Tag Archives: Church

A Herd of Hookers

14 Dec

That’s what you do in a herd: you look out for each other.
~ Manny the mammoth

“Did he just say what I think he said?”macau-1

The radio was on as background noise – I can’t remember if I was at my desk or driving somewhere. NPR’s Frank Langfitt was talking about money laundering in Macau, and I wasn’t really paying too much attention.

But I perked up at this line: “I’m in the bottom of one of the casinos and trying to avoid a herd of hookers.” Wow – really? “Herd?” Of “hookers?”

The alliteration was catchy, but it sounded so demeaning and dehumanizing. These were individual women, after all, each with a family background and history, and each, no doubt, with a terribly sad tale to tell. The journalist’s flip use of a slang term for prostitute was bad enough; lumping the women all together as a nameless pack of animals was truly jarring.

I react similarly whenever I hear public health advocates speak of their immunization efforts – like Harvard physician Haider Javed Warraich:

Vaccines work when given to individuals, but they are most effective when administered to an entire population. That’s because vaccines confer “herd immunity” that disrupts the chain of infections, but only if enough people get the immunization.

I get the idea and the science behind it, but if public health officials want greater vaccination compliance, then I suggest they come up with a better image than “herd immunity.” Certainly immunization is effective and an important weapon in the public health arsenal, but I am not part of a herd, and neither are my children.

Instead, Warraich and his ilk notwithstanding, my kids are individual persons with individual physiologies, not to mention unique personalities, affinities, and dispositions. And this is true for everyone – something Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out with specific reference to Muslim women:

I didn’t realize until I came to the West that we actually are first and foremost not collectives. We are individuals. We are individual girls with our different characters, with our likes and dislikes. And before you assume the collective, assume the individual.

Yes, individuals first; members of a collective second. And, in any case, never simply part of a faceless mob.

Good_Shepherd_Catacomb_of_PriscillaHowever, there’s one area in which herd language is appropriate – and, oddly enough, it’s particularly associated with prostitutes. I mean, if there’s anything that deserves the moniker “herd of hookers,” it’s the church.

To begin with, the church actually does turn out to basically be a herd – remember the Good Shepherd? We all love the parable of the shepherd rescuing that lone sheep in the Gospel. It’s comforting and reassuring: I’m a witless beast, and the Divine herdsman has me safely ensconced across his broad shoulders.

Remember, though, that the shepherd eventually would’ve returned that sheep to the herd. Ultimately, it’s the herd that the Good Shepherd is entrusted to protect and nurture, and rescuing individual sheep is accomplished within that context.

Admittedly, it’s a delicate balance that Scripture strikes between images of God’s people as individuals and as a group. Paul gets at it very directly in his letters, especially when he talks about the body of Christ being made up of individual members with their distinctive differences. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (I Cor. 12.12). In other words, we’re all in it together as one body, but we’re also like discrete cells in an organism – each with distinct tasks to fulfill, with the vitality of the whole depending on everybody carrying out their assigned roles.

The ultimate destiny of the organism, however, is not dependent on each separate cell becauspeter-drowning2e it is already determined – predestined, you could say – that the organism is destined for paradise. “When the Holy Spirit blows, He does not create good individual Christians, individual ‘saints,’” writes Metropolitan John Zizioulas, “but an event of communion, which transforms everything the Spirit touches into a relational being.” The Catechism quotes Vatican II on the topic:

Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him: “In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification.”

Salvation, thus, is a matter of our incorporation into that body, and our petty faults and failings day to day are somewhat irrelevant as long as we persevere in that body. We know this because Jesus told us that the ones actually getting into heaven are the tax collectors and the prostitutes – biblical shorthand for notorious sinners. Think about such stories from the point of view of one of their main target audiences – the Pharisees and the self-righteous. They listened and critiqued, but they missed the obvious – and what was the obvious?

It’s this: Jesus was calling on them – and on us – to become more like Zacchaeus, and the Gospel’s sinful woman, and other noteworthy biblical transgressors in their lowliness. Far from giving the Pharisees a commission to lift sinners to their own level of respectability, the Lord gave them a subtle challenge to descend to the tax collectors’ and harlots’ level instead. That’s where humility and contrition can take a visceral, authentic form. That’s where true repentance and conversion can take place.

