Oh how I wish Dr. Sunita Puri has written That Good Night when I was a resident at the Univ. of IA Hosp. & Clinics back in 1979. It grew out of my need to answer a question. When returning to the hospital after a weekend often patients with life limiting conditions had been discharged and I wondered what would happen to them. That led me to wonder with others and ensued our effort to create a home care hospice in the early 1980’s when hospice was a new idea in this country. As I immersed myself in her memories, my own memories came flooding back. When I read that the American Board of Medical Specialties didn’t recognize hospice and palliative medicine as s distinct medical sub-specialty until 2006 a lot of my questions began to make sense. Seeing from behind her eyes helped me to see how difficult modern medicine is for people whose whole identity is to fix things. At some level I knew this, but at another level it seemed unreal. On my first night as a resident chaplain I distinctly remember the terror I felt as my pager went off and I headed down the long darkened hall toward what I hoped was the right direction. At the end of the hall I could see the shape of someone and I imagined it to be the Spirit and found myself mentally shouting “I will had you what I can reach.” This moment of truth, for someone short enough to spend a lot of time asking people to reach things for me, freed me to enter into the chaos that awaited me. As long as I truly handed to those in need whatever I could reach, I could fail and still come out OK. Dr. Puri says this in so many eloquent ways there would be no way to list them all. As medical options become ever more complex, the questions of what should be done become ever more difficult. I hope that all people walking the paths with patients might find this book and bring her wisdom into their lives. It is interesting that her whole lifetime is the very length of time I have been invited to share the struggles of patients and their families. In a way I feel like Simeon in Luke’s gospel saying “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence on all people, a light for revelation to the (caregivers) Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2: 29-32.
A Disarming Spirit by Frank Fromherz is a very timely book. It is a study of one person and his ongoing struggle to live his truth and how it can make a difference. If you were to want a biography written about your life, you would hope it would be with the care and attention to detail that Frank gives to Bp. Hunthausen. He walks us through how one person accepts their truth with integrity and courage. Like any of us who starts out in life discovering our path step by step, often finding the way after many trials and errors, “Dutch” accepts each step with prayerful attention. We would hope that we too would be remembered for the quiet and sometimes heroic choices we make in the name of love. Love for the truth, a healthy self-love, resulting in love for others. “Dutch’s” details are unique to him, as are each of ours. Reading this book will give anyone encountering it a model of how to do it too. In these chaotic times it is becoming ever more important to give each other our best, even if we like “Dutch” won’t live to see our hopes materialize. But if someone writes our story someday, let us hope that someone cares enough to tell it as comprehensively at Frank, so we can add our truth to the world story.
Philip Freeman has given us “a modern retelling of Greek and Roman myths” in Oh My Gods. I have had a lifelong fascination with Greek and Roman history so this book was a natural for me to read. But I must admit I had in on my shelves for a long time before taking the time to pursue it. It was only after listening to the 48 lectures on Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World by Glenn S. Holland (https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/religion-in-the-ancient-mediterranean-world.html) coupled with a record cold calling off even the Post Office deliveries that I made it through the book. The ancients were a blood thirsty promiscuous teller of tales. I tried in vain the get beneath the surface of these various tales to find a theme, or a sense of purpose that these many stories were attempting to share, but most portrayed the gods and humans displaying the extreme range of emotions. Most were ugly ones, with only a passing glance to the heroic or honorable ones. If you chose to read this you will harvest some interesting tidbits on how places are named, gods and humans interbreed, and get a sense of how our for-bearers tried to make sense of their experiences.
