Saturday, October 15, 2011

How Do You Say Good Bye to the Dying?

The dying priest was about to be taken, from the Religious house where he lived, to a Live –in hospice where he would be prepared to leave this life and meet his Maker. Fifteen priests, the House managerial staff, the housemaids and the Mexican Sisters who lovingly cooked for him, did his laundry and prayed for him, were all gathered in the house chapel awaiting his arrival so that we could all, in the ancient and moving language of the Catholic Church say “Good bye and Godspeed.” Most of us would never see him again.

The silence was thick. Perhaps profound, certainly meaningful, in the face of Death, the inevitable. No one made a sound. No one moved. We were all engrossed in our own thoughts and feelings. Some one we knew well and for whom we had varying affection was dying . Each of us knew that we all would follow him—quickly or over a long period of time. But we would follow hm.

Finally, he was wheeled into the Chapel and positioned so that he could face us. He lifted his pale, pain stained face and said “Good morning”. That was all but, in those words, it was as if he spoke his gratitude for such genuine and heartfelt presence in the face of his coming encounter.

The presiding priest, vested in alb and stole, reminded us of St.James and his instruction to have the priests of the Church pray over the sick one and anoint him with oil. We were invited to lay our hands upon our sick brother and all did. Priests, sisters, managers and maids in a deep and touching silence. No music. No talk. There was no need. Indeed, such accessories would be almost painful and certainly intrusive. The compassion, the support, the Presence of the Holy Spirit were palpable. The dying priest was given a tiny particle of the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum or Food for the Journey. The ancient theology is obvious. It is the sacrament Itself Which basically provides the Care. The traditional insights of Opere Operato apply. The Sacrament, not the trimmings or adjustments to modernity, gives life and courage and strength. Jesus supplies us once more with what we need.

We heard the Church again come to the priest’s aid as the Presider said the final blessing:

“Lord Jesus, Christ, You chose to share our human nature to redeem all people and to heal the sick. Look with compassion on this Your servant whom we have anointed in Your name with this holy oil for the healing of his body and spirit.
Support him with Your Power, comfort him with Your protection and give him the strength to fight against evil. Since You have given him a share in Your own Passion, help him to find hope in suffering, for You are Lord for ever and ever Amen.”

He was wheeled out of chapel to meet the “transport” to his “End Point.” Most of us, though saddened, thought we had made a proper good bye! So, in fact, he moved out of our lives. The next Community encounter with him will be his funeral and burial. And on it goes until the next one of us goes. Most of us move amazingly quickly into the parameters of our own personal lives with our obligations and our needs. But so is the nature of existence.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is not necessarily a pejorative statement as it might be a descriptive one. Some years ago, probably the Paulist most widely viewed as our one true saint, Fr. John Buckley, was buried in the crypt below the great Church with proper liturgical pomp and correctness. The right things were said. The appropriate gestures were made. Due respect to his holiness was observed. Then the local community, very large at that time, went into lunch. There was not a single indication of grief or remembrance of the saint. It was as if a job with its requirements was well done and safely tucked away in the “completed file.” His name was never mentioned. Light laughter, political debate, sports talk filled the room. Was it a form of the “Irish Wake” whereby the verbalization of deep feelings is buried under the false fronts of bravado and excessive masculinity? Is it a denial of the fear of Death? Was it that the Saint’s fate was self evident (being with God hic and nunc) there was no need for concern, only certitude? It is at once mephitic and cloying. One can be grateful for the Catholic custom of devoting the month of November to remembrance of the “Poor souls” in Purgatory! How easy it is to forget!

But there is probably another factor involved which is subtle and very powerful. Perhaps instead of contemplating how we say good bye to the dead, it might be more sagacious (or honest) to wonder how we say good bye to life as we leave it ourselves. Perhaps, that is the true underlying dynamic in all the silence and denial and tears. Perhaps, the real question is how does one deal with death? Perhaps, the question really is: How do I live my life in the present moment? Perhaps, I should second guess the common wisdom and live not that “they” might speak well of me after I die but that I follow , within appropriate boundaries, the joys that God places in my own lap and not some one else’s. Perhaps, we should revisit old St.Irenaeus with his joyful admonition. To be fully human and fully alive is the best way to please God. Maybe that is the way to live so that one may die well and see the Face of God.