So, if Christianity is about conforming to Christ and getting to heaven, and if we ourselves really want to be on the way to heaven, then we too should think of ourselves as tax collectors and prostitutes – simply sinners, that is, just as Pope Francis declared himself after an interviewer asked him who he was:

I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

This is no surprise, of course, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the process of becoming saints is a group effort – all the members of the body of Christ working through their stuff all at the same time – and it won’t exactly be a precisely choreographed affair. The Catechism puts it very explicitly:

All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.

SignofPeaceTo be sure, the crook and the harlot and all us sinners, once incorporated into the body of Christ, are still called to repentance. There’s no question that sin is awful in every respect, and part of embracing Christ and becoming part of the church is recognizing sin for what it is and reforming accordingly. Nevertheless, the crook and the prostitute have an advantage over the self-righteous, for profligate sinners have no illusions about their worthiness or sufficiency.

In any case, our job entails avoiding judgment of our fellow sinners, and then, more importantly, fully acknowledging our own corruption and inadequacy. Then, Jesus can do something with us – the sooner, the better.

Fortunately, thank God, we don’t have to go it alone – we have the Church herself, the saints, and even each other. Here’s the Catechism once more:

The unity of the Mystical Body produces and stimulates charity among the faithful: “From this it follows that if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with him, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”

Out of many, one; one body, many members; born again as an individual, but born into a herd destined for glory. “Such is the race that seeks for him,” says the Psalmist, “that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”

There’s plenty of mystery here to go around: Let’s dig in!

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A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Did He Show Up?

20 Oct

This is primarily a tribute to my friend Tim Roemer. Tim died last year just before Christmas, and I’ve been mulling over his death and life ever since.

It’s high time I got some of that mulling out of my head and into words, especially  with the first anniversary of his death approaching. I owe it to him, to his wife, Nancy, and to his kids, Peter and Anna. I owe it because, even though I’ll forever be in Tim’s debt, that’s no excuse to skip payments. Consider this a belated first installment.

A friend like Tim doesn’t come along very often, and he came along in my life at a crucial moment. He was fiercely loyal, embarrassingly generous, and extraordinarily self-effacing. Tim could also be infuriating at times (neglecting to pick up his wedding cake until an hour before his wedding comes to mind), and fantastically stubborn—just like the rest of us. In his case, however, it seemed like those were very small flaws compared to his many gifts and grand magnanimity.

Also, Tim was an idealist and a dreamer—a war tax resister, for example, and a regular at the Uptown Catholic Worker—so we found common cause as we stumbled around like a couple urban Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills and laughing at our foibles.

During this same time, I was discovering the Church, and, in time, embracing it, and my friendship with Tim gave me firsthand insight into what it meant to be a thoroughgoing Catholic. In fact, he was, along with my godfather and others in Uptown, among the first thoroughgoing Christians I’d ever encountered—thoroughgoing in the sense timthat Tim’s faith wasn’t an attachment or an addendum or just one aspect of his life, but rather it was his life, in a very natural, integrated way. So integrated, in fact, that he didn’t talk about it all the time, nor did he feel a need to draw attention to it. It was simply a given for Tim; it was assumed.

Three stories about Tim neatly summarize that integrated demeanor he modeled for me and which I’ve tried to emulate ever since. The stories all have Sacramental themes, and together they form a kind of catechetical triptych which continues to inform my own faith to this day. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. At the very least, if you’re a convert, you’ll appreciate these three Sacramental anecdotes, and why they helped me find my place in the Catholic universe.

First, Confession.

Tim loved to tell about battlefield priests during World War II who would hear Confessions of soldiers prior to major combat actions. “Are you sorry for your sins?” the priests would ask. “No,” would come the honest reply from war-hardened troops accustomed to less than saintly behaviors. Knowing that the troops faced the probability of death, and so anxious to grant them absolution, the priests would then ask, “But are you sorry that you’re not sorry?”

It sounds apocryphal, and maybe it is. Nevertheless, the story illustrates something profoundly true about the Church and her work of mediating the love of Christ to the world—namely, that He’s desperate to give it to us. Unlike the rather rigid formulas that most people associate with Catholicism, the God we encounter in Christ, the one we see in the Scriptures, the one the Church presents to us, is one who will go to any and every length to give us life and love and even Himself.

