A Glimpse of Mary’s Garden

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Wakening to the Immanence of God.
Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out.
The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss!
To the desert! To the cave!
~ Sydney Loch

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Billy Graham Had A Runny Nose

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Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
~ St. Paul

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The Benefits of Bad Preaching

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A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.
~ Pope Francis

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Of Auto Insurance and Raising Sons: An Open Letter to MetLife

Kindness to a father will not be forgotten (Sirach).

Dear MetLife,

My son, Ben, is a resident freshman at Notre Dame this year, and he’s not making use of any of our vehicles while living on campus. Consequently, he’s not driving at all, and I called you recently to inquire about taking him off our auto insurance policy to save some dough.

god_quad_in_the_winterscholasticYour agent (let’s call him “Eric”) was very kind –  although I thought it was a little strange that he neglected to comment on my son’s good fortune at becoming a domer. Regardless, Eric informed me that Ben could not be removed from our policy until he obtains a policy of his own first – a MetLife rule.

You’ll forgive me for grumbling a bit – finances are tight these days, both for my son and for us. Still, I guess your rule makes sense, what with your risk/benefit analyses, amortization tables, and the liabilities involved. Anyway, Eric was savvy enough to offer me a conciliatory gesture: A discounted rate for full-time college students who only drive occasionally, mainly while home during breaks. The gesture worked – I was consoled – and I asked Eric to see if our family qualified for the special rate.

When he came back on the line, Eric indicated that he was all set to enroll Ben in the discounted program. “Just a couple questions,” he noted. “First, is your son attending a college 100 miles away from home or more?”

Now there’s an interesting question.

Technically, Ben is a mere 5 miles away from home – within walking distance really. Unlike most parents dropping their firstborn off at college, I didn’t have to take time off from work last fall to make a road trip with a van full of boxes and suitcases. Instead, it was a short ride up Miami Street and then over to Eddy and Notre Dame Boulevard – we were there in 15 minutes. I dropped Ben off, drove home, changed from jeans into Dockers, and headed to the office.

So, no, Met Life, he’s not 100 miles or more away from home. Not even close – at least in terms of geography. In fact, when Ben asked me to meet him at Notre Dame’s bookstore for coffee last week, it required only a minor detour off my daily commute, and I gladly obliged.

Coffee_and_Bagel“You buying?” I asked cautiously, after placing my order for a bagel and a schmear. Ben grunted, and the lady behind the counter laughed. I laughed, too, but I still let him pick up the tab.

As we ate our bagels and sipped our coffees, we talked. I shared a bit of what was going on at home, but I mainly listened, relishing the exorbitant luxury of a tête-à-tête with my collegiate son. Physics, chemistry, calculus. (Are you kidding me? Way over my head…but do continue.) A seminar on classic literature, plus his work-study jobs and life in the dorm. “And did you see that game last night?” he asked – the big one against Duke. “Here, check out these three-pointers” (photos on his phone) – “unbelievable!”

Then it was time for me to get on to work, and Ben to class. “See you later, dad.” No big deal, right? Almost like he never left home.

Why then, I ask you, the tears as I drove away – where did those come from? Just a few miles from home and work, and close enough to drop by for a chat, but the reality of the true distance between us hit me like a sledge that day. Can you see it, too?

I mean, here we are, MetLife: I’m in South Bend, and my son, grown to manhood, is a student at Notre Dame – just across town, sure, but embracing a life hundreds of miles away from my own. He’s learning new things, making new connections, and exploring new ideas well beyond me.

In short, Ben’s moving on, declaring his own direction, sifting through the influences from his youth and retaining only those that meld with his fresh start. How George-MacDonaldmuch further away could he be from my day-to-day existence? It could be 1,000 miles – a million even – and it would still be the same.

At least it would feel the same – I don’t suppose you offer an auto insurance discount for that, do you?

On the other hand….

All this is precisely what we signed up for as parents. We love our children, devote ourselves to their formation and upbringing, and then we work ourselves out of a job if everything goes right. “What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk?” asked George MacDonald, and then he linked that question with its corollary: “What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son!” Agreed.

