Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

My students just finished a unit on perioperative nursing – the nursing responsibilities and interventions associated with caring for surgical patients. One of the most important of these is monitoring surgical incisions for signs of infection and other problems.

By definition, surgery is invasive. It requires getting past the superficial layers of our skin in order to manipulate, remove, and/or introduce structures underneath, and so surgery generally involves some kind of incision, some kind of wound.

So, part of our classroom time was spent talking about the wound healing process – from inflammatory response and new tissue proliferation to maturation, remodeling, and restoration of function. It’s the same process, more or less, for all kinds of tissue disruption beyond the most superficial ones, although the results vary widely depending on a variety of factors.

Chief among these, perhaps, is how clean the original wound was and how closely its edges can be brought together in order to facilitate the repair. Some wounds are clean and even – like the incisions that surgeons make – and so they heal by what clinicians call first intention. The cut is bound together by sutures or the like, and so there’s direct communication between the separated sides as the tissue re-building commences. Healing by first intention is usually relatively rapid and thorough, with minimal scarring and limited loss of tissue integrity.

Other wounds, however, are not so tidy – like extensive traumatic injuries and bad bedsores. The edges can be jagged and hard to bring together, and they may be left open to allow nature to take its course – which is healing by second intention. Since the gap is so large, there’s no mechanism for healthy tissue to fill the void, so the body substitutes scar tissue instead. It takes longer, it’s unsightly, and it results in an area considerably weaker compared to the surrounding skin. Plus, they don’t seem to ever go away.

It was today’s Mass readings that got me thinking about incisions, wounds, and lingering scars. The first reading had Isaiah cowering before the majesty and glory of the Lord, and overawed by the angelic beings proclaiming their praise. In contrast, Isaiah was plagued by his inadequacy. He was “a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Seriously scarred, in other words. Yet God (through his angel) intervenes, the imperfections are addressed, and the prophet steps up to his heavenly commission. “Here I am,” he tells the Lord, “send me!”

Then, in the Gospel, we see a crew of fishermen marveling at a miraculous catch of fish orchestrated by Jesus. It’s an epiphany moment, an encounter with incarnated divinity, and it causes Simon Peter to collapse and confess his own unworthiness, his own deep scars – going so far as to direct the God-man to scram: “Depart from me, Lord,” Peter pleads, “for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus calls him anyway, without even an Isaiah-like healing, and Peter, like James and John, drops everything to follow him.

There is no healing by first intention in the spiritual life. That would mean that God himself creates our wounds: precise, orderly, divine incisions in our souls that are meant to bring about miraculous healing while we passively sit back and await the outcome.

No such luck.

Aren’t we responsible for our own wounds? Some of them are downright self-inflicted, serious, and messy, but more often they’re simply collateral damage that we suffer as a result of our dumb choices and selfish behavior. God can always heal us, but the cavernous holes in our spirits, our psyches, our emotions and equilibrium, will not cover over easily. It’ll be a second intention kind of healing, taking much time, leaving weakness in its wake, and almost always leaving nasty scars.

But gaping lesions have to be filled up with something, and scar tissue is better than nothing. Besides, they’re good reminders to avoid what led to the original injuries in the first place, and they’ll make us sympathetic toward those with scars and injuries of their own, make us more generous toward them, more kind.

Even so, like Isaiah and Peter, we’re still terribly embarrassed by our sinful scars, and so we tend to draw back from the One who seeks to heal us and deputize us. “Be content that you are not yet a saint,” Thomas Merton prescribes. “Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.”

Our interior scars might be weakened parts of our selves that declare our damaged histories, but they also demonstrate that we haven’t given up trying – that is, if we haven’t given up trying. And not giving up trying is at the heart of wholeness and holiness. Don’t give up.

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Preaching With His Life: Bl. Pierre Bonhomme (1803-1861)

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing (Is 35.5-6).

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Of Facebook Friends and Gratitude

We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.
~ William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley once caught a ride in my truck. He came to buckley140-8853b6e341c1c6184a1a909049cff0dad366c07f-s3-c85Boulder to speak at the University of Colorado when I was a graduate student there, and I not only got a ticket to see him, but also landed an invite to the Young Republicans reception afterwards.

It was 1990, and Buckley’s book Gratitude had just come out. It was a modestly controversial book because it pressed an argument for national service – perilously close to advocating yet another government program according to Buckley’s right-wing critics. But the book’s real theme, aside from policy recommendations, is that we all need to practice gratitude with greater intentionality and conscientiousness.

That evening in Boulder, Buckley demonstrated what he wrote about in a way I’ll never forget. He gave his talk and was ushered over to a nearby facility for the reception. Mr. Buckley must’ve caught a cold, for he was having trouble clearing his throat, and as the reception got underway, he abruptly requested a ride to his hotel so that he could retrieve a cigar and some brandy – evidently a home remedy for colds at the Buckley house. I happened to be nearby when he made the request, and I immediately put myself and my truck at his disposal.

