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See One, Do One, Teach One

5 May

It’s a gross oversimplification, and it’s even frowned upon in medical training circles today, but there’s still a lot of truth in the old nursing adage: See one, do one, teach one.

For example: Think back to when you learned to give injections.

Probably it was something utterly foreign to your experience and, frankly, terrifying – sticking a total stranger with a sharp object, let alone pushing chemicals into his arm! But we talked about it in the lab, we showed you videos, we demonstrated it (on manikins, of course) – you saw how we did it, and you heard us insist that you could do it, too.

Then, after seeing, you did it yourself – that same day, right there in the lab! You drew up some saline in a syringe, you swabbed off a practice pad, and you got up to courage to jab it in – success! You kept at it, over and over and over, until you could do it without breaking into a cold sweat, and you were ready for the inevitable, ominous-sounding check-off – in nursing school, the main way you follow “see one” and “do one” with “teach one.”

In a sense, you were teaching back to us what you’d learned and practiced, and then you went on teaching back to us as you performed those skills in the clinical setting on real patients. Many of your other nursing skills were reinforced the same way: You’d encounter the new skill, then practice it yourself, and finally turn around and share what you’d encountered and assimilated.

Here’s the thing, though: Nursing isn’t just about those bedside skills – not even close. Especially for Christian nurses. It’s also about your presence and attention; it’s about how you do things, not just what you do; it’s about being a conduit of God’s healing and comfort through your words, through your gestures, through your prayers, both spoken and silent.

It’s about, in other words, being ambassadors of Jesus – his envoys in the lives of those who are sick and suffering, apprehensive and forlorn.

This is at the heart of a Biblical vision for nursing, and I’d like to cap off your nursing formation by presenting a few exemplars of this Biblical vision that I hope you’ll keep in mind as you launch your career. And I’ve made it easy for you to remember them – in a word, Mary. Actually, make that Mary x3.

The first is the Mary you’re probably thinking of – the Christmas Mary, the virgin mother of the Messiah. We see in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that Mary sees or encounters divine grace the moment the angel Gabriel tells her that she’s to be the mother of Jesus – “Let it be to me according to your word,” is her verbal response.

Immediately after, however, she follows up with an active response – seeing is followed by doing ­– and she visits Elizabeth, herself 3 months pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary, having received Jesus, literally, in the flesh, turns around and brings Jesus (again, literally) to her expectant cousin – the best pre-natal home visit ever!

That’s what we get to do as well – what you’ve been doing as a student nurse, and what you’ll be doing every day as an RN: Bringing Jesus to others through your skills, your knowledge, your presence, yourselves. And when others praise you for your selflessness and care, you’ll point to God – teaching through your words and example that what you do is all about whom you have received, just as Mary does with Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she tells her cousin. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

The second Biblical nursing Mary is the Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. These three siblings were clearly the Lord’s chums, which means they’d already seen who he was – or, in my terminology, they’d already encountered his Gospel of love. In Luke, we also see Mary and Martha doing the Gospel they’d encountered by offering hospitality to Jesus, but in two very distinct ways that mirror the two dimensions of our profession. There’s the Martha of Bethany in us which is oriented to tasks – and which, frankly, is what our employers expect of us, not to mention our patients. But we’re also called, again especially as Christian nurses, to do a lot of Mary of Bethany at the bedside – sitting at the feet of Jesus under the guise of the sick, listening, just being with.

Mary and Martha also appear late in John’s Gospel, caring for their ailing brother, Lazarus, and advocating for his healing by sending for Jesus. Although Lazarus dies before Jesus arrives, we see the two sisters persisting in their advocacy – a teach-back of total faith in Christ, who assures them that “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jesus then goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead, anticipating his own resurrection, but also affirming with action the two sisters’ declaration of faith.

Finally, we have Mary Magdalene, a prominent New Testament figure, and a witness to both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We know from Luke’s Gospel that she’d been healed of demonic possession – that is, she’d encountered the healing Christ – and she was doing what Christ had shown her by supporting him and his Apostles out of her “own means” in Luke’s words.

But Mary Magdalene is best remembered for her role as apostle to the Apostles. According to John, she was the first to come upon the risen Lord on Easter morning – although she initially mistook him for somebody else. When she finally recognizes Christ – alive! Somehow alive! – she falls down to worship, but he has a mission for her to carry out right away. He says, “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And Mary promptly complies, going to the disciples to teach them, to bring them the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” Yes, he is alive indeed!

So, three biblical Marys, and three models for carrying out our profession of care. There’s at least one more thing these three have in common: They’re all considered saints – that is, they conformed their lives to Christ and persevered in faith, running the race to the end, in the words of St. Paul, and winning the prize of heaven. That’s our ultimate goal as well – we’re all saints in the making, saints to be – and nursing affords us daily opportunities to pursue it.

