Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review: God or Nothing

I had never heard of Robert Cardinal Sarah before I purchased this book.  Perhaps that was God’s plan; He waited until He saw me troubled, and then He gave me a measure of comfort and hope.
The first three chapters of God or Nothing explain Cardinal Sarah’s upbringing in a small village in Guinea, Africa.  There he dealt with torture and the tyrants who regularly confronted the Church, and hardened his faith.  There, faith and family were everything, and enabled survival.  The rest of the book tells you, in his own words, who this man is now -- and how he, and other African cardinals, are a great hope for the Catholic Church, and the world.
I searched for but could not find words to adequately sum up my thoughts on this book, and Cardinal Sarah.  There is so much here, so much complexity, and yet so much simplicity.  And so I find that my review here is largely excerpts from his book --- but there is so much more here  than words could convey. 
I have absolute confidence in the faith of the African
people, and I am sure Africa will save the family.  Africa
saved the Holy Family (during the Flight to Egypt);
and in these modern times, Africa will also save the human family.
-- Robert Cardinal Sarah, August 19, 2015
As the youngest bishop in the Church, he saw how governments seek to tear down the family.  “Generally speaking, the most important measures taken by revolutionary governments always affect the family.  During the first five years of my episcopate, my pastoral letters were all dedicated to the defense of the Christian family.”  His battles pre-figure the ones now being waged in Europe and the Americas.  And he sees why the West is particularly vulnerable at this time:  “Man’s rupture with God obscures his way of looking at creation.  Blinded by his technological successes, his world view disfigures the world:  things no longer possess ontological truth or goodness but, rather, are neutral, and man is the one who must give them meaning. … Man intends to dominate nature.  Technology gives him the impression that he is master of the world.”  The title of this book lays down the lines of the battle we face.
I found Cardinal Sarah’s views on poverty to express what I myself could not adequately put into words:
  “I remember being disgusted when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organization: ‘Let us fight for zero poverty.’  Not one saint ever dared to speak that way about poverty and poor people.  Jesus Himself had no pretention of this sort.  … The Church must not fight against poverty, but rather wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution.  It is critical to make a commitment so that all men might have the minimum they require in order to live. … We do not have the right to confuse destitution and poverty, because in doing so we would seriously be going against the Gospel.  … Those who want to eradicate poverty make the Son of God a liar.  They are mistaken and lying.  … Christ chose poverty. … Mankind has never been so rich, yet it reaches astounding heights of moral and spiritual destitution because of the poverty of our interpersonal relationships and the globalization of indifference.  In the fight against destitution, there is one fundamental dimension, which consists in restoring to man his vocation as a child of God and his joy in belonging to the family of God.”
The Son of God loves the poor; others intend to eradicate them.  What a lying, unrealistic, almost tyrannical utopia!”  Wow!  Cardinal Sarah does not mince words, and he does know their meaning.
I saw that Cardinal Sarah liberally quoted (my favorites) Guardini, Augustine, Camus, St. Thomas, and Solzhenitsyn to convey his own thoughts:  “You are engaged in a formidable battle, and you behave as though it were a ping pong match.”  Like Solzhenitsyn, Cardinal Sarah knows what repression and true liberty are, and the seriousness of the battle we face.  And he touches me deeply when he speaks on another yet topic particularly dear to my heart:
“In Africa, an important place is reserved for the elderly; the respect due to old people is one of the cornerstones of African society.  I think that Europeans do not realize how shocked the peoples of Africa are by how little attention is paid to the elderly in Western countries.  This tendency to hide old age and marginalize it is a sign of a worrisome selfishness, heartlessness, or, more accurately, hard-heartedness.  To be sure, old people have all the comfort and the physical care they need.  But they lack the warmth, closeness, and human affection of their relatives and friends.” 
