Thursday, May 31, 2012

On "Deus Caritas Est"

I am reading the encyclicals of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in obedience to a homilist who, at the end of last semester, suggested Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi as summer reading.

Obedience has seldom yielded more fruit for me! As I read Deus Caritas Est, an encyclical on Christian love given Christmas day of 2005, I could not believe my eyes. The Holy Father seemed to be saying, paragraph after paragraph, what has been on my mind for the past four years. My copy is copiously highlighted and peppered with notes like “BRILLIANT” and “Was just thinking of this….” I am honored and privileged to say that I have the same thoughts, judgments, and desires as a pope.

I wanted desperately to blog about it, writing a critical essay with lots of intelligent comments. I sat down to do just this, but now that I look again at the encyclical all I can say is a total, emphatic “YES.”

I won’t resay what Pope Benedict XVI says so well. So read it! (It’s only 25 pages long, and it’s glorious.) My copy with notes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Personal holiness vs. Service?

Cool things happened last Friday: I went to early morning Mass and received the Eucharist from my CMA-SS chapter advisor (the altar server and extraordinary minister). Later in the day, learned that if I complete the PPVI Medical Consultant program, it will go in my dean's letter (!). Still later, I gave a quick presentation on our CMA-SS chapter to the incoming M1 students. Finally, I met with a neuroscience faculty member to present TAC's modus operandi. (It's not clear to me that TAC's style is doable right now for my medical school, but I enjoyed showing off how it is the ultimate, perfect, and best style for integrating knowledge.)

But the post is not about the whole day, it's about something interesting I noticed when I gave the CMA-SS presentation. I was the first of the ten organizations presenting, followed by the Christian Medical Association. My focus was strongly placed on personal holiness--our main events are prayer before class, Mass together, understanding Church teachings, and attending CMA conferences. By contrast, The Christian Medical Association mentioned bible study, but spent most of the presentation on their mission trip.

Photo credit: basictheory
Mission trips are excellent (I do not want to be misunderstood at all: mission trips are wonderful). But in my experience of American Christianity there is an overemphasis on service and an underemphasis on perfection. This is sadly ironic, because it not only depletes our interior lives but undercuts service! (If we do not have our own souls in order, how can we bless others?)

Some might say, how can we focus on ourselves before others? That isn't Christ-like! I reply that serious and continued formation before placing oneself at the service of others is necessary and rational. (What to the flight attendants tell us about oxygen masks before every flight?) What is rational is Christ-like: Truth Himself is sensible, not only in an abstract and absolute sense but in His intimate knowledge of our human nature.

The Dominican sisters of St. Cecilia articulate the relationship between personal holiness and service nicely:
The glory of God and the salvation of souls has been the goal of the Order of Preachers since the Order’s foundation in the thirteenth century. Following in this tradition, Dominicans continue the mission of preaching and teaching, contemplating and giving to others the fruits of their contemplation, in order to achieve this end.
So, hopefully, our CMA-SS will continue to focus on personal holiness to enable our avocation of service and enrich it. I am planning to host a website for our chapter and will make a point of drawing attention to this.

Site wordle!

A reader made a wordle of this blog using She correctly predicted that I'd be surprised at the content. I wonder how the words are weighted (times repeated? times viewed? combination? other things?), so I tried to find the source code for these wordles, but the creator is not able to share it. Oh well! It's nifty. It's weird that some things are repeated (childfree happens twice, as does church and parenthood) and it's crazy that "want" is apparently that prominent in my vocabulary.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Make the pro-life movement classy

One of the projects keeping me busy in the first week off was making some signs for my brother and I to hold when we pray outside Planned Parenthood every week. Ugly or cheap homemade signs are repulsive and some of the old slogans aren't very effective.

So, I got to make (what I think are) the ideal pro-life signs: crisp, easy to read, and sensitive to all those who can suffer from abortion (women, partners/spouses, clinic staff, PP volunteers). I bought 20x30" foam-core,  printed and cut out large letters which I traced. I then painted between the lines, to avoid peeling and fading letters. The red vinyl arrow under "ULTRASOUNDS" detaches and reattaches to point the other direction (white letters are on the other side, too) if necessary.

Those that I love deserve the best. Women, those who come with them, and clinic workers are no exception and actually have a greater claim on my mercy.

So I'm keeping it classy.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Come down from Tabor for a little home cooking

I will now descend from all these recent lofty posts to something very humble, very human, and very dear to my heart: cooking.

Summer means time to cook. In fact, it is a well-established fact documented by several peer-reviewed journals:

time ∝ complexity of kitchen creations

So, now that I have some time (but not too much, as I am seemingly unable to slow down) I am baking crustless quiches (above, with spinach and sausage topped with baby swiss cheese) and spaghetti in meatballs (not spaghetti 'n' meatballs...spaghetti inside meatballs, which is cute, tasty, and relatively low-carb; sorry for the fuzzy photo).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Next steps in painting the icon...