It would be fun to discuss this viewpoint with Hilaire Belloc who pretty much knew it all! Remember his gleeful little insight?

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shinie
There’s laughter, dancing and good red wine
At least I have always found it so
Benedicamus Domino!

I have a bias.. Being Catholic is a great way to live but when it comes to dying there is no contest. It is the best way to make one’s good byes.

The Cyrano Syndrome or Who is Really the Beautiful One?

He had a nose describable as huge, ugly, repulsive and peninsula-like. But he had a heart of a poet, the courage and skill of a master swordsman and the tender compassion of a saint. He was called Cyrano and was secretly enthralled with a beautiful maiden called Roxanne whose charms could match the fabled Helen of Troy. His love for her was so burning, so passionate, pure and undying that he would skewer any imprudent loudmouth for even a hint of disrespect toward the Lady of his heart. He, with this deep love hidden in his being, never revealed his ardor for her, fearing rejection and humiliation. How, he thought, could she, this angel, this unique flawless jewel, ever view me romantically when I am so very ugly and repugnant—even to myself!

But her eye was caught by an incredibly handsome, utterly empty headed soldier, Christian, who could barely articulate his own name. Ironically, this underdeveloped bovine like near Cretan, this stammering verbal oaf, won the hand of the gorgeous lady through elegant words supplied by Cyrano. Christian was the mouthpiece, the front, the persona while Cyrano was the heart, the soul, the mind, the poetry, the enthusiasm behind the words. Without the dynamic words of Cyrano, Christian would balk, panic and blush. He would irritate the Lady who impatiently demanded the moving words of love she thought he was so capable of delivering. Thus basically Roxanne, unknowingly, fell in love not with external physical charm, as attractive as that was, but with the internal and lasting beauty of real Love. It resonates Holy Scripture which reminds us that “the beauty of the King’s daughter is within.” It is physical beauty which is only skin deep.

Human history is replete with illustrations of the human capacity to be seduced and indeed deceived by the superficial. Obviously, on the sexual level, we (dominantly, in all probability for males, at least) are, initially, visually attracted by the physical form or style of movement of others. The engine of involuntary and universal attraction is pleasure. Such wiring by the Creator is good and intentional for species survival. But to the dismay of inexperienced and naïve newcomers to the delights of the flesh, sex, alone, usually, if not invariably, leads to satiation and surprisingly, sometimes, revulsion. The limitations of sex by itself, unaccompanied by authentic love, are fairly obvious. However, their search for joy is normal and legitimate. But their means of achieving real joy is mistaken. They have been seduced by the Cyrano syndrome or (put otherwise) they have been living with and for the superficial.

The delusion of many moderns can be illustrated by current studies on the rise of sexless marriages, coupled with the frantic Orgasm Hunt so popular with the “First avenue Bar” types and the high rate of divorce. Ad agencies scramble to outdo each other in pushing sex aid devices for frustrated males. The human landscape is more than dotted with bored, angry ex-partners. And how many males have experienced self revulsion immediately after using the services of the daughters of night! So often disappointed at the disparity between the reality and the fantasy expectation! What goes wrong century after century with human beings in our repetitive faulty choices and judgments? How explain the widespread delusion so often accompanied by feelings of interpersonal betrayal? “You” promised me a Rose Garden!!! Instead, you gave me an empty reed! Would it be gauche even to suggest a little factor called Original Sin as an explanation? Catholic teaching holds that by that Primordial event, our human intellect has been darkened and our human will has been weakened leaving us vulnerable to deception and bad choices. It has ever been such!

The ancient folk lore still teaches the old song of “Natura humana non fallitur”. No matter how elegant and sophisticated we become, human nature never changes! And humans sometimes “go for” the external and the superficial, totally blocking out consequences of behavior. And the disillusion and anger follow! Certainly, it is not only on the sexual level that the “Cyrano Syndrome” operates. It can take many forms. Misjudgments about others is obviously commonplace. Since none of us has complete data about another’s interiority, we are in no real position to be apodictic about another’s inner value or beauty. Let alone their motivation. Mere externals can be egregiously off base. Nevertheless, our tendency is to be captivated by the “outside” where, alas, unfortunately we often halt!