Cardinal Sarah looks at the confidence of our enemy, and sees a path to his eventual downfall:  “It is necessary to return to the foundations of Christian hope and to declare that life on this earth is only part of our existence, which will be prolonged and completed in eternity.  The Church must recall that life cannot be summed up in terms of the satisfaction of material pleasures, without moral rules.  At the end of a journey without God there is only the unhappiness of a child deprived of his parents.  Yes, hope abides in God alone!”
Having read this book, I must conclude that this man (or perhaps others like him from the African continent) would make a great pope.  He is prepared for battle:
I know that the African family still has magnificent prospects
ahead of it.  I wish I could be sure that such opportunities
existed for European, American, Asian and Oceanic families, too.
The battle to preserve the roots of mankind is perhaps the greatest
challenge that our world has faced since its origins.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cana, Cancer and Change

The Friday morning Bible Study guys continued with the Gospel of John, reaching Chapter 2 and the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana.
We talked about placing ourselves in the shoes of the Bible characters to better understand their thinking.  What was the servant thinking, as he asked the chief steward to taste “the water” from the jar?  Was he expecting a slap for asking him to taste the water used for washing--- or had he already tasted it himself?  What about the words Mary spoke --- the last quoted words of her in the Bible:  “Do whatever He tells you”?  Why were those words chosen as her last, and why now?
But then a thought came to me:  What was Jesus thinking?  Was His miracle a result of His mother’s prod?  Why was He reluctant to do it, telling His mother: “My hour has not yet come”?  And then I perceived an answer to my own questions, and voiced it to the group:
Jesus, as God, knew the future.  And He knew that with the first public miracle He performed, the word of it would spread, and it would ultimately get the attention of the Temple high priests, and its ultimate result.  I compared what Jesus was thinking and feeling to an example of our feelings:  “It’s as if you haven’t been feeling well of late, and you begin to strongly suspect the cause.  And then finally going to the doctor, he confirms it: ‘You have terminal cancer.’  And at those words, you can see clearly the end in sight for you; you know what will happen next.  This is perhaps how Jesus felt when Mary said: “They have no wine.”  She didn’t directly pressure Him, just as the doctor didn’t directly say: ‘Well, you’ll have to start chemo tomorrow.’  The doctor had already just said it’s terminal, and you didn’t need to hear anything else, because you knew the rest of the story.  Maybe hearing such a diagnosis you would be reluctant to begin the road to the end: ‘But I’m feeling good right now.’  Perhaps comparably, Jesus said: ‘It’s not my time.’  But you would know, as He knew, you must begin.”
The guys got the analogy, and discussed the serious thoughts going through Jesus’ head.  Perhaps He was concerned not so much with His coming pain, but that which He knew His loved ones would feel.  Perhaps He didn’t wish them to start on this road of pain also.  But He knew the time had come to make this decision to proceed.  It was the right thing to do, however hard.
How many of us reach a similar crossroad in our life, and are reluctant to make the decision to go forward with what we know we must do?  Perhaps our crossroad and decision involves one of those rare vocational changes in our life:  to choose college and leave home for the first time, to choose a job in a distant location, to choose a spouse, to retire, or perhaps it is to choose to do what we know God is calling us to do --- but the change seems so hard; we are comfortable now, and so we are reluctant to begin.
But our life, all life, is a journey ending in death.  We can’t pretend it is not so; we cannot stop.  And we must treat each of life’s important turns like that final one; we must decide to go on, and have faith in God.  No matter how much we may fear; no matter how much pain we may see ahead, still we must proceed.
He told us:  “Do not be afraid; I am with you always.”
I think those were Jesus’ thoughts, as He somewhat reluctantly changed the water to wine …. And the journey began.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: Being Mortal

Dr. Gawande was raised in India, and in this book he talks about how the elderly are treated in his birth country, and then how he was at first surprised, and then understanding, at how they are treated in the United States.  From the comforts once afforded by close family, our society has grown to prize freedom and independence – both parents and children are happy when children move off on their own --- often to far ends of the country, or even the world. 
The close family ties Dr. Gawande grew up with are the exception in America, and he does view our new norm with understanding and sympathy --- and a realism many don’t consider.