This is one of several posts on the process of painting an icon.
1 2 3
The icon looks very strange right now, since the technique practiced by iconographers begins with the darkest colors and proceeds to the lightest, symbolizing a movement from chaos to order, darkness to light. The process of painting an icon is a tiny replica of God's creation and salvation of our souls.

The strangest part is the green underlying the skin and hair of the figure. This first layer (called "sankir" in Russian) is browner or greener depending on the iconographer and the color tone of the holy figure painted, but it always contains some green. Green, the middle of the visible spectrum, reflects the balance which forms the foundation of a holy life. Interestingly, I am also learning this lesson from Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. It is good to learn the lesson in two different ways: first, from St. Francis, using my intellect; then, from my guardian angel, using my body.
  1. Sankir: a greenish base coat to the face and arms. (1Q107A4, including this gem: "as local distances do not prevent one angel seeing another, so neither does it prevent an angel perceiving what is ordered to him on the part of another [i.e. a communication of thought]."
  2. Roshkrish: base coats. This figure is a guardian angel and holds a cross in his right hand and a sword in his left. (1Q107A5)
  3. Background in a light gold, symbolic of heaven. (1Q108A1)
Another fascinating element of painting an icon is the opportunity to look at my flaws. The time I spend painting becomes a small image of my spiritual life. For instance, I noticed that I began to paint very rapidly when I worried that the paints would dry out and I would waste some. I grew so focused on painting quickly and well that I lost a little peace and forgot to pray for a large segment of time! Reflecting on this, I realize I often prefer results to peace, especially if I am inexperienced with a situation, experienced something unexpected, or prepared poorly (as I am inexperienced with diluting paints, was suprised that the white acrylic surface didn't behave like paper, and started with too much paint). My icon may have been better if I had a few more smudges and a little more prayer!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

La Vie

Months ago I posted about the childfree movement (Wikipedia entry) and received a response by Laura Carroll, whose original post is quoted below the horizontal line below (Ms. Carroll gave me permission to use the content). Today I am going through the entire post and adding my thoughts and arguments (dark red boxes). For months, I couldn't work on this post because every time I tried I became exasperated. Now that summer permits frequent breaks, I can respond and avoid losing peace.

Warning: the formatting gets a little messy. Sorry!

I am religious; my arguments weren't. It's a logical fallacy (ad hominem) to rebut the person arguing instead of her argument. I don't think anyone maliciously misconstrued the argument, but identifying me with my argument is a mistake.

I wonder why I'm perceived as a guy. Admittedly, "matins" can be confusing if you don't know what it means.
Last year Grist did a piece on why the childfree had finally gone mainstream. I had to disagree. While this choice is talked about more than ever before, it’s not hit mainstream acceptance by a long shot. One big reason? Religion. This “Happily Childfree” post by a Catholic medical student is a sure reminder of how certain religions will always stand in the way…

Take a moment to read his post (it’s not long.)

Here are just two conservative Christian ways of thinking he talks about that reflect unshakable views of the childfree:

The childfree fear responsibility.

There is not one freedom for everyone. A person's freedom is determined by their state in life. An example of this principle (an example everyone might agree on): an unmarried person has the legitimate freedom to be in exclusive relationships with multiple persons sequentially; a married person does not.

The vocation of marriage, like any other, involves some change in freedoms. Among other things, married person gains the freedom to consummate their union; they lose a little of the "do what we want, when we want" freedom, which single persons have to a greater degree,* if only because they now have another person who shares their life!
He is criticizing a woman’s comment that gave her and her husband’s reasons for not having children, including overpopulation, wanting time to dedicate to each other” to continue having a deep marriage, wanting “the freedom of being able to do what we want, when we want,” and not wanting the “responsibility of how the child’s life could turn out.”

Knowing what you can and cannot do and acting accordingly is very responsible. Exercising rights without taking on the corresponding duties is not. Married persons who accept some freedoms proper to their vocation (i.e. sex) but decline the natural responsibilities are like adults who drink but don't want to choose a designated driver: irresponsible.

Another indication that the CF choice is about responsibility is the candid original comment itself, declining "responsibility of...the child's life."
Do the childfree fear responsibility just because they don’t want the responsibility of raising children? Seems to me knowing what responsibilities you want, don’t want and why is actually, well, very responsible. It is not about fearing “personal failure;” it is having the responsible, mature wherewithal to know what is best for us and what is not.

We are selfish because we have exclusive concern for our own interests.

