Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Feast of the Visitation

 The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth is one of the very human moments in Luke's Gospel. It is a moment with which we can identify.  It resembles experiences many of us have had.

Upon learning that she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of Jesus, Mary hastened to visit her relative Elizabeth, who had been thought to be barren but was now in her third trimester.  Kinship was understood differently in the Ancient Near East than it is today.  Though called cousins, we do not know the degree or type of relatedness between Mary and Elizabeth.  We never will know.  It matters little. 

There are one or two important elements about the Visitation that make it even more human. The distance from Mary's home in Nazareth to Elizabeth's in Hebron, was about eighty miles as the crow flies.  It was probably closer to 100 miles when following established roads.  At that time, and even today, someone traveling unencumbered on foot could cover about 20 miles a day. Thus, Mary's journey to Elizabeth required between five and seven days.  She probably traveled with a group rather than on her own.  Robbery and other forms of mayhem were as much a risk then as they are today.  It is most unlikely that Mary was wearing watered silk robes embellished with rhinestones no matter how medieval painters depicted the scene. Probably didn't have a halo or other aura surrounding here either.

So, there they were, a young girl and an older almost menopausal woman.  What did they talk about?  Did Mary stay until John's birth as pious legend holds?  What did Mary think about on her arduous return trip to Nazareth?

Luke's Gospel has given the Church her most beautiful prayers.  Mary's Magnificat, the last half of the Gospel, is recited every evening at vespers.  It has been set to music by many composers over the centuries in settings ranging from Gregorian chant that are still used to composers of the mid-twentieth century.  The list of composers who set the Magnificat  to music is unwieldly.

"Magnificat anima meo Dominum 
et exsultavit spiritus meus
 in Deo salutaris meo."

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 
my spirit rejoices in God my savior."  

There are certain lilies that must never be gilded.  Mary's Magnificatis one of them.  Her prayer does not need elaboration. It does not need explanation. It resembles Hannah's prayer in the Temple as recounted in the First Book of Samuel.  It is likely Mary was aware of Hannah's prayer.  Did Mary actually say it extemporaneously?  Did Luke take the words from Hannah and attribute them to Mary?  As is often the case with many of the points about which biblical types like to argue, the questions and answers are irrelevant. 

The prayer speaks of quiet contemplation and profound understanding of God's will.  It is meant for the solitude of our souls and the silence of our hearts.  It does not require academic debate, acrimonious argument, or a gender-free feminist translation.  The Magnificatrequires nothing more than meditation. 

The Annunciation. 
The Visitation. 

Mary and Elizabeth are examples of faith. They show us how to keep faith when things don't seem to fit together. They are examples of faithful obedience in the face of dramatic change.  They are models of fidelity for those who find themselves in places they never expected to be. 

Reread the Magnificat today.  Then spend some time sitting with these two women. Listen to their conversation.  Pay attention to their silences. Watch them as they go about their daily tasks. 

" . . . the Lord has done great things for me."

The Lord has done great things for all of us. 

The photo above is the painting of Mary, Help of Christians in Brezje, Slovenia.  Of the several Marian shrines in Slovenia, Brezje is the most frequently visited.  I had the opportunity to celebrate an English-language Mass for a group of people participating in a workshop.  As they came from all over Europe English was the only language they had in common.  It was a great honor.  

The church in which the chapel is located is a Basilica.  It is not overwhelmingly large but it is spacious.  The chapel holding the painting is very small.  I celebrated Mass with my back to the congregation.  The chapel can hold approximately thirty people.  The elaborate frame surrounding the painting takes up the entire wall.  Behind the frame the devout have posted hundreds of petitions.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, May 28, 2018

Solemnity of the Holy Trinity

Solemnity of the Holy Trinity 

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity compels us to consider the most important truth of our faith. We recall this truth every time we begin and end Mass.  We recall this truth when we begin the offices of the day.  We recall it before each meal.  We invoke the Trinity whenever we say the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The sign of the cross with the Trinitarian formula begins and ends everything the Church does, as it should.

Just as we heard Jesus' mandate in the Gospel, we read in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Christians are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."I must add that Christians are NEVER baptized in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier. Indeed, if that formula is used, as some have done in an effort to be inclusive--whatever that might mean, or "non-sexist"--the sacrament is invalid and must be administered using the proper form. 

The Catechismcontinues, "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself.  It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith . . . (It is) the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith.”

Every time we make the sign of the cross, we recall an inexplicable mystery. The Trinity remains inexplicable despite the vast number of books written about it.  Though each book may contain a shred of insight into the nature of the Trinity, no book captures the essence of the Trinity.  No book, nor the sum of all books, will ever capture the essence of the Trinity.  The dogma of the Trinity depends solely on faith. 