Through the gift of C SPAN I was introduced to Michael Eric Dyson’s “What Truth Sounds Like. I confronted my unconscious racism as I read his examination of the reality of white privilege. Part of that privilege was the freedom to fall in love with a young black man and eventually be able to call him son. His biological parents welcomed us into their family with loving grace and considered our other sons theirs as well. This was possible because they were not afflicted with the inherited disease of racism. Eventually another son was privileged to adopt a foster child who is black who they fell in love with. I came to see that my white privilege gave our family the freedom to love in ways that not only didn’t ‘cost’ us anything, but enriched us beyond measure. Given all that it appears to me from our experience that only love is the answer. More details seem only to obstruct our meeting each other in our uniqueness’s. Convincing others with facts only seems to harden resistance. We watch others confront their unconscious resistance when they have to accept our choices to love. They too find themselves loving our children and grandchildren because they love us. Dyson finds this truth every now and then as he plumbs the depth of people who have decided to love someone who challenges the ugly reality of white privilege. Racism is a “genetic” disease of people who inherited a fatal flaw. The sooner we find a cure for it the better we will all be. In a sobering article on the origin of hate titled The Pathology of Prejudice I learned a lot of how this genetic disease is passed on. It is worth reading. My only suggestion for Dyson is a word change in the title. I would suggest What Truth FEELS Like. This is my take away from spending time with his valuable examination of what is holding us back.
A Higher Loyalty by James Comey was an interesting read. What did I learn? Not much about the details of the struggle as they have been extensively chronicled by the many news outlets. But I did learn how much those like Comey give to all of us just being in the various law enforcement agencies sworn to protect our freedom. I also experienced to a degree that surprised me the awareness of how much we put on the shoulders of others what we should be carrying ourselves. As long as they are doing “their jobs” I can go about my life not concerned about the Constitution or the freedoms it provides. But Comey shares with all of us that this comes at great cost to many. They cannot do it alone. We, and I, need to do our part as well. Time will tell if we are up to our jobs, and if we are worthy of the commitments so many make on our behalf. The book ends on the hope that like a forest fire that clears the way for new growth previously hampered by the overgrowth of the old trees. I look to the youth of today to grow into that role. Now it is our turn to sort out what is true and give our energies to that same truth so that the young will trust that it is worth their lives.
Konrad H. Jarausch has given us the fruit of his labors in his attempt to share how ordinary Germans experienced the 20th century in his book Broken Lives. It was described as “The gripping stories of ordinary Germans who lived through World War II, the Holocaust, and Cold War partition―but also recovery, reunification, and rehabilitation.” I went in search to see if he could help me deal with my sense that we are standing on the edge of a cliff these days in the choices we are either making or not making. My question is, how a culture could be drawn into a systemic series of death dealing choices? He used the diaries, documents and much more to weave a story of ordinary and extraordinary people reacting to the hardships and humiliations of WW1. He then composes an engrossing story of how men, women and children made sense of their experiences by quoting from those recovered texts.
On page 280“ I found this quote that seems to speak to my search and question: “Still in high school, Ursula Mahlendorf “shared with my classmates a fundamental distrust of all adults” who were responsible for the German catastrophe. ln heated exchanges with her favorite teacher, “I accused his whole generation I articulated my age groups feeling of having been shortchanged by our elders and of being berated for what they had failed to teach us.” Similarly, theology student Erich Helmer voiced his cohort’s “search for answers to the questions: What can still be believed? What is solid after the ground of reality has and is continuing to cave in everywhere?” I sense our youth in their marches, voter registration drives and much more are demanding to be heard now. We too now have to choose wisely so not to repeat the 20th century mistakes that brought so much suffering.
I invite you to read this book. It could help you to reflect on things in a deeper way. It must have taken the author many years to discover all these documents let alone construct the story in such a way to share the humanity of those whose worlds he shares with us. But somehow he seems to perceive that we need these insights NOW.
Less than Fully Catholic is written by a friend of mine Trisha Day. She warned me that I might be offended by some of what she wrote, but I can assure you I not only was not offended by more importantly challenged. We share the ‘cradle Catholic’ experience which entailed swallowing many gizzard stones.
In my Dominican training we were introduced to what is called “gizzard” preaching. Preaching that reveals that what we have to share is put through the process that the gizzard does to food a creature ingests that needs grinding up in order to be assimilated. Then it is passed on to the rest of the digestive system to nourish the entire system. Trisha had done this for us.
She has taken those things she ingested as a child of faith and processed them in the gizzard of her life experiences. Like many today she finds that those things that sustained her grandparents were not nurturing her. Those same things became her gizzard stones. Her vast reservoir of reading and reflecting on the meaning of life have been run through her gizzard and she produces a ‘gizzard homily’ that will nourish all honest seekers.
We live in times that challenge most of what we think we know. Be it how everything came to be to what everything is destined to become. No generation before us has had to deal with the paradigm shifts we in one generation confront. Unless we like Trisha deal honestly with these questions we could drop the ball that literally “keeps the game going”.
So potential reader, if you define Catholic as an Adjective which the dictionary includes:
all-around (also all-round), all-purpose, general, general-purpose, unlimited, unqualified, unrestricted, unspecialized you might join me and put Trisha at the heart of what it truly means to be catholic for our troubled times. She has given us a truly nourishing meal. Enjoy.
What Matters in the End
There are many kinds of studies; the most powerful one, for me, was the study that Jennifer Temel, a Massachusetts General Hospital physician, did — led, which took care of stage four lung cancer patients. They lived only, on average, 11 months. It’s a terminal condition; no one lived past about three years. And what she did was, half of the group were randomized to get the usual oncology care, and the other half were randomized to get the usual oncology care plus a palliative care clinician, physician, to see them early in the course of their illness. And so it was sort of a radical idea — see them from the very beginning.
And what — the group who saw the palliative care clinicians from the very beginning did end up stopping their chemotherapy. They were 50 percent less likely to be on chemotherapy in their last three months of life. They were 90 percent less likely to be on the chemotherapy in their last two weeks of life. They were less likely to get surgery towards the end. They had one-third lower costs. They started hospice sooner. They spent more time out of the hospital. They were less likely to die in the hospital or die in the ICU. And the kicker was that they not only had overall less suffering, they lived 25 percent longer.
Point Vierge (“at the center of our being a a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…is a gift of love.”) Alana Levandoski and James Finley collaborate in an effort to bring to being their experience of Thomas Merton. Trying to capture someone’s ‘essence’ is a labor of love and an attempt to convey this love to others. You will be captured by Alana’s voice in this album and drawn into the mystery of this Trappist monk by his friend James. Both of these artists have lent their skills to this elusive task. If you have not read any of Merton’s works you have a treat in store. Once you do this you will be able to judge if Point Vierge has succeeded. Watch this short clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvPxsK-v1Ao to hear Alana in her own words and taste the album. If you want to experience James watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kc2XVSpkoeA Enjoy.
I consumed Mark Plaiss’ book No End to the Search in two days. Since I am a lay associate of New Melleray and Our Lady of the Mississpi Abbey’s I was eager to see how his experience of monasticism and mine compared. Mark writes as if he has a Go Pro on and he is just narrating what he is seeing and experiencing. If you want to explore this unique calling you will be rewarded in this book. The monks and nuns of these two monasteries have welcomed me into their worlds as best as anyone can welcome someone into their homes. Down through almost 40 years I have soaked up their wisdom and basked in their love. My goal continues to be to take the best of this experience into my life and let that season my relationships. Years ago Abbot General Dom Bernardo encouraged all Abbots and Abbesses to enter more deeply into dialogue with people like Mark and me. Out of this request grew a formal recognition by the Cistercian order to people attached to monasteries the world over. If you want to taste why we do this Mark will serve up a delightful menu, along with reflections on how this penetrates his daily life (and mine), so carve out some quiet time and sink into the quiet with No End to the Search.
John F. Haught has written The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe which is the most important book this bookaholic has read this year. His prophetic work will come to be seen as the opening to the future that we need. We stand on the threshold of what is becoming known by all who strive toward “rightness”. A rightness that is indestructible which is the universal search for meaning in all the world religions. Our sciences have brought us the awareness of the process, and our subjectivity demands an appropriate outcome in order for us to give ourselves to the unfolding of the not yet. Teilhard de Chardin and others began the process, Dr. Haught has built on their insights and takes us the next step.