I credit Ms. Carroll here: she knows that the Church teaches that Christ's selfless action is symbolized in marriage and sexual intercourse between husband and wife. However, we are not blind to the many other forms of self-giving; in fact, we see better than most of the culture how love is not synonymous with sex. Nor are we unable to imagine possible selfish motives of some parents. But the intentions of some do not alter the nature of an act (for instance, if someone donates to the poor to network among philanthropists, his selfish motivation does not change the excellence of the act). Why the Church holds that marriage is a symbol of selflessness might require another post (or book).
Just because we don’t have kids means we are only concerned about our interests? Why is it that church just can’t budge off of the idea that procreation is “the” symbolic” selfless act? How is it that the church (and this guy) fail to see the many ways those who have no children give to their families, loved ones, communities and the world? How can it be so blind not to see how much selfishness there can be in the act of parenthood?

There is a third unshakable view related to the world in general. It doesn’t only come from the conservative Christian community, but from other segments of the population as well:

Overpopulation is a myth.

I have nothing else to say if the math didn't make sense. I agree that over-consumption is a problem, but not because it will deplete all of our natural resources. It's a problem because of the vices it feeds. In short: over-consumption is directly worse for us than it is for the environment.
This guy does math to make the point that even with the current 7 billion, there is 9500 square feet for his family of nine, and asks why isn’t it as obvious to others as it is to her that there is still plenty of room for more people on the planet. Room, maybe, but survivability of those growing numbers, and the rest of living creatures and things on the planet? Talk about a limited view.

Now there are population”experts” who would agree that population isn’t the problem, but the more I learn from the whole field of experts, population is indeed the problem, and the consumption that goes with it.

Parenthood is a choice and always will be. However, this choice is made before marriage when the vocation of marriage and its particular fruits (including, but not limited to, children) are chosen. Granted, not all who choose parenthood by marrying are able to conceive children. But openness to children is an important part of the disposition necessary for this vocation.
As the saying goes, we’ve come a long way baby, but views like these remind me we have a ways to go to changing the societal views on parenthood truly being a choice.

Childfree Christians: How do you react to this guy’s piece? How does the church view the childfree in your experience? How can stubborn negative views be influenced to truly change?

*A side comment from me: no one has the freedom to absolutely do what "what [they] want, when [they] want. Think realistically: other people exist and limit those freedoms, legitimately and illegitimately. Think about humility: sin limits our freedoms (c.f. Rom 7:15 and 7:23, Mt 26:41). Think about goodness: doing what is right limits our 'freedom' to do wrong things and makes us truly free to do what is holy. A conversation about the childfree should be about limits to freedom and which are appropriate.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Summer Slowness

I'm officially done with the first year of medical school! Since I last posted, I passed a shelf exam, have moved (which took two days of moving heavy stuff down two flights of stairs and then up a different two flights of stairs) and am relaxing. During these days without classes, I have no internet in my apartment (frugality during the summer) and will post sporadically.

book stackAlthough I don't have classes, I am not idle. I'm applying for the Pope Paul VI Institute Medical Consultant Program, which is usually offered to physicians and (at the earliest) fourth-year med students. Pray that, if it be God's will, I be accepted! I am also reading Pope Benedict XVI's first two encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Spes  Salvi, as well as St. Bonaventure's biography of St. Francis. Also on my reading list for these days without big commitments are Theology of the Body (Waldstein edition) and the last few pages of Introduction to the Devout Life. If I'm very good and finish everything that I have bookmarks in, I will move on to some St. Theresa of Avila.

Yesterday I teleconferenced with Kristan Hawkins and the president of my medical school's Medical Ethics club, which (unlike MedSFL) has funding from the Humanities Dept. We spoke about next year's activities, and it was very exciting!

I also created a folder of practice tests for incoming M1s. I hope to help everyone with pre-test anxiety and self-esteem. If you are a rising M1 or pre-medical student and would like a copy of this folder, email me. I have submitted my acceptance of the assistant-teaching offer in anatomy.

Also, I'm meeting with the assistant dean for student affairs this Friday to ask about residencies friendly to explicitly pro-life OB/Gyns. It's time to start hunting.... The same day, I am meeting with a second faculty member to share my experience at TAC; he was intrigued to hear that TAC holds classes in seminar style. Since the trend in medical education is towards PBL and our school is no different, I have been asked to share TAC's style. Please pray (to St. Thomas Aquinas) for the success of this conversation.

Recently I received news (from several different listservs at different times) about the 43 Catholic institutions who filed suits against the HHS mandate. I am also proud of TAC's open letter to the president.

Don't forget to vote on pro-life candidates in your primaries and local elections!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Icon progresses

This is one of several posts on the process of painting an icon.
1 2 3
If you are like I am, you're curious about the method for painting icons. You've heard that there are steps and that it is a process of devotion. You've heard that icons are supposed to be "windows to heaven," not ordinary pictures. How does one open a window to heaven?