A dictionary definition of faith is: “Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.”  Or, according to the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the conviction of things unseen.”  Both definitions tell us something important in light of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; there will never be a logical proof of the doctrine. 

We must become comfortable with the definition of faith as mysterious because despite the absence of logical proof, despite the impossibility of philosophy, theology, or science to explain the Trinity, one cannot call oneself Christian if he or she denies the Trinity.  Father.  Son. Holy Spirit.

Many of you have probably heard the same legend I did back in grade school, somewhere about halfway through the previous century.  It is still a good way to illustrate the impossibility of understanding the dogma of the Trinity. 

St. Augustine was walking along a beach contemplating and trying to understand One God in Three Divine Persons. He wanted to explain the Trinity through logic.   He saw a small boy going back and forth between the water to the shore carrying a shell with water that he emptied it into a hole in the sand.  He then returned to the water to refill the shell.  Augustine asked, “What are doing?” “I am trying to bring all the sea into this hole.” Augustine replied, “But that is impossible. This small hole cannot contain all that water” 

The boy looked at Augustine, and replied, “It is no more impossible than trying to comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence.” The boy then disappeared. 

His point remains valid. We can only understand through faith, some things that inadequate human intelligence will never comprehend. Even if we were somehow to comprehend the Trinity, the limits of human vocabulary, the emptiness of all languages, the pallid nature of similes and metaphors, and the inaccuracy of hyperbole, would not allow us to explain it in a way that others could understand.

The word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible.  Rather, the understanding of the Trinity grew in the early years of the Church as the Church began to consider what Jesus said and did during His time on earth, a time during which Jesus, through his discourse and prayers, spoke of the indwelling of the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son with the Holy Spirit. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine that in the unity of God there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of these three Persons is One God yet each is distinct. 

Jesus always speaks of His Father as distinct from Himself, yet He also notes that “I and the Father are One.”  The same is true of the Holy Spirit.  We are accustomed to persons being distinct, individual, and unique. This human perception is true even when the persons are identical twins. We have a hard time wrapping our minds around three in one; the same yet distinct.  Thus, Augustine’s walk along that distant shore.  

The Trinity is a mystery.  It will remain a mystery beyond the end of time.  Our understanding, such as it is, is dependent solely on our conviction of things unseen. 


 The photos were taken on Friday of last week.  Several of us were at an overnight planning meeting at the Boston College Conference Center in Cohasset on the South Shore.  I woke a bit later than planned on Friday AM.  Headed out with the camera to shoot.  

The morning was splendid and predicted even better for the rest of the day.  The prediction came true and extended into Saturday down in Bethlehem, CT.  Alas, Sunday and today, Memorial Day, turned gray, rainy, and very cool.  

The Immaculate Conception overlooking the bay.  Through the joy of digital photography the photo appears to be earlier in the AM than it actually was.  For those who are photographers it was shot at ISO 640, f 3.2, at 1/4000 second.  I was not shooting directly into the sun in this.  The Olympus OMD EM1 mark ii has the option to use an electronic shutter which renders the camera completely silent.  If not using the electronic shutter the maximum shutter speed is 1/8000.  

 This was shot directly into the sun at ISO 640, f 3.1, at 1/13000 of a second.  That is not a typo.  When the electronic shutter is engaged it is possible to shoot as fast as 1/32000 second.  Thus with a wide open lens one can shoot into the sun and get this kind of result.  Am going to have a great deal of fun with this feature.  Only learned about it a few weeks ago.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Doctor-Patient Relationship

Did not have a Mass on this Pentecost Sunday.  It seemed reasonable to post this and a link to the article in today's (20 May 2018) NY Times Magazine.  The link is at the bottom of my thoughts on the doctor-patien t relationship.  

