The School of Love

25 Nov

“And so we are going to establish a school
for the service of the Lord” (Rule of St. Benedict).

“We have been placed on earth to learn to love in the school of Jesus,” writes Fr. Jacques Philippe in Interior Freedom. “Learning to love is extremely simple: it means learning to give freely and receive freely. But this simple lesson also is very hard for us to learn, because of sin.”

In that short paragraph, Philippe sums up my entire Catholic testimony. I’d grown up in faith, but I lost my way in college. I wanted Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, but I couldn’t find him. An abstract Jesus of the written Word and interior experience wasn’t enough. I wanted to see him, touch him, know him.

Then I encountered Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. I found the ethos of the Catholic Worker movement compelling in that it was so clearly a school of love just like Philippe describes. Hang around a CW house long enough, and you’ll get better at giving love and receiving love, regardless of your faith perspective. All CW students, if they stay enrolled, progress in love at their personal margins. It’s built into the system.

But it’s hard, very hard, mainly due to sin, as Philippe points out. That’s where grace comes in, of course, and that’s what drove me into the arms of the Catholic Church. I wanted more Jesus, I wanted more loving, both giving and receiving, and I became convinced that the Church and the sacraments and the communion of saints were the means to those ends.

I’m still convinced of that, and I’m still enrolled in the CW school, although as a distance learner now. It’s a lifelong course of study, you see. “Learning to give and receive freely requires a long, laborious process of re-educating our minds,” Philippe writes, “which have been conditioned by thousands of years of struggle for survival.” Daily, daily, daily I have to learn and re-learn the Gospel truth that life isn’t about mere survival or my rights and demands and temporal needs. No, life in Christ is about death to self, as the Lord insists, and an opportunity for new life in him.

Indeed, that new life involves a “process of divinization,” Philippe insists, “whose final goal is to love as God loves.” That sounds crazy, I know, especially given my petty selfishness and stubborn rebellion against heaven, but it’s the goal nonetheless. We’re called to be saints, after all, and saints are merely sinners who passionately desired heaven and never gave up. “This divinization, this becoming God-like, means becoming human in the truest sense!” writes Philippe. “It is a marvelous, liberating evolution.”

And it’s an adventure, the best adventure ever. See you in school!

For more information on the Catholic Worker movement, try this link.

Dressing Up to Serve

29 Oct

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones,
holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness,
humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3.12).

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Words Are Not Enough

6 Oct

“The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Father Stu: The Language of Love

5 Oct

“To boast in the Cross is an almost fierce gesture
when we confront all that would defeat us.”
~ Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR

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The 10th Station of the Cross & St. Damien’s Brag

13 Apr

“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are, without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
~ Caryll Houselander

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Learning to Serve with Nick

3 Apr

“Missionary altar servers:
this is how Jesus wants you to be!”

~ Pope Francis

“What do you think about serving Mass with your old dad?” I asked Nick one day.

“Sure,” he replied with enthusiasm. 

Nick’s an experienced altar server, having trained some six years ago and continuing in his regular service on weekdays and Sundays ever since. My other two sons and one of my daughters served at altar through high school, and now Nicky is the last to carry on that family tradition.

As an adult convert to Catholicism, I didn’t have the privilege of being trained as an altar server in my youth, and I’ve long envied my kids’ regular proximity to the Mass when they served – their direct engagement with what’s happening there at the altar, the immediacy of the liturgical threshold of heaven they’ve enjoyed. 

Then it occurred to me: Maybe I could learn the ropes and serve alongside my son. Indeed, he’d be an ideal coach – knowledgeable, but also (I’d hope) especially forbearing out of filial piety. 

What’s more, Nick has significant altar serving cred at my parish. I’m often told by friends and strangers alike that Nick is their favorites server – that he does a good job and that he brings a special presence to the liturgy. I suppose I’m biased, but I’d have to agree. I’ve seen him at work many times: He’s attentive on the altar, conscientious in discharging his duties with poise and confidence. 

Plus, there’s this: Nick has Down syndrome. 