“Everyone grows old,” he notes, and with our good medical care, this is a much more extended, gradual process than in times past, where often death was sudden.  Now the point at which one begins to “feel the pains of old age” and when death actually arrives can be many years or even decades apart, a time of gradual decline. During this decline, many elderly become unable to do some of the basic things of living as well as they did in the past, and perhaps at some point not even at all.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s are two particularly cruel illnesses which affect most elderly at some point, to some degree.  And that degree is a large focus of this book.
When is mom or dad not able to take care of themselves, and when must the child step in to help, and when must he step to take charge?  Many don’t distinguish between the two, and “helping” often means putting mom or dad into assisted living, but as Dr. Gawande notes, most assisted living facilities are anything but assisted “living”.  They are places where caregivers and administrators set a routine, a schedule for everyone to follow:  when to wake, eat, get entertainment, take medications, and when to sleep.  This schedule is set for the most efficiency of the facility, and the safety of the residents:  to keep costs down and safety up, and the children who are “helping” mom or dad ---and who are paying the bills --- are then kept happy as they can be.
But mom and dad aren’t.
Dr. Gawande notes that old age homes are too concerned about safety, and lawsuits.  They have a staff which isn’t concerned about residents’ priorities or needs, but rather with timeliness and neatness.  Safety is valued over happiness.  He notes that the three plagues of nursing home existence are boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.  He provides real life examples of people in common facilities , and examples of exceptional facilities which challenged the status quo. 
One facility put green plants in every room, planted vegetable and flower gardens in the yard, brought in two dogs and a cat ---- and had parakeets in every resident’s room.  Elementary school children were brought in to sing, play, or even exercise --- and the residents joined in.  It was chaos to begin; it was change.  But what were the results?  He cited examples of the depressed mute who spoke, the non-ambulatory who walked, and of the bed-ridden dying man --- who went home!  People named the animals, children were patient with Alzheimer’s limitations, and residents found something to live for.  In two years drug use fell 38%, deaths 15%.  Having a degree of self-control improved lives, and residents were given freedom to choose when they woke, ate, went to bed, and staff was encouraged to interact with residents, and facilities/equipment/space provided for them to interact with each other --- even if there was some risk involved.  And the people were living happier lives.
I think this is a great book to read (esp. pages 100 – 150) for anyone caring for (or about to care for) an elderly loved one, and worried about all those things loved ones worry about.  This book will help you get past your worries about how good a job you are doing, and to being more considerate of how your loved ones want to live.  (I am now on the board of an organization caring for 90 developmentally disabled adults, many of whom are getting on in years.  This book will be a great resource for our implementation of even more loving care there.)
Having cared for my mom for seven years, and now coordinating a caregiver’s support group, I have seen some people present the loving care espoused in Dr Gawande’s book --- and their witness has given me great comfort.  I have seen many come to the caregiver’s support group afraid, wanting to do what is right, but not knowing where to begin; they were helped by other caring people there, who had learned without the benefit of Dr. Gawande’s book. 
I recall K., who’s dad at some point began to be confused on how to dress himself, sometimes wearing pajama tops for a shirt or mis-matched shoes ---- much to her mom’s horror:  “You can’t go out like that!”  But K., in love, calmed her mom down:  “Mom, who cares?  No one is watching, and if they do, so what!  That’s how dad feels comfortable; let’s go shopping.”  And she took her dad everywhere with her and her family as long as he was able.  What an example of love.
And I recall ME., who sat and looked into her husband’s eyes, holding his hand and offering encouragement, as he struggled for long periods of time, struggling to find the words to express his tangled thoughts.  But she waited patiently, hours each day, searching HER memory for where his might now be lost, so she could encourage him.  She loved him with a patience I’ve never before witnessed in my life.