To be honest, in one way I don't know. There are probably many methods and many different schedules of prayer and painting and fasting.

But in another way, St. John of the Cross tells us that to clear a window for heavenly light to pass through, we must be detached from earthly things. So, to successfully paint an icon is to cling more closely to God throughout the process and to grow in love and purity. (Easier said than done? You bet.)

That said, I am still interested in preserving, to the greatest degree doable, the traditional techniques for making an icon. I am trying to pray constantly as I paint, so I repeat the prayer to my Guardian Angel. Because I know so little about angels, I am also reading one article from the Summa for each step I complete. Here are the steps I have completed so far:
  1. Preparing the board: three coats of white paint (1Q106A1, A2, A3). Icons painted according to old traditions have white gesso instead of white acrylic paint.
  2. Painting the sides in brown (1Q106A4).
  3. Transfer of the line drawing to the blank board (1Q107A1)
  4. Painting the halo gold (1Q107A2). Isn't this interesting, that the first color to be placed on the board is the halo? In more traditional icons, the halo (and sometimes the background!) is gilded after application of red clay bole.
  5. Painting a red line around the halo (1Q107A3).

It's amazing how effective these few things have been for spiritual growth. The application of my body and mind to acquainting myself with a holy person is really excellent!

Here are some gems from the Summa:

"...the other kinds of enlightenment that proceed from man or angel [i.e. all teaching of any truth] are, as it were, dispositions to this ultimate form [God]."

" him it belongs to change the will, to whom it belongs to bestow righteousness: for righteousness is the rightness of the will. But God alone bestows righteousness."

"...the angel's will is ever regulated by the Divine law which made the order in the angels..."

"The ecclesiastical hierarchy is derived from and represents the heavenly hierarchy."

"...the tongue of an angel is metaphorically called the angel's power, whereby he manifests his mental concept."

"The angels are ever speaking to God in the sense of praising and admiring Him and His works; but they speak to Him by consulting Him about what ought to be done whenever they have to perform any new work, concerning which they desire enlightenment."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Latter Day Saints

I was introduced to Mormonism in grade school or high school, when I read a lot of my Dad's old issues of This Rock and Envoy, which had tough apologetics and articles describing how scary Mormon proselytizing is.

But once, caught in Salt Lake due to an airport mishap, I visited Temple Square. I wandered around the grounds and looked at the buildings. Some were shoeboxy, but the Temple (left) was beautiful. I had just graduated from TAC and was feeling homesick for the Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. I was surprised by the peace of the place, which (by the This Rock accounts) I thought would be crawling with evil. It was crawling with missionaries; I was slowly chased (I do not exaggerate) by a pair of women until my luggage became so heavy that I finally stopped to talk with them. They surprised me with one particular phrase: they spoke about promises they make to reach certain statuses within the Church and they said "promises we get to make," implying some love of holiness and devotion that I took me by surprise.

The more I learn, the more I think the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is a remarkable phenomenon. Were it not for its cultural momentum, I am not sure it would still exist, since some of its canonical texts (which express some of its doctrines which differ from Catholicism and Protestantism) have been called into question repeatedly.

What is "cultural momentum?" (LDS is an entire culture!) Mormons enshrine the family, catechize seriously, and respect beauty. Am I shaking a finger at the Catholic Church for not doing these things? No. The Church has done these things on an unprecedented scale for two millenia (behold, as the tiny fraction that I have experienced, the CMA and TAC; for more, I again recommend Thomas Woods). The fact that Mormonism is so successful is actually a plug for the truth of the Church's teaching.

Since my This Rock days I have had a Mormon classmate, read about the Golden Plates, and watched a documentary about the Book of Abraham (which you can find here, on the blog of Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who has a good post about Mormonism here). This post isn't meant to be apologetics; it's an observation--"gee, the Mormons are special and it's because they have some really important and beautiful things right."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Can I take two minutes to say: being a faithful Catholic right now is awesome? When one understands that our Church is true and that it will persist, life/history becomes a beautiful story of the victory of the Church. Perhaps this is because I just graduated from a current-events bubble (TAC) last May, but I think this is especially true of the past ten months! I am thinking of the return of some Anglican Churches, the new translation, SSPX, LCWR, the HHS Mandate, the NY Times ad....

On a completely unrelated note: 200 posts and 11k views, yay!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First Icon: my Guardian Angel

Two wax paper tracings of the fresco I am copying
Madonna with 54¢ of cull lumber (five 3.25x4" pine boards)
I have put off beginning my first icon for a while: I wanted to start one at the beginning of Lent. Now that it is dangerously close to Pentecost and I am in a lull between classes and summer work, I realize my window is closing.

I really wanted to do this right. I read that some iconographers follow schedules of fasting and prayer. I didn't want to treat the process frivolously, mistreat the sacred, fail in obedience, innovate on top of holy traditions, etc, etc.

