks and print on screens have a superficial, intangible quality that convey information and words, but little else.

And what else is there? I don’t know about your home library, but our books have scrawls and marks and doodles and dogears throughout – indications that real people have dwelt in those pages, have bathed in them and soaked them up. Some of those people I’ve known and loved; others are total strangers. One recent library addition, a gift from an old friend, is a well-worn volume of Saki with an inscription in careful cursive that reads, “Mrs. V.A. Wright, from Dorothy Day.” Could it be… – why not? I leaf through that book and get more than merely the printed words and the meaning they convey; I’m also put in touch with Dorothy Day and Mrs. Wright, along with their own experience of that book, not to mention their friendship. Can a Kindle do that?

Ebooks remind me of the electric candles that I used to encounter in Chicago – always a letdown. Author Lawrence Block had a similar reaction after coming across automated candles in a Manhattan parish that figures prominently in his mystery novels:

“Nowadays the candles are electric,” Block observes with a note of disappointment under the nave’s yellow, clover-shaped ceiling. “You drop a coin in them and the light goes on. I suppose it gets the same absolute inattention [from] on high, but it just doesn’t feel the same.”

The reason it doesn’t feel the same is because it isn’t the same. To begin with, Block apparently lacks any faith, and so for him, the votive candle is only a symbol of prayer rising up to God in heaven – he’s not actually praying. But his point is valid in that part of the candle’s sign value – especially for someone still searching like Block – involves seeing the actual flame flicker; seeing and smelling the smoke; tracing the melted wax with our eyes as it trickles down the candle holder. An electric candle, as a Benedictine friend once complained, is a symbol of a symbol. It’s so far removed from what it’s supposedezekiel to signify as to render it almost meaningless.

So, electric candles, ebooks, plastic holy cards – they’re all are content-oriented, designed to preserve and perpetuate content and image. Consequently, alterations of any kind due to time and incidental use are deemed undesirable and systematically factored out.

Then there’s Ezekiel. In a recent weekday reading, the prophet provided an alternative vision of how we might appropriate signs, symbols, and sacramentals:

He said to me: Son of man, eat what is before you;
eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.
So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat….
I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.

The sign was to be consumed; the symbol, annihilated; the sacramental link with the divine, literally swallowed up. The content isn’t the point, Ezekiel is telling us. Rather, it’s the transformative encounter that matters and lasts, like the Eucharist itself.

In the end, though, even faltering steps toward such an encounter are well worth it. Like reading on a Kindle – isn’t it better than no reading at all? Sure. And if no wax candle is in sight, will I press the button for an electric flame? No doubt.

“There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God,” the Catechism teaches us. In other words, a plastic holy card beats no holy card at all, hands down.

And as Luke Jackson so poignantly reminded us, the same goes for a plastic Jesus.



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