Three Things We’re Reading Today: Gratefulness, Thanksgiving and the Stranger, Watchfulness

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1. Okay, so this first link isn’t something to read; it’s something to watch, or even just to listen to while you’re prepping leftover turkey. (It’s a holiday weekend—consider this the gift of ease in taking in new information.) In its post for Thanksgiving Day, The Catholic Catalogue provided a link to the TED Talk from Brother David Stendal-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who affirms that:

It’s not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy. . . . Now the key to all this is that we cannot only experience this once in a while. We cannot only have grateful experiences. We can be people who live gratefully.

A lesson simply presented that is well worth hearing again.
And again.
And again.

2. Over at Crux, Kathleen Hirsch points out in a piece called “Giving Thanks for the Stranger” that, even amid cultural and stereotypical misconceptions about the first Thanksgiving, there is still something it can teach contemporary society, whose “gratitude has become domesticated, . . . generosity blasé.”

I would suggest that we look beneath the material wealth that much of the world looks on with envy to the hidden scarcities that no fruit basket can fill. We in America have grown sorely destitute in the qualities that made our abundance possible: trust, a confidence in the goodness of man, basic decency and honesty, the immeasurable value of a fair chance, and the freedom from any kind of tyranny, but most important, the tyranny of the crowd. . . . Only a genuine Communion table, founded on gratitude, can lower those walls. 

3. With the beginning of Advent this weekend, a piece on Aletia entitled “Advent: A Time to Ponder the Question Jesus so Gently Whispers to Us” encourages attentiveness as a living out of Christ’s commands to us: “Be watchful! Be alert!” (Mk 13:33).

…what we can very easily miss—especially at this time of year—is the great and wonderful moment the Lord is preparing now, which we celebrate at Christmas but which, of course, is a continuous reality, seeking to occur every day; the setting of Christmas, however, makes it clearer for us. And that is when the Lord, gently, quietly, and with great subtlety and even greater respect, whispers to each of us His great invitation: “May I be born in you this Christmas? Will you give birth to Me in your life, in your every activity and thought, in your world?”

Thanksgiving and the Liturgical Life

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a front-page story on the growing popularity of “Friendsgiving.” Though reasons vary for preferring friends over family, one young Washingtonian explains the logic of “Friendsgiving”: “You get to be with people you actually want to be around and aren’t just obligated to be around—crazy aunts and uncles and brothers you might not get along with” (26 Nov 2014). 635520672806510009-air-travelYet despite the growing popularity of a family-free Thanksgiving, each year millions of Americans still flock to the roadways and take to the airways, traveling hours to celebrate Thanksgiving with mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. In fact, AAA reports that over the past few days more than 46 million Americans traveled 50 miles or more to celebrate Thanksgiving, the most since 2007. Yesterday I was among these millions of travelers, journeying over 600 miles to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

x1cdd2d84Despite its depiction in TV shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, most Americans do not spend Thanksgiving with a small self-selected and self-enclosed group of like-minded and amiable people. We spend Thanksgiving with family, with parents and siblings, children and spouses, with people we have either known since infancy or with whom we are bound through marriage. These are people we have not chosen, and if we have chosen, as in the case of a spouse, there are likely moments when, truth be told, we’d like to unchoose our choice. These are the people with whom we argue, laugh, and cry. They are people we may find difficult or prickly. These are people who may greatly resemble us in taste, disposition, and interest, or we may find it difficult to wrap our mind around the absurdity that—for better or for worse—we are but one member of this family.

Whether or not we enjoy spending time with our families, Americans expend considerable time and money to travel great distances with spirited children and endure long delays in order to share a meal together and to enact the well-worn practices of Thanksgiving particular to our family. It’s likely that we know when we will eat. We know the kinds of conversation we will have and who will make a characteristically inappropriate remark. We generally know when and on what grounds we will argue. We know the movies or football games that will be watched. We’ve got the contours of our particular family rituals down, and we continue to gather annually to re-enact them, and indeed, in some way, to express gratitude for them.

We renounce something of our personal preferences and lay aside the pride of independence and something of our sense of absolute self-determination, however momentarily, to participate in the common celebration. The practice of Thanksgiving demands sacrifice.

It is in this way that the holiday millions of Americans celebrate today bears something of a liturgical imprint. Despite the problematic histories that form its foundational narrative and the increasing encroachment of commercial enterprise into these precious and precarious moments, whatever else Thanksgiving may entail, it still points, however imperfectly, to the reality that learning to express gratitude entails sacrifice.

17776_w185In his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini observes that learning to say thank-you, learning to praise God in the communion of a Church composed not only by “one or two neighbors, or a small circle of people, congenial by reason of similar aims or [even] special relations, but with all, even with those who are indifferent, adverse, or even hostilely-minded” requires a sacrifice (39). Such sacrifice “consists in the renouncement by the individual of everything in him which exists merely for itself and excludes others, while and in so far as he is an active member of the community: he must lay self aside, and live with, and for, others” (38). Sacrifice is particularly difficult for modern men and women because we tend to imagine it in the first instance as a loss or a deficit. But in the sacrifice of the Mass, at the Eucharist, sacrifice does not bear the modern connotations of loss but rather the ancient understanding of sacrifice as praise, as an enactment of gratitude. 2008-corpus-christi-receiving-holy-communionThe sacrifice of worship precedes from and culminates in gift. It proceeds from the gift of God’s ingathering of His people to worship, into the “we” of the Church; this “we” which “signifies the he who employs it is expanding his inner life in order to include that of others, and to assimilate theirs into his” (40). Culminating in the gift of Christ in the Eucharist, in the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s offering of Himself on the Cross, we participate intimately in His gift of thanksgiving to the Father.