However, I also recognized that my desire to paint a holy person comes from a good intention, to spend time thinking about holiness in members of Christ's body and to exercise my devotion in a physical and visual way.

And I looked at the big picture: the Church has no partiality to one style or another (she is, after all, universal). In fact, just looking at the icons attributed to St. Luke one sees extreme variation across time and cultures. Materials, style, method--all these are accidental. What is essential to an image that will increase devotion in the painter and the future beholders is devotion and right intention.

With this in mind, I started last Friday. I am painting my guardian angel, with whom I barely converse at all and whom I barely know. The pattern I chose to copy is an Italian fresco (rather late considering the reported ancient source of many icons). This fresco, more than many other patterns that I could imitate, showed a masculine and attentive figure, with a face communicating significant activity. I will continue to post to record future progress.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Submission, Change, and the Church

I recently discovered Fish Eaters, a site with loads of excellent apologetics on hard-core Catholicism. It explains the richness of our millenia-old traditions and is truly marvelous! The site creator, Tracy, states states her position, which is pretty solid. (I'm used to people saying that the the Tridentine rite is superior to the Novus Ordo and pretty much agree.) Moving around the site, I discovered a fun page: Lists Every Catholic Should be Familiar With. (I like lists.)

As I was happily stuffing information into my brain I saw that the list of mysteries of the Rosary had only 15 items. Then I read
...His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, recommended adding 5 more Mysteries.... This novelty does not change the true Rosary and is merely presented as an option for Christians. This option, however, is one that totally disrupts the relationship between the Rosary and the Breviary's Psalms.
While I disagree with Tracy's thoughts about the five Luminous mysteries, I have a lot of empathy with her: I wince to hear that the Roman Calendar is all messed up, or that the fifteen-decade Rosary fits with the old Office and now everything is all confused. I like things to fit and remain consistent.

In fact, lots of things in the Church make me wince. I used to wonder why there are redundant religious orders (e.g. Dominicans, Salesians, Ursulines—they all teach!). Can't we be systematized and have one monastic order and one apostolic order? Why are there so many vocations? Can't we be saintly in an orderly, limited number of ways?

The Vocation Tree: a helpful infographic, but
the first time I saw it I definitely winced.
But that's not how agapic love works. God has an unexpected, organic fecundity and the Church reflects this in the differences between souls and the developing Church: remaining one, she changes by adding and pruning to produce more fruit for our salvation!

(This post is about more than the Rosary, but recently Msgr. Charles Pope proposed adding more mysteries to the Rosary, in a lighthearted but earnest way. The Rosary isn't the Canon of the Mass. It's not Scripture. It's a devotion and, like the vocations blessed by the Church, changes as the Church's needs change.)

So, despite my love of Latin, lists, ritual, order, and incense I need to remember the nature of the Church. But where is the balance between maintaining tradition and allowing for true growth? St. Pio of Pietrelcina has great words to say about this, similar to the recent words of Bishop Fellay, superior of SSPX. First, St. Pio:
...A renewed Church is coming, faithful and united, and you must help to usher this in by setting an example of great loyalty and fidelity. Perhaps there are things you do not agree with about this Church. Heaven accepts the fact that you have opinions. But you should discuss these things with Jesus and not use these points to pull your Church down and distance others from obedience. You will be accountable for this, my friends.

If Jesus is calling you to lead in the Church, then you must lead. If He is calling you to follow in the Church, I suggest you follow or risk displeasing heaven. ...[B]eing in a constant state of disagreement with your Church is causing you unnecessary stress. ... This is God’s one true Church and that has not changed. Be faithful during this time.... [B]e accepting of both your personal crosses and also accepting of the crosses your Church is carrying during this period. Heaven is with you in each personal cross and heaven is working to renew the Church. Be patient and calm while we work together in these matters.
Next, Bp. Fellay: "today’s Church still has Jesus as its head. You give the impression of being so scandalised that you can no longer accept this is still true..." and "[this] conception of the Church is too human and fatalistic; [it sees] the dangers, the scheming and the difficulties but you no longer see the help offered by grace and the Holy Spirit."

Ultimately, both urge us to obedience as a guide: we will walk the correct line between too much change and too much rigidity when we are obedient. The Church, they remind us, is God's—not ours, not the Pope's, not the Councils'. Therefore, let us constantly seek Christ, because He embodies obedience and thus sets us free. Dilige et quod vis fac.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Summer Research into Maternity Homes

I am participating in the first Summer Externship in Translational Research & Bioethics created by Medical Students for Life to train pro-life future physicians to engage in ethical research that furthers a culture of life. I'm very excited to work Dr. D, a pro-life OB/GYN in my area who performed abortions in the past. At the same time, I'm going to research maternity homes (unless Dr. D's research interests change my topic slightly, which would be fine). I want to determine how maternity homes can be made more accessible and attractive to abortion-vulnerable women.