Besides, in my case? I’m blessed with a full-grown son who sought out his dad for a meal and conversation, and so I’ve nothing to be whiny about – indeed, I’ve got every cause to rejoice! That pause last week over coffee and bagels wasn’t just a privileged luxury; it was an incalculable gift of grace and a profound sign of filial love. There might be a yawning gap between our daily lives these days, but it’s a gap that my son chose to bridge of his own volition.

So, never mind, MetLife. Leave our policy the way it is. It’s a bargain reminder that he’s not so far from me after all.
___________________________________

Marching Orders

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Be present at the sacred and divine liturgy, conclude its prayer
and do not leave before the dismissal.
~ from an ancient Greek sermon

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Courage to Fail

The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.
~ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Students: Congratulations! We’re all here to celebrate your accomplishment and your future. I know most of you – not all – but even if I don’t know you personally, I do know that if you’re sitting down here in front, then you’ve definitely accomplished something worth celebrating: The completion of your first clinical course in nursing school – yes!

JeffToday we’re glancing back to what you’ve done, and we’re also looking ahead as you continue on your way to a rewarding, meaningful career. We all salute you!

Like I said, I don’t know all of you, but the ones I do know have already had to listen to me plenty – both last semester and, for some, again this semester – so I’d like to suggest you kick back and relax for now.

Instead, I’ll direct my remarks to everybody else out there: The spouses, moms, and dads, the sons and daughters, grandmas and grandpas, the friends and neighbors – all these good folks who’ve come to honor you and share in your triumph. So, good folks, I want to give a testimony – to provide a little inside information as to why today is a big deal, some insight into your student’s accomplishment and future.

We’ll start with the accomplishment: The first semester of nursing school – no small feat, I assure you. Some of these students came into our program with healthcare experience; most of them, with little experience or none at all. Regardless, all of them had to start over from scratch – to learn how to learn differently, in addition to acquiring new skills and knowledge.

If you’re a nurse yourself, you already know that, right? You remember what nursing school was like. For the rest of you, you’ve probably been hearing a bit about the whole scheme the last few months: The massive books; the exams and skill check-offs; the ungodly clinical hours; the grumpy (sometimes) instructors; and (you’ll forgive me) the body fluids – always the body fluids, a staple of the nursing profession.

But that’s too simple, too obvious. There’s way more to it than that, you see. The big picture of nursing education involves much more than simply piling up proficiencies and passing tests. So, to help me draw that bigger picture, I’d like share an email with you. It’s from a friend who’s applying to nursing school, and she wanted some advice.

Here’s what she wrote:

Over the winter break, I am working on my nursing application. The personal statement requires that I elaborate on personal qualities that will contribute to my success as a professional nurse, and I thought it would be a good idea to ask some professional nurses what it takes. I know we talked about this before, but if you wouldn’t mind sending me a line about what first comes to mind for you – of qualities successful nurses have – that would be much appreciated.

Great question, right? If you’re intent on going to nursing school, it makes sense to find out what it takes to be a successful nurse.

I wrote back, of course, but before I tell you what I wrote, I want to share three brief vignettes – three images that capture different dimensions of my answer. All three are from National Public Radio – no surprise there. NPR is on in my car all the time, and I ruminate on the stories over and over as I drive around town.

And, as it turns out, the first story happens to be about driving. It was an interview with reporter Matt Richtel about his book, A Deadly Wandering. Richtel addresses the limits of the human brain, our obsession with gadgets, and the dangers of distracted driving – especially texting while driving.

So let me ask: How many of you text out there? Probably most, if not all. I’d venture to say that all of you avoid texting while driving, right? And that’s what you teach your teens when they’re learning to drive, I’m sure.parentdrivered_wide-18cd991c0945ba2a06de76a6316f4fc5c03df41b-s1100-c15

OK, here’s where I’m one up on you: I do not text – never have; never will. I’m kinda’ proud of that, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of disadvantages, I know, but here’s one definite advantage: When I’m teaching my teens to drive, I don’t have to worry about being called out as a texting hypocrite. For if I don’t text at all? Then they’ll never see me text and drive – case closed!

Of course, there are other mistakes we make as drivers besides texting, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a perfect driver. However, I’ve managed to get two kids driving without ending up in jail, a lawsuit, or the hospital, and the third is in process – it’s always an adventure, but it’s going well despite my imperfections.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? When you’re teaching someone to drive, you have to accept the fact that the student will make mistakes – which is why professional driving instructors have their own steering wheels and pedals – but you also have to acknowledge that you yourself aren’t immune to error either.

