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Respect for the Dead: Normalizing It for Kids

6 Jun

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.”
~ Fred Rogers

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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.

Our Lady of Good Help

14 Jul

“Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”

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Shopping for a Terminal Address

29 Apr

“For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we will find one another again
in the same place.”
~ St. Simeon of Thessalonica
(CCC 1690)

My students thought it was sketchy. Several of them had seen me standing on a curb near the campus service entrance earlier in the day – just standing there. “What’s up, Mr. Becker?” one of them called out as she drove past. “I’m waiting for my wife to pick me up,” I called back. “I’m taking her someplace to show her something.”

Someplace. Something. So mysterious. “What was all that about?” my students ventured later that afternoon before our evening hospital clinical. I was happy to explain. “We went to the cemetery so I could show her our grave plots.”

What?

Not the most romantic of dates, I suppose, but you have to admit that it’s a solid confirmation (in real estate) of our ultimate shared abode. And it was joyful, for I’d purposely picked out spots close to dear friends who’d also reserved plots. We laughed as we wound our way between the tombstones and graves to find our designated places along the fence – “here’s where we’ll be; here’s where they’ll be.” Permanent neighbors – what fun! There was a cemetery worker nearby setting up for an imminent burial, and he seemed perplexed by our joviality – probably even a bit offended. “Don’t these people know where they are?” his scowl implied.

Let him scowl!

Look, why kid ourselves? Short of the Parousia, we’re all going to die – something my nursing students know well. And while it can happen to us any day, at any moment, it’s a reality that comes into sharper focus as we get older…er, rather, to be honest here, it’s a reality that’s coming into sharper focus for me as I’m getting older. Muscles I didn’t even know I had are starting to ache, obscure joints regularly alert me to their presence, and my chronic illnesses get all the more chronic-er.

You too?

But these are all good things, I think. Despite the hassles, getting old is a gift – truly! We have regular physical reminders that there’s an endpoint on the horizon along with daily opportunities to avail ourselves of divine aid and maybe get things right, maybe set things in order once and for all. “Death puts an end to human life,” the Catechism makes plain, “as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). Increasingly these days, when the morning alarm goes off, my prayer takes the form of, “Excellent – another shot at inching toward heaven. Thanks, God! Help me not screw it up today.”

What’s more, there’s also the fact that the older we get, the more funerals we end up attending – family, friends, co-workers. We grieve their departure, we comfort their surviving loved ones, and, unlike in our youth, we can’t help thinking to ourselves, “That’ll be me sooner rather than later.”

Is that morbid? Naah – I’m a Christian! Death is the point, after all – death to sin, death to self, dying that leads to rising and new life. It’s built right into our baptismal dignity – something we might forget when we’re watching cute babies get doused and sprinkled. It’s not simply a washing away of original sin, but also a sacramental entombment followed by a resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St. Paul wrote the Romans, who were familiar with the stark symbolism of full immersion, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life begins immediately upon receipt of baptism, of course, but it won’t see its full flourishing until our earthly walking days are over. At that moment, God willing, the moment of our deaths, we’ll hear the welcome of the Good Shepherd and we’ll know, either immediately or in time, the blessed relief of joining the company of heaven.

Yet there’s still more to come, for we believe in the final resurrection of the dead, “when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life…” (Jn 5.28-29). Redeemed souls will be reunited with their bodies, and they’ll have arrived at what Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue (drawing on Chesterton) described as the “Tavern at the End of the World,” full of feasting and cheer and riotous mirth. They’ll gather round with the saints of their holy cards and devotions, but also all the hidden saints whose paths might’ve only glanced theirs in this life. Imagine the craic and camaraderie! “Of course, you’re here!” they’ll cry to each other. “And I? I’m here, too? Thank God! Praise God! Another round!”

That’s the part that has me so jazzed about our grave plots and their juxtaposition to our holy friends. I envision my wife and I greeting them as the general resurrection commences – a back slap, perhaps, a hand shake and a hug – and then rising with them to the Pearly Gates. And if St. Peter should glance at his book and raise an eyebrow at me in hesitation, I’ll pipe up: “But, listen, I’m with her” (pointing to my wife), “and we’re with them” (indicating our friends).

I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can’t help smiling when I think about it. In truth, as Mr. Blue puts it, “It is only Catholicism that would ever allow the like of me to hope some day to be there,” but if I do make it, I’d love to have some pals along – especially during orientation and those awkward ice-breakers. Wouldn’t you?

All kidding aside, by setting down our markers in that cemetery, we’re concretely acknowledging our mortality – to ourselves, to our kids, to the world. Like a religious habit or a large family, making such grave reservations well before they’re needed is an implicit declaration of faith and abandonment. Plus, for my part at least, just knowing it’s there waiting for me just might spur me on to “work out my own salvation” with increased diligence and fervor (Phil 2.12).

I tried to relate all this to my students, but they just shook their heads. It was all too weird for them…so I went for broke. “Now that we have our grave plots,” I casually related, “I’m going to try talking my wife into purchasing Trappist caskets – maybe set them up at home as bookcases or end tables.”

OK, maybe that was taking things a bit too far…perhaps.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Hour of Our Death.

Gratitude is Enough

22 Nov

“If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you,
that would suffice.”
~ Meister Eckhart

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Blessed Babbler: Notker of Saint Gall (c. 840-912)

17 Sep

“For although I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge.”
~
St. Paul

“N-O-T-K-E-R,” my wife spelled out to me. “Ever heard of him?”

Nope – football maybe? Some obscure character from Shakespeare?

“Saint,” she said.

Nancy was scrambling to contact all the confirmands for our parish’s upcoming Confirmation Mass: Nailing down details about attire and arrival, times and seating arrangements, and, of course, Confirmation names.

“Apparently he’s the patron of stutterers.”

I’m guessing if you’re of a certain age (my age, that is), you can’t hear the word “stutterer” without immediately thinking of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. “B-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet,” they sang – arguably the most famous stammer in modern history. The funny thing is that the 1974 song was a really an elaborate prank. Randy Bachman wrote it for his brother, Gary, who had a speech impediment, and the recording itself was meant for Gary alone – it wasn’t supposed to wind up on an album or the airwaves.

Of course, it did – and it went soaring to the top of the charts. In fact, it turned out to be BTO’s only #1 hit. “When it was all over, to realize that I could have a million-seller and a number one record without sitting down with mental giants…you really can’t,” Randy Bachman commented later. “The magic is out of your hands.”

Magic indeed – a top hit featuring a sputtering lead singer was a charmed feat.

It turns out that Bl. Notker was able to accomplish tremendous feats himself despite his own speaking problems – which earned him the nickname “Balbulus.” Born to a prominent family, Notker was educated by the monks of Saint Gall Abbey in Switzerland. Eventually Notker took the habit himself and ended up serving his monastic brethren as librarian, guest master, chronicler, and, yes, teacher.

But there’s more. It appears that the humble Notker had a knack for Latin meter and verse, and he not only edited a collection of liturgical Sequences in use at that time, he also added a number of his own – like maybe 40 of them or more. He wrote hymns, he wrote biographies, and he is believed to be the author of the Gesta Caroli Mani (“The Deeds of Charles the Great”), a landmark anecdotal and didactic profile of the Emperor Charlemagne in verse. The monastic biographer at St. Gall’s, Ekkehard IV, characterized Notker as “delicate of body but not of mind, stuttering of tongue but not of intellect, pushing boldly forward in things Divine, a vessel of the Holy Spirit without equal in his time.”

The monk’s stutter, in other words, didn’t prevent him from conveying the Word. That’s good news for those among us who do struggle with verbal communication – no laughing matter despite BTO’s musical jest.

It’s also good news for those who serve as lay readers at Mass. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I’m prone to falter whenever I stand at the lectern – despite being otherwise largely falter-free.

I’m reminded of the movie “The King’s Speech” (2010) about the rise of the stuttering Prince Albert to the British throne and his rhetorical challenges as King George VI. There’s a scene where the King (Colin Firth) confronts his impudent speech coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), in Westminster Abbey. “I have a right to heard!” the monarch shouts in fury. “I have a voice!”

“Yes, you do,” replies Logue – and so do we.

Those of us who approach the ambo to proclaim the Word of God should take heart; King George’s declaration should be our own. When we receive a mandate to serve as lectors at Mass, we’re given a voice – and there’s even, to paraphrase Randy Bachman, a bit a grace that’s out of our hands.

