Tag Archives: NPR

Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Caring for Strangers: ‘His Wide Mouth Home’ Remembered

17 Dec

This is an essay about an essay. Rather, it’s an essay about a particular reading of an essay. Plus, it’s about the author of the essay who also did the reading. And it’s about me, too, I guess.

The essay is called “His Wide Mouth Home,” and I heard it on NPR over 18 years ago – July 5, 1999, to be precise. I know the date because I have the cassette recording from NPR’s All Things Considered for that day, hour one. Hour one had a number of stories about the hot summer and how to stay hydrated – apparently it was a scorcher that year – and then there was this essay.

The essay itself is pretty straightforward, and it fit the hour’s theme well. Jason Wetta retells an episode from his summer on the Galveston Sheriff Department Beach Patrol, when he was the first responder to a drowning. There’s plenty of detail and color and Jason skillfully evokes the scene – you can smell the coconut oil even before he mentions it. You can feel the heat and sense the presence of the murmuring crowd around the lifeless body – you can see them make way for the lifeguard’s approach.

The victim was a boy – Juan de la Cruz – only six years old. He didn’t make it, and you know he’s not going to make it long before Wetta spells it out. It’s a powerful story, a powerful essay – powerful enough that I went through the trouble of finding out how to order a copy so that I could listen to it again – and again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. Not regularly – I keep it in a drawer full of random tapes – and to listen to it I either have to take it along in one of our beaters that still has a working cassette deck, or borrow one of the CD/tape players in the house that the kids use.

I have only one other NPR story on cassette: “Ghetto Life 101.” It, too, impacted me in a profound way, but Ghetto Life doesn’t make me cry. “Wide Mouth Home” makes me choke up every time.

To begin with, Wetta’s words are powerful in themselves, but his narration brings them to life. He adds sound effects – like the oxygen tank’s intermittent pffft and the ambulance’s beep-beep-beep as it reverses into position – and inflection that draw you into the picture. In Jason’s retelling, you can hear the workaday detachment in the voice of the dispatcher, while Jason himself is thoroughly engaged, emotionally, even spiritually, in what happens.

There’s also the prefacing information that NPR’s Noah Adams relates – about the Dylan Thomas poem from which Wetta borrowed the title – and the postscript datum that the author had since become a Benedictine monk at St. Mary and St. Louis Abbey in Missouri. Adams’s comments before and after provide a frame for this tragically beautiful anecdote that help transform it into something sublime, something true and awful – something I needed to hear when I heard it.

The summer of 1999, when I first heard Wetta’s essay, I was in the middle of nursing school, juggling clinicals and exams while doing my best to keep up with my duties as a husband and father. I was also working as a nursing home aide by then, trying to boost up our rapidly diminishing bank account and maybe gain some real world healthcare experience.

But it turns out healthcare work – the job of healthcare, the “punch in and get your work done” side of healthcare – is a lot tougher than I’d ever imagined when I was applying to nursing school. There’s no way around it: Caring for strangers as an employee is not the same as caring for strangers as a volunteer, let alone caring for loved ones. If you’re paid, you’re beholden to the clock and to the requirements of the one paying you, no matter how sincere your intentions, no matter how passionate your commitment to seeing Christ in the sick and suffering.

There was something in Wetta’s story and how he retold it that gave me hope – gave me insight and perspective on the unnerving task of caring for strangers as a profession. There’s never enough time to do all that you’d want to do; never enough energy to respond the way you’d like to every call light; never enough attention to spread around; never enough you to give away.

I wonder if that experience on the Galveston beach deterred Wetta from pursuing a healthcare career and propelled him into the monastery. And I wonder if Wetta is still a monk in St. Louis – I hope he is. I hope he adds special prayers at the end of his Rosaries and Lectio Divina for those who still do what he did as a lifeguard. I hope he still prays for me.

And this old cassette tape. I’m going to figure out how to get it transferred to a CD so it’ll last longer. I’ll be listening to it for a long time.
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You can listen to Wetta read his essay by following this link. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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