There are two big lessons to be gleaned from a reflection on the Cyrano Syndrome.

First, there are huge deposits of generosity, compassion, depth, love and courage deeply embedded within the souls of others and which are not easily accessible to hasty observation. To be superficial in assessments of the “other” leads to being superficial in human relationships. To neglect to see the whole person is a fundamental disadvantage. Human happiness is heavily dependent on full and deep interpersonal relationships which take time to build, to understand, to appreciate. For example, there have been numerous marriage unions which have foundered because of the failure to “behold” one’s spouse as a person, one of both soul and body. The lovely old love song “Believe me if all these enduring young charms….” highlights the lasting loveliness of a person whose young physical gifts fade with age. But, the beauty of the personality has deepened and grown while bravely/ virtuously withstanding the trials and pains of a lifetime. To miss this point is to go through life half awake! Assessing a person solely in terms of a big nose, bald head or a wrinkled face is to go through life half asleep!! Who is the really beautiful one? Is it the wrinkled, shrunken, pale Mother Teresa or is it the manicured, festooned, frozen faced, gaudily dressed, non-entity of tabloid’s page six ? Is it Hugo’s Quasimodo or even Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster with their surprising capacity for tenderness? Or the botoxed freneticist of Hollywood? The questions are obviously rhetorical.

Second, the one with the big nose, the bald head and the wrinkled face can, likewise, fall prey from the opposite direction. Cyrano was deeply convinced that the beautiful Roxanne could never see past his physical deformity. His confidence in his own abilities was enormous in all things but this. He was revolted by his ugliness, incorrectly thinking that the source of human beauty is physical. His self revulsion left no emotional room for the one powerful factor which is his real ultimate answer. In his view, the negatives of physicality can trump all the inner positives of virtue, charm and character. Such a view could be habitual unless one recognizes the basic fact that the human being, any human being, with big nose or not, is of infinite value to the Lord, our God.

It is alleged that the great St. Thomas Aquinas who was called “The Angelic Doctor” would take a crucifix, hold it in his hand and note that were he the only person ever to live, the Divine Jesus would have gone through all that terrible Passion and Death—just for him. The obvious lesson is that any human being is loved implacably by the all-loving Lord. Such love is not dependent on good looks, youth, intelligence, charm, power or achievement. Just being human is all it needs! This love, likewise, is not dependent on the assessments of others. The very substantial bonus to understanding God’s love for us is ---- freedom. Freedom from “human” respect. Freedom from the paralysis of “How do they see me?” Freedom to be the person I truly am.

What would it take for a Cyrano-like person to incorporate this fact? What risk would be involved for a person with shaky self esteem to open his heart and trust Jesus? What more can He do to show His love for us, in our own beauty, than to give us His constant companionship, forgiveness and compassion? The answer one gives might reveal one’s personal answer to the question which opened this essay. Who is the really beautiful one?

Shrieking in Restaurants

A friend of mine, a retired NYPD chief, and I were entering a charming Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s fashionable East side, and looking forward to a relaxed Sunday Brunch, when we were assaulted by a wall of loud, brassy, screaming, shrieking humanoid sounds. There were groups of youngish people, mostly female, who seemed to be competing with each other in advertising to the world how happy they were and what a great time they were having. It thrills me to see human beings enjoying the gifts of God. But must it be on such a painful decibel level? It was as if we were hearing Shakespeare pondering again that " thinketh the woman protests too much..." If one is profoundly content, must such a person loudly broadcast his great inner contentment with self and life? Whom is he trying to impress or persuade? A further sadism occurs when some people periodically pierce the shrieks with a weird high “C” screech which is apparently meant to be some kind of quasi orgasmic laugh signaling, I suppose, the height of delight at being the center of attention.

Why, in heaven’s name, is there existent such a most repulsive human trait which is so given to posturing and fakery? Does it really shout out how much interior human shakiness pervades our societies? What drives a frail self esteem to plaster onto its most visible component--the face—the phony persona of exuberant joy? It becomes particularly nauseating when the plasterer is a female on the brink of early middle age desperately trying to play the role of the ingénue. One of the shriekers had a persona so beaten into facelessness by frantic years of oiling and creaming and manipulating that she had no authentic or real look. She had only a kind of “tabula rasa” onto which she was straining to paint the image of a bright carefree delightful young thing. The only reaction I got was an impulse to upchuck!!