Below the jump is my brainstorming of ideas and initial steps. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

End of First Year makes me glad I'm Catholic

Only a few hours ago, I finished the last exam of my first-year coursework!

Before the exam began this morning, some of my classmates behind me were talking about how much of medical school we'd finished. I started to think about it, and the result was this pie chart. (The percentage occupied by each thing is the result of an inexact formula dependent on stress and clocked hours.)

I could look at this chart and groan, "boy, I've got a long way to go" (especially if I consider that I didn't add a pie slice for residency). But on the other hand, I've already got the whole heart of the pie, every day! This, I feel, is the best part of becoming a saint: accepting grace at and for the present moment. We don't have to wait for the fulfillment of our work to arrive! I am already living a complete life; I am already living as I want to live for the rest of my earthly days and (with some inevitable eschatological differences) as I want to live for eternity.

Thoughts like these help me see stressors and grades as appropriately small.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Anatomy: Reverence for the Body

Source. (Not our school's lab.)
Yesterday I got an email inviting me to participate in a program my medical school has for the M2s, a teaching opportunity in the anatomy lab. This is a program by faculty recommendation; twelve of us were selected.

Last semester (as a new M1) I noticed the M2's rotating between tanks, helping groups find the phrenic nerve or the thoracic duct. The gunner in me thought gee, that would be cool, but my overwhelmingly negative feelings about anatomy lab made me never want to set a non-required foot in the place.

As I read the offer I had occasion to complete my thoughts about anatomy lab. Why did I have such a rough time in anatomy? One word...

Monday, May 7, 2012

Caravaggio: the Calling of St. Matthew

The Calling of St. Matthew (alternatively, The Vocation of St. Matthew) examples Caravaggio's signature chiaroscuro and naturalism. Its technical perfection is matched by its theological excellence, because it has much to say about vocations.

First, look at the principle figures in the scene: Christ, St. Matthew, and St. Peter (recognizable in front of Christ by his traditional gold outer garment over a blue-green inner garment).

Christ reaches toward St. Matthew, selecting him. His eyes are wide, his mouth slightly open, his head forward on his body. This illustrates His eager desire (Luke 22:15) to have each of us belong to Him, which desire is the source of every vocation.

His hand is almost precisely copied from Michelangelo's famous Creation of Adam. Christ's hand is pointing in the same direction as the hand of Michelangelo's God the Father. However, Caravaggio does not copy God the Father's energetic fingers; instead, he traces Adam's limp hand. In these details, Caravaggio represents our Lord as divine and descending to men from Heaven; at the same time, he includes Christ's full humanity--he took on all the (unfallen) weakness of His creatures.

It would be remiss to comment on a Caravaggio without speaking about light. The light (illuminating the figures and a little less than half of the wall) is not coming from the window. Rather, it is coming from behind Christ. It reminds me of our recent Mass readings...
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. (Jn 14:10)
Finally, notice St. Peter, who might initially seem awkwardly placed. Isn't he blocking Christ? On the contrary, he is placed to represent an often-overlooked aspect of each vocation. The vocation of every Catholic is approved by the Church: for example, consecrated men and women make their vows or receive consecration with the approval of their ordinary; in another example, the vows exchanged by a married couple are dignified in the Sacrament of Matrimony. In The Calling of St. Matthew St. Peter stands as Christ's vicar, not blocking or replacing Him, but making Christ's desires known as he imitates Christ's gesture.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Want a really crazy experience? Try Adoration.

Last Friday night I did something that would shock my average peer. I prayed Evening Prayer and went to Mass. Then, since it was a first Friday, there was Eucharistic Adoration and I stayed for half an hour until Benediction (in Latin).

Wait, it gets crazier. I next went to a convent for dinner with three religious sisters and ten (or so) other young women as part of a yearlong series of evenings, each called "Night at the Convent" and focusing on some aspect of religious life. After dinner, we crowded into their little chapel and exposed the Blessed Sacrament, singing (in Latin). Adoramus Te, Domine...

Wait, it gets even crazier. One sister read two passages aloud and offered a brief reflection on resting on the heart of Jesus. Each of us had a tealight (a little "lamp") and during the next half hour of adoration each girl went up at will and placed our candles before our Lord exposed in the humble chapel monstrance. We prayed and sang hymns directly to this Eucharistic King. (Jesus, Jesus, let me tell you how I feel; You have given me your Spirit, I love You so...) All of these are actions so unimaginable to someone without faith in the Real Presence that we must seem mentally defective! O, unfathomable credence in One who is invisible!