We’ve already seen or encountered Christ in our lives, and we’ll keep seeing him regularly – daily! – in those we care for. And caring for them as nurses, if done with charity and compassion and patience, is a superior means of doing what Christ has called us all to do. Finally, we are all sent, like Mary Magdalene, to announce the Gospel – to teach through out words and actions that we’ve seen the Lord, that he’s alive, and that his healing goes well beyond the physical complaints of our patients. May God bless you as you go forth and live these realities – as you go forth to bring Jesus to a hurting world who needs him.
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Adapted from a speech given to Bethel College nursing graduates at their Pinning ceremony on 4 May 2019. A version appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Glorious Exposure

13 Apr

Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_(Notre_Dame,_Indiana)_-_interior,_The_Lady_Chapel,_mural,_The_Exaltation_of_the_Holy_Cross_by_Luigi_Gregori,_looking_straight_up-001

“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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Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

31 Mar

“It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and…which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
~
Pope St. Paul VI

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” said my wife, Nancy. “That new picture you got from the library? You hung it upside down.”

She was referring to “Goldfinch and Cherry Tree” (c. 1834) by Hokusai Katsushika. It’s the latest installment in our household gallery which features a solitary work of art, intermittently alternated, at the bottom of our main staircase. Our source is the main branch of the superb St. Joseph County Public Library, which has an extensive collection of framed prints that patrons can check out for a few weeks at a time.

I remember when I first made use of this unusual service after hearing about it from friends. I was outside the downtown branch’s children’s area on the third floor when I spied a framed print propped up on a tripod. It was something recognizable – maybe the “Mona Lisa” or something famous like that. “Can I really check this out on my card?” I asked a passing librarian.

“Sure,” she replied with a shrug. “And there’s more in that hallway around the corner.”

Indeed there was. Scores of framed prints of various sizes and shapes. Paintings, photos, drawings, and even retro promotional posters. The Becker Rotating Stairwell Gallery was born, and I’m told by the librarians that many in the community regularly swap out selections like we do. And since the checked-out items, like books, can be renewed twice, that means that there’s a steady flow of local domestic curators returning to the library every couple months to select something new to exhibit.

By default, I’ve become the curator of our own rotating display. I’ll turn in the previous selection at the circulation desk, and then head upstairs to browse the available collection. Sometimes I’ll search for a specific print, especially if someone at home made a request, but usually I’ll just go with my gut and choose something that catches my fancy at the moment. A big, bright Georgia O’Keefe flower is ideal in the middle of winter, for example, but something languid and light seems more fitting as the weather warms – like “The Siesta” (1890) by Van Gogh, one of Nancy’s favorites.

And that’s one of the joys of this routine now that we’ve been doing it for so many years. Some of the repeat picks have become familiar to us all, and we even have certain ones that stand out in our memories. Based on an informal survey of the fam and my own (albeit biased) impressions, here’s a few that rise to the top of the list.

  1. Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World” (1948): My daughter, Joan, herself a serious artist, particularly recalls that “we once had a copy of ‘Christina’s World,’ which I really liked.” Me, too. To view this poignant scene through Wyeth’s eyes is to be simultaneously unsettled and comforted. The lush, illuminated landscape is peaceful; the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings on the horizon, reassuring. Yet, the young girl in the foreground appears to be lacking composure as she begins to crawl, leaning toward her home and yearning for shelter and solace. The fact that the painting’s subject, Anna Christina Olson, was in fact crippled from a childhood illness offers some insight into the painting’s allurement, but its power to conjure wistful reflection extends well beyond its historic origins.
  2. Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I: Tomato 46” (1968): If there’s one print that’s come to represent the spirit of our revolving collection, it’s this pop classic. “That one is clearly the family favorite,” writes my daughter, Meg, although my wife would demur – strongly. Even so, Nancy demonstrates a tremendous generosity of spirit in quietly enduring the soup can’s appearance in our stairwell about once a year. Personally, I think “Tomato 46” is hilarious, and it certainly challenges assumptions about what art can and should be – which was part of what Warhol was getting at. Plus, it prompts me to contemplate this thoroughly modern artist’s unusual interior topography, for he was a Mass-going Eastern-rite Catholic who respectfully, perhaps conscientiously, avoided the sacraments. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the church,” said a priest who knew him, and we can hope that this visionary seeker made his peace with God before his death in 1987.
  3. M.C. Escher, “High and Low” (also known as “Up and Down,” 1947): This lithograph, like so many works by Escher, is abrupt and intellectually demanding. It’s also another consensus favorite in my family, and I think its occasional placement at the bottom of our staircase offers a subtle ironic counterpoint to the routine clambering of our daily lives. You have to pause when you see it, slow down and ponder its interlocking, yet conflicting perspectives, or else ignore it and pass it by. Its beauty is in its complexity, and while it is narrowly vertical, it nonetheless prompts the viewer to expand his mental horizons. Like the work’s two pairs of figures gazing at each other amid the convoluted angles, we’re invited to broaden our outlooks while attending to what’s right in front of us.

And that brings me back to Katsushika’s “Goldfinch” and Nancy’s admonition about its topsy-turvy placement. “That’s what Katharine said when I put it up,” was my reply. “But the hanging wire is positioned that way, and, besides, it looks even weirder the other way around.”