You have to understand that I didn’t exactly look the part at that reception. Shaggy hair and beard, tweed coat and jeans, hiking boots and John Lennon glasses, I stood out conspicuously in that sea of blue blazers and power ties. Nevertheless, without ceremony, Mr. Buckley thanked me for my offer and headed out the door. The Young Republicans all stared at me as I shrugged my shoulders and headed out after him.

fl_s0818_motherteresaSo, there I was, in my battered Toyota pickup, with Bill Buckley of Firing Line and National Review fame seated next to me. I drove him downtown to the Hotel Bolderado, he ran in and out, and I drove him back to campus again. Most of the ride to and fro, I kept up a constant one-sided conversation, ranging from my conversion to Catholicism and embrace of the Catholic Worker milieu, to my enthusiasm for the common interests of the Worker and the National Review, especially in terms of subsidiarity.

Buckley was gracious, listening in silence aside from an occasional murmur of assent or inquiry. When I got him back to the University, he turned, looked me in the eyes, and thanked me most sincerely for the ride. He encouraged me in my intellectual pursuits, and gave my hand a vigorous shake. Later, I approached him at the reception with a book of his. He signed it, “Gratefully, Bill Buckley.”

Authentic gratitude like that was on my mind as I celebrated my birthday last week.  It fell on Gaudete Sunday this year – Pink Sunday.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s “rose,” not pink. Whatever you call it, that lightened purple combined with the lightened liturgical mood is always welcome mid-winter, especially when lake-effect snow and bitter cold are dragging us down. Isaiah sets the tone and gets us thinking beyond our current circumstances to new life just over the horizon:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

That Gaudete Sunday Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01coincided with my birthday this year was serendipitous, for it was an especially joy-filled one. Contemplating the many blessings in my life, I couldn’t help marveling that I’d been blessed so abundantly. For example: A loving wife and seven wonderful children – me! A terrific lout blessed with a wife and seven kids! Thank you, God!

Then there’s the fact that the day began in a warm house (thank you, God!) and we had plenty of food to eat (thank you, God!). I drove to the church to get coffee started for CCD (thank you, God, for cars! for our parish! for work!), and later I got to see my son play basketball (thank you, God, for Catholic schools! for healthy kids!).

Mass in the evening (thank you, God, for the Sacraments! for the Church! for faith!), followed by dinner and birthday cake at home, with all nine of us in attendance – thank you, God! Truly, the best birthday ever!

And, later, I got online – behold! A long list of “Happy Birthday!” messages on Facebook – thank you, God!

Now, wait.

Do I mean that? Am I really lumping together Facebook ‘friends’ with my wife, my children, and my faith?

Indeed I am. And why not?

Now, I know that many of those friends are folks I barely know. The whole Facebook/social networking thing is still a bizarre phenomenon to me, but I have no illusions about an environment in which my sister, a buddy from high school, and a student I had in class a half dozen years ago all fall under the same ‘friend’ rubric.

But remember that last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life? George has been saved from despair and suicide by angelic visions and timely human interventions. He’s surrounded by wife and children, close associates and family, acquaintances, neighbors, customers, and a host of Hollywood extras. In the end, his brother Harry lifts a glass and toasts, “To George Bailey! The richest man in town!”

Whence those riches? Obviously Harry doesn’t mean literal riches – George has just narrowly escaped jail time and disgrace as a result of his pecuniary difficulties. No, George’s riches comprise relationships – what the Catechism calls “spiritual communion”: Not only his wife and his family, but his friends as well. All kinds of friends. Clarence, George’s novice guardian angel, inscribes this interpretation in a copy of Mark Twain as a thank you to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

Consider that throng crowding around George in that final scene. Is it likely that all of them could’ve been his friends in the same way? I mean, even in the context of a fictional tale, is it even remotely possible that all those folks were really his chums?

Not a chance. The story portrays George’s real friends as his wife, his brother, Ernie the cabbie, and Bert the cop. Then there was another circle of friends just a bit beyond the inner circle: George’s mom, his uncle, and Sam Wainwright perhaps. Next, a circle of business associates, Mr. Gower, and Mr. Martini, and after that a smattering of neighbors, customers, and so on.

900_its_a_wonderful_life_bw_blu-ray3xAs I scrolled through all my birthday greetings on Facebook, I thought of  Bedford Falls turning out to cheer for George, and I smiled. George discovered in the end that he was indeed valued by a rather large community of friends, both close and not-so-close.

That seems to me a decent metaphor for Facebook, especially on birthdays. A torrent of “Happy Birthday!” posts from our online community of friends – whether lifelong companions, passing acquaintances we wouldn’t recognize on the street, or somewhere in between – can be just as encouraging and welcome as a rousing in-person chorus of Auld Lang Syne. At least it was in my case.

And, yes, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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