This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

Palm Fronds

a palm leaf in black and white, a close up of the main stem with the fronds coming off of it, nearly centered image.My daughter held the palm frond as if she’d never seen such a thing. I gave mine a perfunctory wave. We were both visitors, standing in the foyer of an elementary school turned church. The pastor was a friend, but in the ten minutes before a worship service—especially during Holy Week—I wasn’t going to latch on to her stole and demand hand holding. So we stood away from the growing group of congregants, clutching our fronds.

I turned to trivia.

“You know about Ash Wednesday?” I asked my daughter.

She nodded. “They smudge stuff on your head.”

“Ashes. And they get them by burning the previous year’s palm fronds.”

I smiled, knowing I hadn’t punctured the thirteen-year-old’s ennui, but was still pleased with the information. Her casual, “Oh, neat” emboldened me.

“Do you know about Holy Week?”

She did not, which struck me with a momentary panic. The fronds-to-ashes bit was admittedly an outside pitch. Something I didn’t expect her to know. But this—a fundamental part of the faith—was a watermelon over the plate. [Read more…]

God’s Acquaintances

Image of unfocused people in the midst of soft light from unseen windows inside a beautiful cathedral. They say God won’t let you go under; but it seems he will let your hair get pretty wet.

Most trials, if they’re worthy of the name, don’t let you get away without a good scare, maybe even a rent garment and some scratches, if not scars. The less lucky might have to surrender more. Cries for help may be answered, but instantaneous, immediate resolution is admittedly rare. I think most would concede that. The difference in people is how they handle such things; some can march on while singing hymns; others curse like all get out through their turmoil.

The comforts of spiritual sustenance alone are hard for some, among whom I number, as we are the class not given to feeling anything particular at such times, though we believe we are being sustained in a ghostly fashion. My faith is more of an intellectual assent; I am convinced of it, but it does not really make me feel better for that fact.

I know what I believe because of what I do, not because of what I sense. Habit is my testament. I’m not even sure if feelings are honest indicators much of the time. [Read more…]

Calling the Lapsed

Black and white film image of the interior of a large white-wooden walled church, with high vaulted ceilings and large windows at the top of the walls. There are three enormous white balloons floating near the ceiling. To the left of the room is a table set up with things on top of it (maybe food). Several people stand in the center, holding a large balloon, and helping set up. The left and right side of the image is a blank strip of light from the film being exposed to light.The parish party was a bust. As a member of the Parish Council, I had promised—yet not followed through—on calling the database of lapsed Catholics the Council had acquired by asking parishioners to fill out notecards during Sunday Mass, listing friends and family members who had fallen away.

Of the targeted invitees, the lapsed Catholics, only one showed up. And the Council attendees ambushed her, four of us at once, smiling so hard our faces hurt.

I needed the party to be a success—mainly because it was only when I arrived on scene that I saw how hard one councilmember had worked to make it happen.

Sure, a few of us brought cookies, but otherwise, she alone had called the database; she alone had brewed the coffee; she alone had bedecked the folding tables with festive runners and golden coins filled with chocolate; she alone had been there since three decorating and putting out coloring pages and crayons for the children.

The initiative was her brainchild, since she herself, once lapsed, has only been back in church a few years. She is on fire, so excited to be Catholic again, which is a beautiful thing to behold, the energy she conjures for things about which the rest of us have lost hope. [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]