Kath chimed in. “Yeah, it’s not right,” she said, adding, “I don’t like this one.”

And yet, there it hangs in our stairwell – and it’ll stay there for another, oh, six weeks or thereabouts, despite Kath’s disapproval. When I snagged it off the wall at the library, I saw the graceful ascent of the cherry blossoms contrasted against the deep blue background – nice. Frankly, the finch escaped my notice at the time, but his awkward pose makes the painting all the more appealing to me now.

For, as curator (and dad), I’m not simply interested in adorning our stairwell with pretty pictures. I’m especially inclined to host images that rattle and rouse, confound and console. I think that’s what Pope St. John Paul II was driving at when he wrote about the “art of education” in his 1999 Letter to Artists (§4). He explained that “genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (§6). Thus, the Katsushika print is beautiful, but not only beautiful. The upturned bird catches our attention and imagination: Is the artist telling us something about himself? His community or society? The world?

Moreover, how can Katsushika’s vision inform our own? As St. John Paul notes, we might not all be artists, but all of us are called to make of our lives “a work of art, a masterpiece” (§2). For now, Katsushika is a resident mentor in that regard, and we can dwell for a time with his artistic expression. Who knows? Maybe “Goldfinch” will have even grown on Kath by the time it’s returned to the library. Even if it doesn’t, she, like the rest of us, will have benefited from the encounter.
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Christmas 24/7

29 Dec

Here’s a Christmas picture:

800px-Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

It’s Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting – you’ve seen it a million times: On mugs, posters, parodies, and t-shirts. Maybe you’ve even seen it in Chicago at the Art Institute.

But there’s no Santa, no tree or tinsel, no Nativity scene, nothing Christmasy – no snow even! It’s not even winter! Nonetheless, I insist: This is a Christmas picture.

It’s a Christmas picture, I think, because even Hopper’s bleak urban vision of isolation and loneliness had to make room for light. It might be artificial light – fluorescent and cold – but it’s still light, and all light is from God. “The light shines in the darkness,” St. John tells us in the Christmas liturgy, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Hopper’s masterwork is like a Christmas icon: It’s an image of light conquering the oppressive night of not only the scene, but also the characters’ lives – almost a snapshot depicting Bruce Cockburn’s memorable line, “Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” The light in Nighthawks is tenuous and seemingly caged, but hope is present nonetheless. The cafe’s rough, glaring light is a sign that God won’t give up on the lonely, crouching figures, even if they’ve given up on Him – and He won’t give up on us either. He’ll find a way to save us somehow, despite ourselves.

And that’s what the Incarnation is all about, isn’t it?

But why another Christmas picture now? I mean, it’s been over for days, right? The 24/7 Christmas music on the radio was bumped by classic rock on December 26, and they’re giving away poinsettias at Kroger for zips. Christmas 2013 is now the business of the Ghost of Christmas Past as far as popular culture is concerned. Valentines Day displays are up already – time to move on, according to the engines of commerce.

Not for you and me, though – we know better. Christmas is not even half over, and it’s a celebration that supposed to take us well into the new year and beyond. The Feast of the Holy Family today, then the Solemnity of Mary (and Jesus’ circumcision) on January 1, followed by Epiphany and the visit of the Magi five days later, and stretching even as far as Candlemas and the Presentation on February 2.

Defy the darkness and cold of winter – party on!

To be sure, it can be a challenge to do that in a culture that ceases celebrating the Lord’s birthday the very moment that Catholics start. Discarded Christmas trees are lining the streets; we keep telling people “Merry Christmas!” and they keep staring at us. Even our kids think we’re weird.sim21

No matter. Christmas it is, and Christmas celebrating we will continue, regardless of how odd it might appear. It’s essential, I believe, and not just for liturgically purist motives. In fact, it’s a rudimentary lesson in keeping alive what everyone calls the “Christmas spirit” all year long.

And that’s the real point Charles Dickens is making in A Christmas Carol – not just Scrooge’s conversion on Christmas eve, but his daily conversions the rest of his life. Dickens writes of the reformed Scrooge that “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Yet “keeping Christmas well” clearly meant more to Dickens than merely doling out alms and being jolly in December:

Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

To be credible, Dickens’ Scrooge could only have become a good friend, master, and man if he lived out his newly discovered Christmas spirit throughout the year – and so it is with us real Scrooges. Joy and generosity and kindness around Chritreestmas is all to the good, but don’t we really want them to extend on into February and April and the fall?

There’s a poignant scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that gets at this very idea. Francie and her brother procure a free Christmas tree for their family celebration, and they lug it up to their top-floor apartment as a host of well-wishers in neighboring flats urge them on. Later, after the festivities die down, Francie speaks her mind:

Papa, the people in the hall when we brought up the tree, the look on their faces all friendly and nice. Why can’t people be like that all the time? Not just on Christmas?

Just so, and the liturgy fosters that very perspective by stringing Christmas along for weeks. “The Church never tires of singing the glory of this night,” as the Catechism puts it. “Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us.”

“May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Dickens wrote. Amen. God bless us, every one – and all year long.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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