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Of Emmaus, the Eucharist, and Emma Thompson

26 Apr

“The Eucharist is a mode of being,
which passes from Jesus into each Christian.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Toting Christ

11 Dec


“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.

Me Before You: On Disability, Suicide, and Guts

11 Jun

Mother Teresa of Calcutta accompanies Pope John Paul II as he greets people at the Home For the Dying in Calcutta, India, in 1986. Pope Benedict XVI approved a miracle attributed to Pope John Paul II's intercession, clearing the way for the late pope's beatification on May 1, Divine Mercy Sunday. (CNS photo/Arturo Mari) (Jan. 14, 2011) See JPII-BEATIFICATION Jan. 14, 2011.

True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain;
it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Christian Healthcare and Redemptive Suffering

26 May

 St Camillus de Lellis 3

My God, I do not want to be a Saint by halves.
I am not afraid to suffer for Your sake.
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux


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Best Answers: Of Nursing, Foolishness, and SNL

24 Jan


“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
~ P.T. Barnum

You’ve probably heard that Barnum didn’t coin that memorable phrase. In fact, there’s no hard evidence that the consummate showman and circus magnate ever said it even once. Still, the quotation has become permanently associated with Barnum’s name because he was the quintessential charlatan.

His circus – the “Greatest Show on Earth” – owed its success, at least in part, to exaggeration, dubious claims, and hoaxes, and all of those depended on locating folks ptbarnumwith money to burn and credulity to exploit – “suckers,” in other words. Rubes. Chumps. Fools – as in the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

But there’s another kind of fool, and this auditorium is full of them: Nursing students. Students who have devoted long hours to arduous study, the painstaking acquisition of new skills, and the challenges of early morning – very early morning – clinical experiences. And…why – for what?

In pursuit of a profession that’s oriented to sacrifice and service? In the hopes of making a difference in people’s lives, maybe even change the world?

C’mon – really?

The truth is: Nursing is a pain in the neck – literally, along with the lower back, and not to mention the head (pass the Tylenol, extra strength). The demands are constant, the stress, relentless, and the implications of our actions and decisions, enormous – and these guys are signing on voluntarily?

Then there’s this: Nursing stinks – again, literally. I’m confident these students can tell you stories from last semester’s clinicals (if they haven’t already), and you nurses out there in the audience have plenty stories of your own to share.

Moreover: Nursing is lousy – sometimes literally, as in lice-infested. Or perhaps it’ll be any of the other vermin, viruses, and infectious critters that show up in healthcare domains and which ordinary folks prudently avoid.

Not nurses, though, and these students are heading right into all that – and we’re here to honor their bizarre, yet noble professional trajectory.

Some of them will work in hospitals after they graduate, some in doctor’s offices or nursing homes, some will take their nursing skills overseas as missionaries. Regardless of where they end up, they’ll all devote themselves to lightening the burdens others, and, in so doing, brightening up their corners of the world for everybody.

In a sense, they’ll be following in the footsteps of St. Paul, that wacky missionary who seems to have been heedless of all inconvenience and danger as he tramped about the Mediterranean proclaiming the Word – and not just in words. “With such affection for you,” he explained to the Thessalonians, “we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” That is, Paul strove to match his verbal message with a practical one – to make the Gospel he preached identical to the Gospel he lived.

Isn’t that what we expect of nurses? Isn’t that what nursing’s all about? It’s not just about passing pills, managing tubes, and dressing wounds. It also includes pouring our very selves for others – in most cases, total strangers.

So, are you wondering how we go about equipping these would-be fools for that all-encompassing task? No doubt, you’ve already heard the worst of it from your students – like the exams, for instance, which are unlike any exams they’ve had before.

Yes, those exams are so tricky – the multiple-choice questions often have multiple correct answers, but only one best answer. It’s by design, of course, because we’re testing not only the acquisition of babyaspirinknowledge, but also critical thinking with regards to applying that knowledge in actual clinical situations – no easy task, I assure you.

Let me give you an illustration of how it works – one that’s very familiar to the students, and quite likely personally familiar to many of you gathered here: The daily baby aspirin.

Lots of folks take it these days, but few if any babies – it’s a grown-up thing. Unlike baby aspirin for babies – which might be for fever or pain – a baby aspirin for grown-ups is for one of its other properties: Reducing blood clot formation, which may help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

So, let’s say this comes up in a med pass at the nursing home or hospital. As our students are checking their Five Rights and consulting their drug cards, trying to get everything in order, we instructors might casually ask, “And why is your elderly patient taking a daily baby aspirin?”

The first time this happens, there’s almost always a pause, and maybe a stammer, and then a timid, halting, “for…pain?” We’re never surprised by that answer, and, technically, it is a correct answer, isn’t it? I mean, we do give aspirin for pain, don’t we?

But it’s not the best answer, and explaining why that’s the case is part of the steep, steep learning curve for nursing students. And the next time a baby aspirin is on the menu for an adult patient? The student will reply, “To prevent clots”…hopefully.

Frankly, we expect our students to get things like this wrong – even repeatedly – regardless of how much they study and practice. It’s why they’re in school, after all: For the “nursey” stuff. If they got all the “nursey” stuff right from the get-go, most of my colleagues and I would be out of a job.

Yet, as I’ve already noted, there’s more to it, especially here at Bethel, for we’re also attempting to foster an alignment of nursing identity – the one oriented to meds and treatments and monitoring vital signs – with servant identity – the one given over to charity and empathy and simple kindness.

There, too, there’s a constant weighing and evaluating between correct and best, and it can be a challenge, for straightforward nursing tasks are never optional, and they can’t take a backseat to spiritual and otherworldly concerns. Sometimes we succeed in finding the proper balance; sometimes we don’t. In both cases, we reflect on our experiences, take heart from our little victories, learn from our mistakes – and keep on going.

SNL_Original_CastIt’s like something I heard Lorne Michaels say on an NPR interview. Michaels is the television producer and innovator responsible for Saturday Night Live – basically he invented it. When asked how he manages to put on a live broadcast comedy and variety show each week, do you think Michaels replied that they have everything in place each Saturday? That all the contingencies have been addressed, all the potential problems ironed out?

Not at all. “We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Michaels told NPR. “We go on because it’s 11:30.”

That’s true for lots of endeavors that entail risk and hard work – marriage, for instance, and parenting. Christianity itself, for that matter, and certainly nursing – even while we’re still in school. We aim for excellence, but we can’t wait for perfection, for total confidence – we’d never act! We’d never nurse!

Besides, it’s not the nursing itself that’s the point – as important as it is, the nursing’s not the point at all. Instead (and at the risk of sounding terribly corny) it’s really about the love – moreover, for us here at Bethel, we can specify further and speak of the love of Christ.

It’s the kind of love that drove the earliest disciples of Jesus to radically extend themselves on behalf of others in imitation of their crucified and risen Master. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” to quote St. Paul again, but the world needs fools like these – and not only to care for sick folks and babies and aging codgers like me.

We need them because their idealism reminds us of what ought to be – what the world could be if only more of us chose to embrace selflessness as they have.

So, congratulations, students, for your foolishness – and thanks. Your future as nurses is a gift to us all and sign of real hope.

This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (23 January 2016). A version also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Fill Your Heart With Faces and Names, For You Live in Mission Territory

13 Dec


It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!
~ Pope Francis

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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.

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