As Jesus said, God won’t be outdone by human fathers who generally provide good things for their families. Does a dad give his children stones when they ask for bread? Or scorpions when they ask for eggs? No, and usually he is working extra shifts to not only give them food and shelter and clothing, but cake and ice cream as well. Maybe even a trip to Disney World.

Yet human fathers are only a pale reflection of our heavenly Father who wants much more for us than treats and trips. He wants to give us heaven itself, and adoption, and eternity. He’s desperate to do it, and desperate times call for desperate measures. And that’s pretty much what the Gospels are all about.

Second, vocation.

This story hearkens back to the days when Tim and I were both wrestling with our life callings. Like him, I was oblivious to the painfully evident fact that God hadn’t called me to the priesthood. Tim figured it out way before I did—no doubt because, as a cradle Catholic, he was equipped to read the vocational tea leaves more readily. Nevertheless, until he finally relented and embraced his true vocation of marriage and fatherhood (in which both arenas he thrived), Tim had made halting progress in the discernment and seminary application process with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During one of his interviews, my friend was asked what he thought about the role of women in the Church. Without any hesitation, Tim responded, and it was a simple, direct, vocation-squelching, yet wise classic: “Women’s role in the Church? Same as men: To become saints.” Clearly this wasn’t what the vocation folks in the chancery wanted to hear.

Rather, they wanted some nuanced and politically sensitive ramble about changing cultural attitudes, development of doctrine, and expanding opportunities for women’s participation in the liturgy and church governance. This was in the Cardinal Bernardin heyday, and the archdiocesan middle management was overwhelmingly “progressive.” Orthodoxy had to be gilded with a liberal patina in order to survive such vetting episodes.

None of that for Tim, however. He, like me, saw that the Church needed priests, and he pursued ordination accordingly—out of a sense of love and duty more than a sense of calling. But even if some fancy Jesuitical footwork could’ve enabled Tim to fly below the vocation office’s orthodoxy radar, it was a price too high, and that interview foretold the eventual demise of his priestly quest. That was a good thing, of course, because as Nancy and the kids can attest, his vocation lay elsewhere.

Here, too, Tim became a role model for me, as he took up marriage and fatherhood with the same tenacity and drive that characterized his do-gooder Catholic Worker-ism. “If God has called me to become a saint through marriage and family life,” I can imagine him saying, “well, then, dammit, let’s get on with it!” If he didn’t actually say those words, that’s certainly how he lived, and I took his example to heart.

Misa_Mosaico_SMarcosFinally, the Eucharist.

I lived with Roemer, along with our mutual friend and my godfather, Jim Eder, for a longish portion of my Uptown, Catholic Worker days. All three of us were daily Communicants, although we often went to Mass separately and at different times. Often I would go alone to the 8 am weekday Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury. When I returned to our flat, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect.

Eder would already be off to work, having attended the 6:45 am liturgy. Tim would be home, sitting in an easy chair and reading the Tribune amid the clutter and mess of our apartment. Entering our six-flat building and climbing the stairs to the third floor would involve enough noise that Tim would be alerted to my imminent arrival. When I entered our flat, Tim would invariably drop the paper enough to make eye contact with me and utter his favorite question deadpan: “Did He show up?” My answer, always in the affirmative, would be met with a grunt of approval, and the paper shield would be restored.

What might sound like sacrilege or, at best, irreverence always struck me as a preeminent sign of Tim’s secure faith, and I admired his comfortable familiarity with the miracle of the Mass and the wonder of the Church. He was truly at home in that vast Catholic Thing, and I envied him.

In addition, however, Tim’s seemingly flippant question was rooted in a profound insight regarding, first, our own utter dependency on divine grace, and, second, our dire responsibility as well. The humor in Tim’s daily query is that He always “shows up,” no matter what—it’s what He promised us, after all. “And, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age,” He told the Apostles just before the Ascension.

The real question, you see, is whether we show up—or rather, whether I do. He will always be there, no question, ready for whatever problems or difficulties or sufferings I might bring Him, and ready to give Himself totally to us, to feed us with His very self. Will I come to that encounter hungry for Him? Will I come ready with an open heart and a submissive will? Will I come prepared for what He wants to give me and do for me no matter what?

Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you for the Faith lessons you taught me: that God desperately wants to save us, that he desperately wants to sanctify us, and that all we have to do is let Him. Pray for me that, like you, I may show up whenever He does.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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