In fact, without the risk of making mistakes, nobody would ever learn to drive. You can only do so much in simulators or the classroom. At some point, you have to be out in traffic, surrounded by other vehicles, and taking the chance that the other guy will do something wrong – or that you will. That’s how new drivers – and nurses – learn, and our role as instructors includes making room for error while ensuring that they avoid the errors that can have catastrophic consequences.

This idea was reinforced by another interview I heard on NPR – this time with Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. You’ll remember Pixar as the folks who brought us Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story movies. Catmull’s book is titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration, and what do you guess is his fundamental recommendation? Here’s Catmull in his own words:

People understand that failure is part of learning – it’s like we all get that. But we have a problem: There’s another meaning of failure. That’s the one we learned in school, which was that you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t work hard enough, or you screwed up. So we have these two meanings of failure, and they both exist inside of us. The result is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil. We have to address that head-on – to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don’t fail, then you’re actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

pixarDid you catch that? Catmull is one of the most successful people in the movie biz, and he’s arguing that if he’s not goofing up, then he’s missing the boat big time. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense: If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not experimenting and exploring new ideas and trying out alternative ways of doing things – what they used to call, “thinking outside the box.” Maybe it would be better to call it: Breaking free from the fear of failure.

And that brings me to my third NPR story. I missed it when it aired, but one of my students – someone sitting right down here – shared it with me. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it seems that an assisted living facility in California shut down suddenly a year or so ago, and the residents who remained were literally abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, except for two employees – cook Maurice Rowland, and janitor Miguel Alvarez – who stayed on, without pay, to serve the residents until help arrived three days later. Here’s how they described their experience:

MAURICE: There was about 16 residents left behind. And we had a conversation in the kitchen – what are we going to do?

MIGUEL: If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody. We were just the cook and the janitor. But I was cleaning people up, helping them take a bath.

MAURICE: I was passing out meds. My original position was the cook. But we had like people that had dementia. I just couldn’t see myself going home…. Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for the short period of time.

A couple things to notice here. First, this janitor and cook: Were they not nurses those few days, despite their lack of training and credentials? Their devotion and loyalty overcame whatever fear they had of making mistakes, and they took a risk, and they acted.rowlandnpredit_wide-ae030fb5aaa1c047787ca0de69bcf3486cf27d62-s1100-c15

That’s one thing; here’s a second: It was my student who brought this story to my attention. It was my student who found it inspiring and wanted to pass it along because she instinctively recognized an affinity she shared with Maurice and Miguel. All of them – the cook, the janitor, my student – had integrated a vision for care and compassion that went well beyond job or paycheck. And that goes for all these students down here as well.

So, back to my friend who was applying to nursing school. After everything I’ve just said, you probably have a pretty good idea what I told her. Nevertheless, for the record, here’s what I wrote, and it can serve as a fitting tribute to your student as well:

I think a successful nurse is one who isn’t afraid to fail. That failure can take many forms – failure to care, failure to rise above fatigue and personal problems, failure to catch everything and know everything.

In short, a good nurse has to accept the fact that she’s human, and plan accordingly. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, expect to get things wrong sometimes, but try anyway; expect to be misinterpreted, but reach out anyway; expect to be hurt, but pour yourself out anyway.

God bless you as you press forward – courage!

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An address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN (24 January 2015). An adapted version of this address was published on Catholic Exchange.

Of Confirmation, Kids, and Conversion

Originally posted on God-Haunted Lunatic:

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Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity…. Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

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Nursing’s Soundtrack

puremichigan_1341283813_71Have you heard the Pure Michigan radio spots? They’re very evocative, and so very effective. When I hear the familiar toggling piano notes, I anticipate the string section taking up the melody in short order, fleshing out the warm, welcoming images conjured up by the narrator, and then…they’ve got me: Suddenly, I’m in Michigan, on the beach or in the woods, laughing, cavorting with my kids, soaking it all up.

685px-Epogdoon-RaphaelAnd, you know what? I know they’re just commercials, but somehow I always feel better after hearing them. The narrator’s calming voice, the peaceful mental pictures, and the soothing music – especially the soothing music. Those Pure Michigan ads are like balm, like little oases in my busy day.