However, when one observes the current social ills of booze, drugs, obsession with the sexual, consumerism expectation, craving to be “hip”, self fulfillment psychologies, superficial commitments, one further speculates on a possible link between two areas: 1) the myopia of the Page 6 mentality of the modern media and 2) inappropriate behavior like Restaurant shrieking.

Do they feed on each other? I recall that when the Soviet Union was at the zenith of its influence, Stalin’s Propaganda minister noted that "he who is in control of the mimeograph rules society." Update "mimeograph" to Internet, sitcoms, computer and major media and you may have the unhappy application and consequence in this era. Even social behavior is determined by the modern "mimeograph." What’s in? What’s acceptable? What’s the present fad?

Does modern media promote or feed into an excessive dimension of the narcissistic? Are we nurturing a "me first" mentality? Are we dumbing down to a national level of low frustration? Is it the rule of "I got mine, Mac"? I am very well aware and deeply impressed by the pockets of generosity and bravery and sacrifice and industry and chivalry in our country. I know and have been the beneficiary of goodness of fellow Americans. Yet, I have a most uncomfortable sense of a growing impatience with the "other guy"—especially if the other guy is just a "little" guy. The little guy can be the poor or the meek or the old or the uneducated or the gullible or the weak. But I am getting a general sense of non-concern about others or future generations. A sense of selfishness seems more apparent to me than in the previous generations I have known. Is it that I am 90 years old that I write this? Or is it possibly the factual case? Was it like this in 1930 in the depression? Maybe, but there was, I recall, greater sense of the other guy . There was ,I think, more generous sharing of the little we had. Was it like this in the greatest generation in World War II? Maybe, but as I recall my past in that era I think it was generally more caring and helpful for the "guy who was down."

But is my own impatience with the shriekers in restaurants a sign of my own narcissism? When I hear that some restaurants are barring children under six years of age because the kids’ screaming bothers some diners, I feel a sense of agreement. Am I just as bad as the ghouls I met at brunch? Does the kicking, complaining and whining of the little kids at the next table get to me and decrease my enjoyment of my meal? Am I justified or am I slipping into Page 6 myself?

Of course there is a substantive difference between the normative squawking of babies and the nauseating falsity of inadequate young adults even if the external symptom is similar. Little kids are congenitally and understandably narcissists but adults are supposed to have outgrown the "id" drives which Freud so brilliantly illustrated. Is a quarter of a century enough time or does it take a lifetime to grow up?

What does all of this mean? Is it signaling a massive—perhaps—global immaturity? A massive generational arrested development? Or is it endemic? A constant reminder of the residual of Original Sin? Or has this tendency always been there? Does it just assume a different form with each successive generation? If the Catholic Church is right in her anthropology or understanding of human nature, then the answer lies somewhere in the spiritual life. In the awareness of God’s love for everyone. That the love cannot be earned but only responded to! That there is no need to convince everyone that one has value. The fact of being alive is proof enough and should be enough for the adult thinking person. There is no absolute need to have the world acknowledge one’s worth. While it is pleasant, approbation of others is simply not enough. It is, rather, the deep sense of inner peace that God the Father loves me and that God the Son died for me personally and that God the Holy Spirit is with me always in my inner self guiding, directing and loving me.

With such an understanding of reality, one has a reasonable shot at reaching that wonderful state of being which is difficult to define but is usually called happiness. Perhaps no word really can describe it—only feelings can know it. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich when asked to describe why he became a Catholic simply said that after he received the Eucharist, he experienced the deepest inner peace he has ever known. Is that it? Does a deep feeling of being loved by the Almighty alleviate that deep wound of narcissism? Is that wound healed (somewhat) by a pervasive awareness that one’s value depends not on what one does or what one has but basically on what one is? Would my shriekers and whatever human repulsive tendency any of us might have be softened by such an experience? I suspect so but maybe, in the spirit of brotherly love, I should suggest it (to myself) the next time those louts disturb my meal! It would be probably better for me and my gastric juices. I’ll bet I would enjoy the pasta even more so! Once again God’s way pays off!