The Doctor-Patient Relationship. 
Canadian physician William Osler is quoted to have said, "Listen to the patient, he is telling you what's wrong with him." My dad, Temple Medical class of '31, never tired of reminding of that quote as recently as a few months before his death at the end of my junior year at Temple Med. We both went to Penn State too but that is a topic for another time.
One of the gifts of the ten years I spent in Plymouth doing primary internal medicine was forming relationships with patients, many of whom had been my dad's, and others of whom were new to my practice. I worked almost entirely with the elderly. Having grown up in Plymouth I'd known many of the people who came into the office most of my life. Perhaps the most anxiety producing patient visits during the first year were former high school teachers and other authority figures from my youth. The tables had turned. I got used to it. I think they did as well. 
Listening to a patient entails much more than just the words. One cannot get the same information if an assistant of some sort takes the history or if it is filled out by checking boxes. Check boxes are great for a quick screen or to highlight topics for further discussion, but they are not, should not, and must not, be the sole form of history gathering. Besides listening one must look. An exam should begin from the moment the patient walks into the room to the moment he or she disappears from view. What is the patient's expression while describing the symptoms? Are there any particular movements? Very early during my internist years a patient strode into my office without an appointment (family friend), stood in front of the desk, and said, "Every time I go up the steps I get 'bursitis.'" With that he rubbed his open hand over his shoulder muscles. Bursitis doesn't act that way. Several questions later and a focused exam which revealed no abnormal findings I set him up to see a cardiologist the next day. His complaint along with the motion he made with his hand screamed angina. He had a cardiac catheterization two days later. The disease was so severe he was taken directly from the cath lab to the OR for bypass surgery. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. It was the listening and the watching that gave the critical clue.
When there is a doctor-patient relationship it is both easier and harder to give bad news, to pronounce someone dead, or to make a diagnosis. There is also a greater degree of joy when the diagnostic test is negative for cancer. Under the best of circumstances, the doc can begin to sense when something is wrong with a given patient that he or she may not realize. I will always remember the day a patient walked into the office. I saw her more or less every two or three months to follow a number of minor problems as well as to assuage her hypochondriacal tendencies. She came in two months after her previous appointment and croaked a greeting with a gravelly voice that sounded nothing at all like her. I'd heard that type of voice before. Severely underactive thyroid. It took a while to get the medication stabilized but her voice came back to normal and remained that way for the following six years that I stayed in the office. 
There are many stories like that, some funny and some tragic. All of them emerged from the doctor-patient relationship, a relationship that is seriously impaired by insurance companies, the computerized medical record, the presence of "transcribers" and other factors. A relationship cannot develop in quick visits of six minutes (if the insurance company is being generous). A relationship cannot develop with a cast of physicians that changes daily when a different cardiologist makes rounds on the group's patients each day. Sometimes one learns a lot simply taking the patient's blood pressure while he or she is seated at the desk.
I've been a priest for eleven years. Looking back there were times the office served as a confessional--not a sacramental one to be sure, but a place where the patient could unburden himself or herself. I learned some things about people I wish I'd never had to learn and carry around for the rest of my life. Such is the function of the doctor-patient relationship. Other times the "confessional" dimension allowed us to define some problems and figure out how to work them out. 
The New York Times Magazine article attached here gets it mostly right. There is an interesting sentence by the author that summarizes a lot: "On a Monday morning in August 2016, I went on hospital rounds with Krishnamoorthi, as he performed the same duties a hospitalist would with one key difference: He already knew the patients." Significantly, though unmentioned, the patient already knew the physician. Important on both sides.
Below are some photos I took in Slovenia considering the questions of solitude.  Will not comment on each on as per usual.  I miss the opportunity to wander around in a city alone at night while carrying expensive camera equipment without a hint of anxiety or fear.  
There is no way I would walk around my small home town in northeastern PA at night with a camera.  Not too keen about doing it during the day either.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Solemnity of the Ascension

Back in December we were taking our leave of others with the words, Merry Christmas, or Blessed Christmas, or the sooooo politically correct, government, and university approved, Have a Happy Holiday.  Forty days ago we wished others a Happy and Blessed Easter.  What about the Solemnity of the Ascension? I’ve yet to see a card celebrating the Ascension or hear any kind of greeting.   

There is something odd about how the arc of what is called “the glorification event”--the trajectory of Jesus' life--has been disrupted.  The glorification event is comprised of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.  None of these moments in Jesus’ life happened in a vacuum, in splendid isolation, or unrelated to the others. No event in Jesus' life can stand alone. 

Jesus’ birth is the most problematic when it comes to standing alone.  Too many isolate Jesus’ birth from all that followed, and indeed, from all that preceded it. Christmas is not a stand-alone episode.  Were it not for the events of Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and the Ascension, what we call “the Christmas Story” would make no sense. It would be nothing more than a charming story featuring a cute kid, a story without meaning or relevance, if there were any story at all.  Hammarskjold wrote a haiku that I quote frequently.  It is a perfect synopsis of the arc of Jesus' life, from birth to passion and death, using only seventeen syllables.   

"On Christmas Eve, Good Friday
was foretold them
in a trumpet fanfare"

Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are of a piece.  The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow put it well when he wrote, "We must beware of isolating discrete moments in what is one continuous event in the revelation of God.  He who is born of Mary is he who dies on the cross, is he who rises from the dead, returns to the Father who sent him, and sends his Holy Spirit on all who confess him as Lord and Son of God.”  