And I recall H., who at 90 still carried his beloved wife around their apartment, and fed her every bite of food she ate.  And my own mom, who wanted to wear her favorite gown every day --- without ever washing it, and so I bought her 10 like it so she could wear the same one every day (as far as she knew).  And F. whose children moved her and her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband into an assisted living home near where they lived: “I know they mean well, and they want him safe, but he knows no one there, and is becoming even more confused and troubled ---- and even though we are now nearby, they don’t visit any more, maybe even less.”  And so F. told her children she was moving back to her home, and would take care of her husband there as best as she could, as safe as she could, promising to hire assistance as needed, and she now attends our monthly caregiver’s meeting smiling, and is an uplifting presence to others.
I can recall many dozens of other stories like these, of people so loving their parents and spouses, putting aside love of themselves and convenience in their lives, to put comfort and love into their parents’ and spouses’ lives. 
Honor thy father and thy mother, that you might have eternal life.  I have seen this commandment put into action, and I am so blessed for participating in its witness. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Laws, Feelings, and Truth

Meditation #175 in the book The Better Part (on Luke 7:36-50) is titled:  “Humble Pie”.  I had to read the Biblical passage and associated meditation, think on it, pray on it, and even read another book before coming back to those words, and then finally understanding the appropriateness of that “Humble Pie” title.
The passage from Luke concerns Jesus’ dinner at the house of Simon, a Pharisee.  Now most Pharisees were so rigid in the law that they couldn’t stand Jesus’ behavior; it was contrary to the law, period.  But this Simon appears to be an exception; he invited Jesus to his home and listened to Him --- and he finds he has much to learn.  A deeply sinful woman comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment.  And Simon thinks: “I wonder if Jesus knows who is washing His feet.”  (Surprise -- He does!)  And Jesus responds to Simon by explaining how pleased God is when the deeply sinful humbly seek God’s forgiveness --- and then Jesus forgives the woman her sins.
The commentary to this passage notes that the woman’s soul had been touched by Jesus:  “She finally found someone who truly knew her, who truly valued her the way she had yearned to be valued, and who wanted nothing from her except trust and friendship.  She had been searching for her self – her true self, her true worth – all these years, in all the wrong places.
She was searching for herself in laws and feelings and others’ opinions and along came Jesus and He opened her to the truth of her being:  She is valued by God; she is loved.  Living in Him and His Truth is the path to being who she was created to be.
After reading these meditations on Luke, I immediately began reading the book:  Remaining in the Truth of Christ --- Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church.  This book is the response of five Cardinals and four other scholars to German Cardinal Kasper’s book The Gospel of the Family, in which he proposed that, in some cases, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be admitted to receiving Eucharistic Communion --- the subject of an upcoming conference of cardinals in Rome.
I only read the opening chapter of this book which says in summary (in my own words): “Well, dem’s the rules, and there ain’t any exceptions.”
My initial reaction to that chapter was to think on arguments and justifications for and against one side or the other.  I thought about laws and I thought about feelings.  I thought about Justice and I thought about Mercy.  And then I thought that at the heart of the discussion there were not two groups of Cardinals arguing law, which the book seems to be about, but the fact that those two books were written for the laity --- many of whom will not be swayed by the letter of the law, but by only their feelings.
And then I thought back to the meditation on Luke I had read, and the Pharisee and the sinful woman.  Jesus showed Simon He is God; He can forgive sins, despite the Mosaic Laws, written by men.
I wonder what all of these Cardinals would have said about this woman and Jesus’ actions, were they there then?  There were no Bibles to quote nor were there Canon Laws written, nor any historical Church decrees to turn to.  How would they react to Truth, when they saw it?
Oh, I’m not saying any of these Cardinals are wrong for trying to find the Truth; it is their duty as shepherds to lead us.  But like Simon, I think they might learn more talking to Jesus, than trying to justify legal thoughts to us sheep. 
I won’t bother reading the rest of the book.
And as for myself, I think my eyes were opened a bit to my own legalistic analytical thinking.  I bought the Cardinal’s books to try to understand their logic --- but to what end?  Their deliberations on these matters are their duties, not mine.  I think I would be better served acting like the woman, doing good, listening to Jesus’ word, and trusting in Him.
And eating Humble Pie.