Such is the curative potency of music – an idea that’s been around a long time. “Many ancient cultures used sound and music for healing,” Byron Janis noted in the Wall Street Journal. “Pythagoras called it ‘music medicine.’ In the Middle Ages, the study of music became a mandatory part of a physician’s education.”

That sure makes sense. We’ve known about music as medicine from childhood when our mothers would softly sing us familiar songs to console us after injuries, either real or imagined. And later, in our teens, didn’t we get into our cars, put on our favorite tapes (or CDs or MP3 files) after emotionally jarring events?

Of course, Mr. Janis (and Pythagoras for that matter) referred to music as medicine primarily in terms of physical healing, but we’ve all had some experience of that as well. Think back to the last time you had a serious injury, or you were laid low by a lingering illness. You can only watch so much TV, right? Only so many vidCatStevenseos. Silence is nice, of course, but sometimes it’s our favorite music that brings relief – like auditory comfort food, not just to distract from pain and fatigue, but also as a somatic remedy.

Musician and songwriter Cat Stevens once said that music allows us to satisfy “the longing that human beings have for unification with something higher and more harmonious than their existence and their mundane lives.” It’s clear that’s especially true for those touched by illness and disease, and many have documented this reality – like Michael Rossato-Bennett. His award winning film, Alive Inside, explores how music can restore cognitive function to the elderly suffering from even the severest forms of dementia. “I’ve found that music is one of our greatest wisdoms and one of our greatest tools for going through life’s challenges,” Rossato-Bennett says. “Every religion and spiritual practice understands that music has the capacity to bring us to our best.”

vanmorrisonAnd what’s true for the sick and suffering is also true for those called to care for them – like members of my profession: Nurses. I used to work on an oncology unit, and I often wished I could’ve had my own soundtrack following me around – you know, like in the movies. Peppy songs to spur me on when I felt fatigued, and meditative numbers as a salve when I felt discouraged.

OK, personal soundtracks in the hospital aren’t possible, but if they were, I know who I’d feature on mine: Van Morrison. Why? Here’s a sample playlist – see if you can pick up the theme:

  1. ‘The Mystery’: When we’re really sick, it seems like the end of the world. This song speaks to the possibility of turning the dirt of our lives – our disease and brokenness – into gold. We need but to surrender, and let the healing begin. Nursing is a profession that promotes and fosters this.
  2. ‘Comfort You’: This is the role of the nurse in fostering the healing described above. We don’t fix, despite the adrenalin-rush TV shows about healthcare we love to watch. Clearly, nurses have a role to play in carrying out doctor’s healing directives, but our primary function is to be an advocate and intercessor – a priestly role. The tasks of nursing aren’t the point in the end. Rather, it’s the caring that ought to occur while the tasks are being accomplished that is at nursing’s core.
  3. ‘Full Force Gale’: Nursing is an exhausting profession, and it’s impossible to accomplish on our own steam. Consequently, we have to turn to our higher power – our Jesus, as Christians know him – for the grace to accomplish the impossible. We must get rejuvenated, or else we’re no good for anybody.

Catch the theme? Heaven, and the longing for heaven – Van’s songs constantly direct our attention to paradise: ‘Tir Na Nog’. ‘In the Garden’. ‘So Quiet in Here’. ‘These Are the Days’.

In other words, the links we can find between here and the hereafter.

Nurses know better than most that life is fragile and that, despite our best efforts, everybody dies of something sooner or later. Nonetheless, there’s still a reason to keep healing and caring and sacrificing for others despite our mortal end game. Healthcare might be a losing battle in the short run, but we have a vision for something beyond, and Van’s music is the perfect soundtrack – a pure, beautiful vision.

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Our Lady of the Overgrowth – Winter Edition

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“Cheer up, you’re worse than you think,” Rev. Timothy Keller says with a smile….

Then comes the good news: At the same time people are “more loved in Christ and more accepted than they could ever imagine or hope.”

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The Great Bridge Feast of Pope St. Sylvester

Originally posted on God-Haunted Lunatic:

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Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope Saint Sylvester, so that, running the course of this present life under your guidance we may happily attain life without end.
~ Collect for St. Sylvester

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