Does that matter? No, I suppose not, but remember that we live in a world that thinks people with Down’s are disposable, that they’re better off not being born at all. What abominable nonsense! And one need not go further than assisting at Mass when Nick is serving for proof. I’d like to think that folks who praise him for his service are implicitly affirming the sheer absurdity that his life isn’t worth living and the obvious reality that the world is much better off with Nick in it. 

As further testimony of these truths, consider how Nicky stepped up as my guide Saturday afternoon for our first serving duo assignment. Mr. McMahon, the director of our altar server program, had given me a quick tutorial earlier in the week, but I was plenty nervous yesterday as 4pm approached. “Don’t worry, dad,” Nick assured me. “I’ll be up there with you. You’ll do fine.” 

We arrived early in the sacristy to get vested. “What do you think – a large surplice?” I asked after donning a cassock. 

“Yeah,” Nick replied. “I wear a medium, so a large should work for you.”

Next, he sent me out to light the candles on the altar. Like a good teacher, he made me do it myself, but he watched nearby from the sacristy doorway to see if I’d need any help. 

Then it was time to light our own candlesticks and pray with Fr. Dermot, Deacon Fred, and the others who had liturgical roles. “You’ll stand on the right side,” Nick told me before the processional. “The priest will come between us at the altar. We’ll genuflect when he does and leave the candles there. Just do what I do.”

Once in the sanctuary, we fanned out in position for the opening rites. After the sign of the cross and the Kyrie, Fr. Dermot spread his hands and said, “Let us pray” – my cue! Nick glanced over and nodded, and I approached Father with the Sacramentary upraised for the collect prayer. “…God, for ever and ever. Amen” – made it! I returned to my seat, and Nick gave me another nod, this time with a grin. 

After the first two readings and Psalm, we stood for the Gospel Acclamation, and Nick indicated with his eyes that we would be accompanying the deacon to the lectern. We retrieved our candles and stood on either side as the Good News was proclaimed – although, admittedly, I was a bit distracted as I adjusted the height of my candle to be even with Nick’s. 

When it was time for the Canon of the Mass, Nick reminded me with a head tilt that I had to place the Sacramentary and bookstand on the altar. We then accompanied the priest and deacon to the edge of the sanctuary to receive the ciborium full of hosts along with cruets of water and wine from select congregants. As the preliminary rites of the Eucharistic liturgy proceeded, I followed Nick’s lead as we literally waited on the celebrant: Bringing up wine and water when requested, followed by the water again and a towel for the priest’s ablution. 

I went to kneel at the side of the altar and Nick took up his place directly across from me. He prepared for his bellringing responsibilities as the Eucharistic Prayer proceeded to the Institution Narrative. “Do this in memory of me,” intoned Fr. Dermot as he first raised the consecrated Host, then the Chalice. I could see Nick focusing on the celebrant and bracing himself as he gave the bronze bells three distinct shakes at each Elevation – a clear, audible signal that Jesus was truly present in the priest’s hands. 

After the Agnus Dei and Fraction Rite comes Holy Communion, and we again had duplicate roles to play, proffering the paten below the chins of those who received our Lord on the tongue. Finally, at the liturgy’s conclusion, Nick once again reminded me with a nod that I was to hold the Sacramentary aloft for Fr. Dermot’s closing prayer. The cantor started a hymn, and we retrieved our candles to join the crucifer at the head of the recession down the aisle. 

On our way back to the sacristy afterwards, Nick gave me a pat on the back. “Way to go, dad,” he said. “Good job!” High praise from the seasoned pro.

“Thanks,” I said, relieved. “And thanks for watching out for me.” He smiled and gave me one more nod.

“The altar server often holds a candle in his hand,” observed St. John Paul II in remarks to some server-pilgrims gathered in Rome. “Do not hold your candlestick only inside the church but take the light of the Gospel to all who live in darkness.” To be sure, it was an honor to hold up actual lit candles with Nick at Mass yesterday, but I could never begin to approximate his lightbearing outside of church. In his very person, he is truly a living icon and a happy harbinger of hope in world given over to fear, death, and division. Nick serves the world by simply being alive.