The Easter Season will end in ten days with the Feast of Pentecost.  The Church will return to ordinary time. Ordinary time will continue throughout the spring, summer, and most of autumn. It will end on 2 December 2018 when we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent and prepare to recall and experience the glorification event—Jesus’ birth, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension—yet again.  

May you all have a Happy Ascension Thursday and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost with great joy. 

Oftentimes on Solemnities and Feast Days rather than preaching on the readings I will focus on the solemnity or feast.  The Boston Archdiocese is one of the few in the U.S. that continues to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension on Thursday rather than transposing it to Sunday.  Thus, I celebrated this morning at St. Patrick Manor.  

I was at the charterhouse over the weekend.  Had a lot of time on Sunday and less so other days to shoot.  Still getting adapted to the new camera.  One of the older lenses is balky and a bit unpredictable.  Is getting better but there is still some work to be done. 

The books in place for the night office.

The large crucifix in the small visitor's chapel.  Very dramatic angles for shooting.  Can't decide if I prefer the black and white or the color. 

 One of my favorite decorating accents, though it is quite outdated by current standards, is glass block.  There is a small glass block window.  The hall in which I was standing was dark and very narrow.  The room it overlooks is quite large and fairly bright.  

 A set of weathered stairs. 

Three small stained glass windows in the back of the church.  They are embedded in a gray concrete wall.

 One of the lakes at sunset.

A red dock with a fishing pole at the ready.  Needed:  One worm.

Birch trees.  Love 'em. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ

Metropolitan Museum and Sacrilege

Saw the New York Times photos from the Metropolitan Gala do over the weekend.  Read some of the swooning over a purported meeting between faith and fashion.  Travesty meets titillation is a more accurate description.  The cooperation of the Vatican in loaning vestments, miters, and so on is perplexing. Are there those over in Rome who are so f'ing desperate to seem hip that cooperating in sacrilege is a reasonable option?  

The photos included here are a far cry from the grotesqueries of the red carpet at the Met. I took them in a monastic sacristy over the weekend. Fashionable?  Probably not by the standards of the pathetic crowd that pranced the red carpet.  Faith? Not in and of themselves as pieces of variously cut fabrics.  They are, however, conduits to a deeper experience of faith through the liturgy for which they are worn, the only proper place and time to wear them.  (Both photos below were taken over the weekend that this travesty was put on.  I was at a monastery at the time giving some conferences.  The top photo shows the vestments prepared for the conventual Mass on Sunday.  Mine are the ones on the back table on the extreme right.  The second photo is the vestments I wore.  My amice, alb, and cincture with the rest supplied by the community.)

Each of the vestments a priest puts on is associated with a vesting prayer meant to remind him fundamental truths and desires.  Many religious who continue to wear the habit, also repeat specific prayers as they put on the various parts of that habit in the morning. 

The whole process of vesting begins with the washing of hands while repeating a prayer that begins, "Give virtue to my hands . . . . "

The amice, a rectangular cloth with cords at two corners and a cross embroidered on the middle upper part, is kissed, touched to the back of the head, and then draped over the shoulders.  The long cords are wrapped around the midsection and tied at the waist.
The accompanying prayer begins, "Place upon me O Lord, the helmet of salvation . . ."   

The long white alb that extends to the floor is put on with a prayer that begins, "Make me pure O Lord, and cleanse my heart . . . " 

The cincture is a long to very long (the one I'm currently using is very very long) white cord that is knotted or has tassels at the end. As the priest puts it on he begins, "Gird me O Lord, with the cincture of purity . . . "

The stole is distinct to the ordained minister.  A priest wears the stole draped behind his neck and over both shoulders, the deacon's stole is draped over his right shoulder, across the chest, and is joined at the left hip.  The color may vary with the liturgical season though white is always an option. The stole is put on with a prayer that begins, "Lord, restore the stole of immortality . . . "

Oftentimes the priest's cincture is not tied around the waist until after the stole is put on.  The cincture can then be wrapped and tied in such a way that the long stole is contained closer to the body.   On one occasion at a funeral in the Slovenian mountains the cincture prevented my stole from taking wing in a brutally cold wind.

Finally, the chasuble, the large garment put over the head and draped over the entire upper body, sometimes almost grazing the floor.  The full prayer that accompanies vesting with the chasuble is: "O Lord, who has said, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light," grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace."  Any decoration should be subtle and enhance the visual experience of liturgy.  One of the men at the Trappist Abbey in Spencer, MA explained that that they generally avoid figurative decorations as the vestment should be allowed to speak for itself.  Would that all vestment makers hewed to this philosophy.

And no, though the abuse is common, the stole is not to be worn over the chasuble.  

The party at the Met was, in the end, an exercise in silliness, worthy perhaps of a ten- year old at Halloween, but not much beyond that. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD