Saturday, November 12, 2011

Catholics and Their Endless Rituals

On Friday morning, the students gathered for opening prayer. They do it every day. We always end with the Pledge of Allegiance and a little chant. Do the right thing. Treat people right. Even if you don't feel like it.

Our little morning ritual is full of lessons for the convert.

Rituals matter.

They make us what we are.

We become what we say. We remember what we do repetitively. These things build community and they bind us together.

As Americans, we get a little misty-eyed when we hear the very young say the Pledge. When we look at them and see that right hand resting on a little beating heart, we hear those words fall from a little mouth, we see their eyes firmly fixed on the Stars and Stripes.

The entire ritual moves us. We are glad we have passed these things on to them.

On Friday morning, after the prayers and the pledge, one 7th grade boy picked up the flag and stand and carried it to the church for our Veteran's Day Mass.

This is where my worlds converge. I am American. I completely embrace the Pledge, the patriotic ritual, the repetition of the words and gestures we hold dear. They make us who we are.

How much more so those things we do and say as Catholic Christians. It is right to have rituals. They make us who we are. It is right to pray our prayers, so familiar that we can say them without stumbling at all. Our Father, who art in heaven... 

It is right to fix our eyes on the cross - on the body that is suffering on that cross.

And we pass these things on to them.

There was a time I did not see the value in spiritual repetition. I did not understand the purpose for faith rituals. I thought these things stifled the creative inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I was wrong.

If the pledge and the flag and a hand over one's heart can make us patriotic and help us to remember that we are proud to be American...

...then a prayer and crucifix and a hand making the Sign of the Cross can help us to remember whose we are... and why Our Lord died and rose again.


Repeated prayers.

They help us to remember. And then, we go out to be what we proclaim.

November 2011 Catholic by Grace Article

My first encounter with the elderly and dying came when I was eighteen. I was a nurse’s aide for about five months. That’s how long it took me to realize I was not meant to be a nurse.
I dropped my plans to go into nursing, but the memories of the people I met in that Nebraska nursing home have stayed with me for nearly three decades.
I remember the stroke victims. The woman who spent each day repeating “Mana, mana, mana.” The man who was able to say a handful of words clearly. All expletives.
Another woman reminded me of Edith from All in the Family. She would nervously apply red lipstick when her handsome husband visited. I remember how much I disliked him as he stood there with his arm around his girlfriend and urged his adolescent daughters to give their invalid mother a hug.
I remember the woman named Mary who said she’d never had cross words with her husband of fifty years. I wondered if she was being honest. I still wonder.
And there was the man who demanded our immediate attention, saying he was related to William Buckley, Jr.  I was only eighteen. I had no idea who William Buckley, Jr., was. I asked the other nurses. They hadn’t heard of him either.
The residents of that Omaha nursing home  fascinated me. I wanted to sit with these people. Talk to them. Find out their stories. Was Mary a saint, or was her husband just easy to get along with? Had the man who swore a blue streak been a swearer before his stroke? Did “Edith” really think her husband would be impressed with her red lipstick? Did it kill her spirit to see him with a mistress, both of them standing near her like they had done their good deed for the year?
Was Mr. Buckley really related to the Mr. Buckley, Jr.?
The first floor of that nursing home was busy, sometimes downright chaotic. There was never a moment to sit and simply be with the patients. There was little dignity in getting old. And something in me said this isn’t right.
I remember one day in particular. Three patients had to be bathed before the evening meal. I gently washed a frail woman, the second of the three patients on my list. I did all the talking while she simply submitted to the process. She weighed almost nothing. I could lift her from the wheelchair to the bath chair and back again by myself. She looked at me quietly as I dressed her, putting on her gown and robe and slippers. If I hurried, I would get the last patient bathed before the floor nurse announced that the kitchen was open.
I wheeled the woman to her room and collected my final patient. A few moments later, the head nurse entered the shower room. She asked me if Lydia had seemed okay when I bathed her. “She was quiet, but nothing unusual. Why?”
The nurse told me that Lydia was dead. I was the last person who had touched her body, bathed her, spoken to her.
And I didn’t know anything about her, except her name.
In that moment, I knew that the elderly deserve more than the hurried care our society gives them. We are so advanced. And yet, we often forget the dignity of the human person.
The unborn.
The man in prison.
The cast-off wife with her lipstick-smile.
The one who spends all day saying mana, mana, mana or a string of profanity. The one who thinks about her deceased husband all day, every day.
I have decided that I want to go to a Catholic nursing home when I’m old. I want to spend my final hours and minutes in a place where I can go to Mass, where a nurse can wheel me into an Adoration Chapel, where I will be surrounded by rosaries and crucifixes and images of Our Lady. I want to pass from here to there with the faith and the faithful all around me.
As Catholics, we believe in the dignity of the human person. I plan to spend my final days in a place where the caretakers know that I am made in the image and likeness of God. And maybe, I will share a few words with a young nurse’s aide, and perhaps she will remember me with a smile.


October 2011 Catholic by Grace Column

I wish I had a dollar for every time I felt like a newcomer to the Catholic Faith. I remember the prayer I wrote in my RCIA  journal in 2005. Lord, I am going to look like I don’t know what I am doing as I fumble my way through this. I’m going to look like an idiot sometimes.

Like that first Lent when the Alleluia vanished from the Liturgy, and I didn’t realize that would happen. Or the many times the organist has played an unfamiliar tune to the Gloria. Suddenly, I can’t remember the words.

Like my First Communion, when I had to remember the order of bowing and saying Amen and crossing myself – when all I could think about was Jesus waiting as I walked the aisle so that He could come to me – and I to him.

Or the year I substituted in the English department at Immaculate Conception Parish and the teachers would meet before the students arrived. They would pray the Memorare. Little Mary Beth who was only in seventh grade took pity on me and printed out a copy of the prayer so that I would not have to stand in the teachers’ prayer circle and participate in fits and starts.

Like the time I attended Mass at EWTN and there was a lot of Latin. It seemed like I was the only one who was lost. I remember the embarrassment I felt. I was scheduled to be a guest on one of their programs later in the day, and I didn’t even know how to pray the Mass with them.

Like the time I visited St. Ignatius of Loyola School and bowed my head to pray with teachers and students in the gathering space – only to feel a tap on my shoulder from one of the teachers who pointed to the Crucifix on the wall. That’s when I realized everyone in the room was looking upon the Lord as they prayed, and I hadn’t noticed because my head had been bowed and my eyes closed (like I had done in my Protestant years).

Or the times I have written an article for the column and received a kind letter from an editor who wanted to help me edit the article so that it was more in line with official Church teaching.

Over and over, I have felt like a newcomer to the Faith. I still have moments when I can’t remember whether we stand now or kneel. And those momentary lapses in memory almost always come when I am the guest speaker or the teacher or the Catholic writer – the one who is supposed to know it all.

Lord, I’m going to fumble and stumble around sometimes as I try to figure this out. I’m going to look like a fool as I travel down unfamiliar paths.

Recently, I was talking to a priest. When he realized that I am a Catholic writer, he suggested that I write something about the changes in the Liturgy. “It will be hard for the musicians and some of the people. And it will be hard for priests. We’ll probably stumble awhile, as we try to learn the new wording.”

“Oh, Father! You’ll feel just like a convert!” I said and then I told him about my year in RCIA and the way I still feel at times.

The church secretary who was sitting near us smiled then.  “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We all need to feel like a convert now and then.”

She’s right. But it’s not the end of the world. Every convert knows that you get through it somehow. Eventually, you learn. Almost immediately, you love. And the learning and the loving move in tandem.

Take it from one who has fumbled along many times. All will be well. Change is never easy. And this change will be particularly difficult for many. If you are a priest or a musician, offer it up for a convert who finds the entire Liturgy something of a foreign language. Offer it up for the one who longs to be part of the Church family, but feels like he will never fit in as easily as the cradle Catholic sitting beside him. Offer it up for the one who is trying to learn everything in just a few months of RCIA.

And I will let you in on a secret that every convert knows. You will look back on that part of the journey and miss it a little. You will realize that God was there. You knew it. You felt it. You relied on it.

I’ll meet you in the Mass. And we’ll learn together.