Those who seek to rid the planet of Nickys would do well to reconsider. In fact, if you know people like that – people who think the world would’ve been better off without Nick – encourage them to join us for Mass to witness my son’s lightbearing and service firsthand. 

I bet they’d change their minds. 

In addition to his service at the altar, Nick has an inside line to the Celestial City and its inhabitants. Check out his collection of saintly interviews on Fun Facts about Saints!

Of Monks, Malleability, and Supple Sanctity

16 Mar

“The purpose of mortification is to liberate the spirit and make it plastic in the hands of God.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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P. G. Wodehouse is God

26 Feb

“In his creation of Jeeves he has done something which may respectfully be compared to the work of the Almighty in Michelangelo’s painting. He has formed a man filled with the breath of life.”
~ Hilaire Belloc

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Of Sun Devils, Suffering, and a Papal Grin

18 Sep

“At one and the same time Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Grandma Won’t Die from Alzheimer’s…Unless We Kill Her

20 Aug

“A man must be certain of his morality for the simple reason
that he has to suffer for it.”
 ~ G.K. Chesterton

Several months ago, I heard an ad that got me muttering. It was for a non-profit Alzheimer’s research fund. “The first person to survive Alzheimer’s disease is out there,” said the lady in the voiceover. “Wait – what?” I asked out loud. “Everybody survives Alzheimer’s!”

It’s true. Alzheimer’s itself is a devastating disease but it does not directly attack vital bodily functions. Instead, its progressive and inexorable assault on nerve connections in the brain leads to cognitive deterioration, which makes it progressively difficult for those suffering from Alzheimer’s to care for themselves or safely perform what healthcare workers call “activities of daily living.” Folks with advancing Alzheimer’s are more prone to falls and other injuries and, when they become less mobile, they’ll be more susceptible to skin breakdown and lung infections. They’re especially at risk for swallowing problems – which can lead to a deadly aspiration pneumonia when food or fluids go down the wrong pipe and into the lungs.

So, there’s no question that Alzheimer’s, the most common form of chronic dementia, truly has a terminal trajectory. In fact, Alzheimer’s is considered the sixth leading cause of death for adults in the USA – and some researchers suggest that more accurate data would put it in third place. Yet, no matter the disease’s official mortality rank, the fact remains that Alzheimer’s is in the running only as an “underlying cause of death” – something the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control define as “the disease or injury which initiated the train of events leading directly to death.”

In other words, despite the radio ad’s rhetoric, everyone survives Alzheimer’s itself – unless we kill them on account of it before they die of something else.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe, but what is really harsh is the silent killing that has become pretty routine in dementia care. It rarely makes the news because it is perfectly legal and, frankly, most don’t even think of it as killing. I’m talking about the intentional removal of nutrients and fluids from those who can no longer feed themselves safely or the discontinuation of feedings administered through a tube. Although there are situations in which such deferrals of food and fluids may be morally acceptable (e.g., when certain gastrointestinal diseases make it impossible for a person’s body to digest nutrients), most such deferrals hasten the dying process with no legitimate ethical justification.

The rationalization of this common practice takes a variety of forms – such as assertions that an individual should not be allowed to eat or drink because of aspiration risks and that the autonomy of the person suffering dementia should be respected when he refuses meals and water – but they all lead to the same result: death by dehydration within a matter of days. Those who defend this practice even argue that it’s a comfortable way to go, and so it’s actually compassionate to remove food and fluids when Alzheimer’s advances.

Wrong. Death by dehydration is a horrendous, agonizing process, no matter how much we gussy it up in medical lingo and references to compassion. Besides, when anything is done with knowledge that it will hasten death, it is killing, pure and simple.

The bottom line is that we should be making the necessary sacrifices to genuinely care for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, especially when the disease takes away memory and cognitive abilities. We should keep them clean and warm; help them move about to avoid skin problems; monitor them for infections and give them antibiotics when they get sick; and, yes, feed them safely – and gladly, especially when we consider the admonition of the Lord in Matthew 25: “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

A version of this article originally appeared in The HALO Voice, a publication of the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization. For more information about HALO’s critically important work, follow this link.

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