Wait! The most countercultural part happened next. We filed out of the chapel and came back to the living room of the convent, softly smiling and joking about seating arrangements as we seated ourselves in an irregular circle. We voluntarily shared our experiences as much or as little as we wanted. (There are some intimacies which are secret, but other graces become richer when shared.) And the entire room shared a culturally-impossible desire for self-gift to this invisible God.

One girl told us that, whenever she prayed, she asked Mary to change something about her and make her more worthy to receive Him. Another girl said that at first she thought one of the hymns (made purely out of chanting Christ's name) was strange; then she imagined Jesus singing her own name to her, over and over, and it suddenly seemed fine. It might even be a direct imitation of Mary. A third girl mused on how wedding-like each Eucharist is: the altar, the priest, the aisle, the union...! Others immediately chimed in with similar thoughts about how wonderful the Eucharist is and how spousal it is, even to someone who doesn't know what their vocation is yet.

The evening concluded at 10:00pm with a last hymn. As I drove home I passed some college students headed to the bars and I thought: want a really crazy experience? Really relaxing, filling, human, divine? Try Adoration.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Role Models: Good and Ill

I was relieved that Dr. Bruchalski's talk (see first post on this) didn't devolve into heckling by disagreeing audience members, or a pro-life fan-fest. It was thought-provoking and game-changing, in line with the truly pro-life and medically/ethically rigorous flavor of the Vita Institute and AAPLOG.

Several pro-choice medical students and one pro-choice nursing student stayed to ask questions--good, earnest, and respectful questions.

For example, the nursing student (having more clinical experience than any of the medical students) asked: What about the case of placenta previa in a woman six months along?

Rather than give a pat answer, Dr. Bruchalski first recounted a story of a woman in severe hypotensive crisis (I forget the ins and outs of the case) and said that he and his colleagues "took her straight to termination," but could not save her life. He next observed that, in that case, there were (medically) other things he could have done before abortion which may have saved her life. Finally, Dr. Bruchalski implied in honesty, that pat answers don't belong in the trenches. However, he maintained that there are two patients and his job is to treat both of them and never pit one life against the other.

San Damiano crucifix like mine.
The pro-choice medical students asked lots of questions--so many that Dr. Bruchalski sort of had to cut them off to finish! Afterwards, they asked to keep in touch with them. One said she was touched by a lot that he had to say; she even called the talk "poignant for me." The other said he was an intellectual, and so much evidence demanded that he reassess the issue.

I hope these future providers can see the truth about women, the unborn, and evidence-based practice!

After the talk I thanked Dr. Bruchalksi. He learned I was from TAC and said he could recognize students from TAC, Steubenville, Christendom, Dallas....

He also noticed that I wear the cross of San Damiano and asked me why I do. I explained that it was an important symbol of poverty, which seems (to me) interwoven with medical practice and real gift of self to Christ in each patient.

As I was speaking, he began fumbling in his pockets. As I finished, he pulled out a small drawstring bag and revealed a relic of St. Francis of Assisi! He handed it gently to me. I kissed it and touched it to my crucifix, now aware that St. Francis was present in a real way (almost standing with us in the lecture hall). Dr. Bruchalski described that he also felt medical practice was a work of wholehearted mercy. I stood there, clasping St. Francis to my heart and having a hard time believing that I was really hearing someone else agree that medicine can be a self-expenditure for others for the sake of Christ. Wow.

Today outside PP, I met another professor who was volunteering. He recognized me and we exchanged a few pleasant words. I left the encounter much less sad than my first brush with a professor across the fence. Over this academic year (partly through experiences like meeting Dr. Bruchalski) I have built up a hope: all is not lost, even in such a dark world. There are saints among us, Christ is near offering Himself radically, and grace is abundant.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Former Abortionist? Oh, we don't talk about Controversy.

In February at the AAPLOG conference, I met Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life. There, I learned about Medical Students for Life of America (MedSFLA). This group facilitates pro-life medical student interest groups. Aware that medical students have less time than undergraduates, MedSFLA arranges for one speaker to visit 20-30 medical schools per semester. The medical students get a pre-packaged major event and catering funds--all they have to do is book a room and announce the date and time.

I told Kristan I wanted to help, but wasn't going to put too much time in it. After all, I thought, I'm submitting CMA's paperwork to become an official chapter and arranging our first White Mass, the OB/Gyn interest group still had two meetings on the calendar and I was thinking about running for something, I'm taking part in a national research forum in Galveston in April, and (oh yeah) I also have to study.