A quick Google check turns up St. Bede the Venerable as the most popular patron of lectors, with St. Pollio, a Roman martyr, a close second. For me, I’ll be invoking the name of Bl. Notker the next time I take up the lectionary. I’ll flounder; I’ll misspeak; I’ll hem and haw. But I’ll trust that, despite my faults, grace will attend my voice, and God’s Word will be heard.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

12 Sep

“That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD…” (Ps 27).

I sat in my usual place on Mary’s side of the church for the 5:30 evening Mass, which is why I didn’t spot Felicia until it was time for Holy Communion. She’d come to St. Matt’s with Anthony, and Anthony always sits on the Joseph side off the main aisle.

It must’ve been a Thursday, my day to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Following the fraction rite and the centurion’s prayer, the celebrant entrusted me with the Precious Blood, and I made my way over to the Joseph side of the church to await communicants.

“The Blood of Christ,” I said as I presented the chalice.

“Amen,” the first recipient replied with a bow before receiving. Once the vessel was returned, I swiped it with a purificator, rotated it slightly, and held it ready for the next in line.

Only the next in line eventually was Felicia – and I admit I was taken aback. “The Blood of Christ,” I said holding the chalice aloft, and I know my eyebrows went up as well. St. Matt’s wasn’t Felicia’s parish, and I’d never seen her there for daily Mass before. Plus I knew she’d been sick, very sick – too sick, I would’ve surmised, to be out to a parish on the other side of town.

Felicia caught my expression and flashed her wide smile. “A-men,” she said with emphasis. After receiving her sacred sip and handing back the cup, she leaned in: “Come talk with me afterwards.”

Following the closing prayers, I tracked her down in Anthony’s pew. They were talking – rather Felicia was talking and Anthony was listening. She looked fatigued, but she spoke with her characteristic passion nonetheless, expostulating, pointing. When I walked up, she grabbed my hand, clutched it, clasped it tight – and kept on talking. “It’s in the way,” she was saying to both of us as she motioned toward the altar with her free hand. “Someone needs to tell the priest to get that cross out of the way – get a smaller cross.” She was referring to our altar crucifix, which, admittedly, is on the tall side. “It’s in the way,” Felicia repeated. “It blocks the gestures, the epiclesis. Nobody can see the epiclesis.” Still hanging on to my hand – as if to ensure I was listening, that I was catching the urgency of her entreaty – she emphasized the importance of an unimpeded line of sight during the consecration.

It was awkward – I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, for it was clear that there was more behind Felicia’s animated pleas than a liturgical preference. She kept staring at the altar, staring at the place where her visual participation in the epiclesis and Eucharistic offering had been disrupted – gestures that, in the words of Sofia Cavalletti and Patricia Coulter, “express the covenant in a visible way: God’s self-giving to us, our gift of self to God.” Through her eyes, Felicia seemed to be reaching out to the Good Shepherd whose self-giving appearance on the altar had been momentarily obscured.

In time, the three of us made our way to the exit where we briefly embraced and said our goodbyes. I took off, but Felicia remained behind on the steps to continue tutoring Anthony – to extend and expand the delight of that shared liturgical encounter.

The whole episode was somewhat dreamlike, even strange, yet I was so glad for it. It turned out to be a blessed and serendipitous opportunity to take leave of an old friend. A week and a half later, I heard that she’d passed away – at home, surrounded by her family, peaceably.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker, Felicia’s former pastor, came over from Fort Wayne to celebrate her funeral Mass. “That was her place, right down there,” he said during the homily, pointing out the first pew where Felicia’s family was seated. “She’d sit there in the front, leaning over, on the edge of her pew – as if to be as close as possible to the Word, listening with full attention, ready to respond.”

Listening – and watching, I’ll bet. Just like she did at St. Matt’s, yearning and stretching, thrusting aside distractions, zeroing in on the Good Shepherd, and inviting others to join her – through her words and teaching, yes, but particularly through her forward-looking example.

“Here below we know God…by the idea we have formed of him,” writes Frank Sheed, but “in heaven, our seeing will be direct…. That is why the very essence of the life of heaven is called the Beatific Vision – which means the seeing that causes bliss.”

Felicia’s life revolved around promoting and instilling blissful sight – in her family and friends, in her school, in the children given into her care, including my children. What a blessing to be remembered that way. God, I hope I live my life such that I can be similarly remembered. Toward that end, I’m banking on Felicia’s prayers, like an unseen clutch of the hand, like a nudge. Redirect my vision accordingly, Lord. Help me see what she saw.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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