It is a rare book that has me mentally shouting YES almost on every page, but Being Mortal by Atul Gawande has done that for me. After serving people who are trying to make sense out of the modern medical systems for so many years, it was a source of hope and joy to read this book. Taking into consideration the whole person who is trying to make their way through the bewildering options now available is the new frontier and it is the new “wild west”. Never in human history has so many questions of what it means to be human challenge us now. The physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual questions come at us at a pace that overwhelms the best of us. Reading this book and talking with our significant others is a great first step. Dr. Gawande tells the stories in a way that will help us recognize our own stories. He will be an able guide as we each confront Being Mortal.
Since I read this book the author was inter vied on Public radio and said this:
“There are many kinds of studies; the most powerful one, for me, was the study that Jennifer Temel, a Massachusetts General Hospital physician, did — led, which took care of stage four lung cancer patients. They lived only, on average, 11 months. It’s a terminal condition; no one lived past about three years. And what she did was, half of the group were randomized to get the usual oncology care, and the other half were randomized to get the usual oncology care plus a palliative care clinician, physician, to see them early in the course of their illness. And so it was sort of a radical idea — see them from the very beginning.
And what — the group who saw the palliative care clinicians from the very beginning did end up stopping their chemotherapy. They were 50 percent less likely to be on chemotherapy in their last three months of life. They were 90 percent less likely to be on the chemotherapy in their last two weeks of life. They were less likely to get surgery towards the end. They had one-third lower costs. They started hospice sooner. They spent more time out of the hospital. They were less likely to die in the hospital or die in the ICU. And the kicker was that they not only had overall less suffering, they lived 25 percent longer.”
You can listen to or read the entire interview here
I recently borrowed this book written by a man I recently met, Tom Smith. It is a page turner and takes you with him all around the country and most of Europe on his hitch-hiking adventures. With the exception of one mis-adventure he encountered welcoming and gracious people who took him from place to place as a young man (20) years old in his time out during his college years. I look forward to getting to know him even better in the days to come.
Alice Hoffman has written a spell binding novel called The Dovekeepers which is built upon the terrible times around 70 CE. The temple has been destroyed, and the people have scattered. Some take refuge in the fortress that King Harold had built and were trying to survive the genocidal advances of the Roman army that wanted to totally destroy any holdouts that might cause them trouble. Narrated by some women and their experience of the life and times we get a glimpse from the female perspective that is lacking in our historical documents. Hoffnam has done her homework and is able to put flesh on the bones of this pivotal time in history. I listened to it on the CD version. It is very well done.
Recently, I read a review of this book and got on the list to borrow it from our library. This book gave its author Paul Kalanithi a way to share his life and death while also letting us in on his search for meaning. Out of the entire book I think this paragraph spoke most powerfully to me. “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.” Page 98. I think this says it all and I hope it invites you to share his story as I have and be as blessed by it as I am.
Jenkins, Philip. The Many Faces of Christ. Basic Books. NY. 2015. What a read! As one who has a life long interest in the Bible and how it came to be; this book really opens up wide vistas on how the different peoples, in different times and places, made sense out of their experiences of God-ness. The sub-title “The thousand-year story of the survival and influence of the lost gsospels” is a very good summary of its contents. This scholarly, well referenced work will cause me to ponder in new and deeper ways.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. Harper Collins. NY. 2014. This is yet another book by Rabbi Levine that causes us to ponder and reassess what we thought we knew. By positioning ourselves in the crowds that listened to Jesus we see from their angle and come away challenged to think again. We people of the “second testament” will profit much from our “first testament” brothers and sisters. It will open us to new insights and new appreciation for the challenges of the parables. It will also make us aware of how we unwittingly sometimes perpetuate anti-Jewish stereotypes. This is a profitable read.
This novel, Escape from Ephesus, written in 1991 by Lance Webb, attempts in story form to give us a readers experience of the trials and tribulations of our faith as shared by Onesimus (means useful). It is indeed useful as it hews closely to what we know from those days and years of the beginnings of our faith. Long before we had our gospels and structures, many gave their lives rather than settle for the futility of life without hope and love. You could read many other scholarly books, such as “And Man Created God” and get the facts/details of this same time period, but this novel catches you as surely as any lure of a great fisher could.