Well, so much for all those resolutions. I ended up helping get Dr. John Bruchalski to talk at my school after cancelling Galveston. Dr. Bruchalski is an OB/Gyn who performed abortions during his residency but, after completing his training, opened an NFP-only practice in Virginia called the Tepeyac Family Center. He gave a tremendous talk, asking the audience (which was mostly pro-life but a little mixed) five questions:
  1. Why is the abortion rate decreasing?
  2. Why do so few OB/Gyns do abortions?
  3. How does Opinion #385 of the American College of OB/Gyns touch conscience protection?
  4. Is abortion good medicine?
  5. Can physicians provide quality medicine while opting not to performing abortions?
But the wonderful evening was an adventure to obtain. Granted, I was not threatened with expulsion or anything serious. But I didn't feel exactly encouraged beforehand. In the final analysis, I believe this was a combination of my inexperience with hosting events and the skittishness of faculty (most of whom politically and medically agree with me about abortion, but prefer discussions to be about grayer issues to avoid controversy).

This is what the poster looked like.
(Obviously, the particular info was different.)
I tried to do everything right and, for the most part, I think I succeeded. I submitted a formal request to begin a pro-life medical student group, outlining what our officers would do, etc. I asked permissions before hanging posters (see right) on other colleges' bulletin boards.* I followed all the necessary procedures to reserve rooms, cater, and have the event recorded. I sent out three mass-emails (which makes me cringe) to the entire COM and the CON announcing the event, as a reminder, and as a follow-up to announce the recording and the survey. Since people send out mass-emails every day, I expected this would be fine.

De jure, it was; de facto, not so much. An assistant dean who is friendly to me passed me in the hall shortly after I announced the event with my first mass-email. Smiling, he said, "so who'd you finally get permission from?"

I had a moment of internal panic. have to get permission to host speakers? Don't we just kind of...let them come talk? "Oh," I said haltingly, not wanting to admit that I'd gotten permission from no one, "I just went through [the student event coordinator]," which (while true) is not the permission he was asking about. I knew he was looking for a higher name--the director of the Humanities Department, the Dean, the assistant dean for student affairs.... This mini-conversation should have been a red flag, but I let it slide off me and went on my way.

But next I got a concerned email from another mentor:
Dr. ____ stopped by my office this morning to discuss this event.  He made me aware that you had approached the Dept. of Humanities to sponsor or fund lunch for this event.  Dr. _____ and I believe that this event should be strictly a student organization event and should not involve any department or office of the College.  I respectfully ask that you withdraw your request of the Dept. of Humanities to sponsor the event. 
This resulted in a series of visits (by me) to certain higher-ups (just two, actually: Dr. _____ and the director of the Humanities Dept). The head of Humanities told me he glanced at the poster and winced. "Controversial!" he exclaimed during our meeting. "I can't do that!" he continued, explaining that he would have the president on his case immediately in a state-funded institution if there was no counter-point. I did a lot of smiling and nodding during that conversation, but it was a very interesting one (so hopefully it will become its own post).

Even after the dust settled, the friendly dean advised me that he had been dodging light comments he'd heard around him. He advised me, next time, to publish on the poster that it was a Catholic event. Resisting the urge to bury my head in my hands, I told him, it wasn't. I (as a medical student) through a totally ecumenical group (medical students for life) was hosting a doctor (not a religious leader).

In the end, people who attended the event have given me positive comments precisely because abortion is an under-discussed and polarizing topic. I got comments from students...
Thank you VERY much for sending this out to the College.  It’s a very relevant and controversial topic that needs much discussion! 

Thank you for making this video available.  I enjoyed listening to Dr. Bruchalski... very thought-provoking. 
 ...and staff.
Thank you much for facilitating  this!  We really had good discussion after the conference and were grateful for the participation opportunity.
So it wasn't all bad. In a subsequent post I'll tell you, in fact, just how good it was.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Summer plans

This is a relief over a confessional in Ardennes, France.
Last time I posted about my summer, God was asking me to relinquish my plans. Just like he did in a year ago, he returned my plans to me after a time for resignation. Both times, they were changed fundamentally: they became His plans, and I stopped depending on them for confidence. Both times, I was reminded of the real source of my hope and sustenance. Ah, constant conversion, how much I need thee.

This summer I will be taking part in the first summer externship for pro-life medical students sponsored by Medical Students for Life of America. Yay! I will go to D.C. for a week and take a crash course in ethical research, then work with a physician for five weeks researching a topic related to beginning- and end-of-life issues and the underserved. I am happy to have something to do and hope that my work is fruitful.

I am spending a little over a week at home to see my siblings, and at the end of the summer I am hoping to attend the informational conference on consecrated virginity lived in the world (brochure). This is a form of consecrated life available to Catholic virgins since the earliest days of the Church, which has seen a new springtime since 1970 when it was renewed for women outside religious orders and codified in Canon 604 of Canon Law. Consecrated virgins in this country often choose to become members of the U.S. Association for Consecrated Virgins, which is gives an annual information conference available for all interested.

Classes begin August 6, so there won't be much time to come down from the Transfiguration of the conference before my second year of medical school begins!