Fire Unfelt, Unseen

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.12.38 PMCrawford Wiley, M.S.M.

Director of Liturgy & Music
Church of St Jude the Apostle, Wauwatosa, WI

Advent, that season of the Church when we on earth with undiscording voice bewail the commercialization of Christmas and affirm our place in the cognoscenti of Those Who Know Better, was once a season of more prosaic and less elite discontent: I refer, of course, to the forty-day Advent fast.

I had forgotten this practice until an Orthodox friend recently mentioned that she wasn’t eating butter. “No butter?” I asked, horrified. “It’s the Advent fast,” she reminded me. I remained confused. “But it’s not Advent yet—and it’s Pascha that gets moved around on the Orthodox calendar, isn’t it? We have the same Nativity date, don’t we?” (Breathing with the Church’s Eastern & Western lungs requires calendar-juggling.) “Our Advent fast lasts forty days,” she said, and then I remembered reading this in the wee hours of some winter morning, hunched over in the Hesburgh Library stacks. St Leo the Great preached sermons on the Advent fast (which, to further complicate matters, he insisted on calling The Fast of the Tenth Month, a reminder of those logical days of yore when December really was the tenth month), and it’s amazing how much his sermons sound like run-of-the-mill Lenten sermons: fasting is good for you; giving alms is your duty; try praying more, everybody. I think there’s health in considering Advent a twin of Lent; rude health, involving more soul-searching and quaking than barely-suppressed-Christmas-spirit.

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.18.33 PMIf we paid attention to the readings at daily Mass in the two weeks preceding Advent this year, we’d get this soul-searching in spades. The first readings are from St. John’s Revelation, and some of them are terrifying.

Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:5)

So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Rev 3:16–17)

These passages bring to mind two particularly troubling thoughts: I am not a good person, and the time before I will be judged for this is running out. Day after day in these weeks leading up to Advent the readings confront us with our personal and public failure to be Christ in the world. You have lost the love you had at first (Rev 2:4). You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead (3:1).  When the readings don’t directly confront us with our failures, they declare the mysterious and dreadful glory of a God who is ultimately Other. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder (Rev 4:5). Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire (15:2). This only throws into relief our current inability to enter fully into that life of the Divine.

Early each morning the front page of the Times (and a great percentage of its other pages) is witness to the cruel brokenness of this world. Injustice is in the ascendant. The mighty are secure in their seats at their breakfast tables, drinking good coffee. The poor are oppressed. The hungry are not filled with good things, and the rich poor_widowsend them empty away. And I am myself a microcosm of this brokenness, this severance from God’s goodness, this drying-up of the fountains of Love. I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest, Jesus says to us on Tuesday, the 24th of November, and I know that the widow is one of those of whom the world is not worthy, and that I am one of those others who have all made offerings from their surplus wealth (see Lk 21:1–4). This state of affairs cannot last, nor will it.

Christ’s call is clear: Repent. He is coming at any moment to break into the world and make all things right, and now is the accepted time—the day of repentance—to take up our crosses and follow hiScreen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.14.28 PMm. In one of his sermons on the Fast of the Tenth Month, St Leo the Great urges the prosperous to show their thankfulness to God by liberality to the poor and needy—this is a form of repentance, of realignment to the will of God. And this repentance is itself a form of God’s grace: “The transcendent power of God’s grace, dearly beloved, is indeed daily effecting in Christian hearts the transference of our every desire from earthly to heavenly things.”

Christmastime is here! sings the muzak in Starbucks, and outside the earth is hard as iron, water like a stone. Pace, Dame Julian, but all is not well. We have been given talents, and have kept them stored away, and we know that the end of the parable is unpleasant. On Wednesday, the 19th of November, Gentle Jesus Meek And Mild disturbs us by saying “‘Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me'” (Lk 19:27). It’s a parable, and what exactly he means by it is, perhaps, up for debate. But the import is clear: the cold earth is cracking with the fire beneath, judgment is coming, and if we do not repent we may be undone.

Earth grown old, yet still so green,
Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
Earth grown old.

We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
When will life burst thro’ her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
Earth grown old.

“Advent” by Christina Rossetti

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Gossip, Sacred Art, and Blessing

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1. An editorial from  America Magazine on Pope Francis’ teachings against gossip entitled “The Tyranny of Talk.” Given that social media allows us to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whomever we want, we as Christians would do well to take the Pope’s words to heart and pray with the Psalmist, “Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps 141:3).

“It’s so rotten, gossip,” [Pope Francis] said in February. “At the beginning, it seems to be something enjoyable and fun, like a piece of candy. But at the end, it fills the heart with bitterness and also poisons us.” . . . “Those who live judging their neighbor, speaking ill of their neighbor, are hypocrites, because they lack the strength and the courage to look to their own shortcomings.” For Pope Francis gossip is not only harmful because it tears down our fellow human beings, but because it diverts our attention away from what is most important: our own Christian behavior.

2. A stunning piece brought to our attention by First Things, written by Pelagia Horgan for Aeon Magazine, that seeks to provide insights on the question “How should secular people approach sacred art?

I’d never been moved to tears by a painting before, but I was when I saw this one [Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment] a few months ago in Florence. Yet if I step back and take in The Last Judgment as a whole—the saved on one side, welcomed by angels; the damned on the other, herded by devils; the celestial host above them, directing it all—it strikes me as an odd painting for a secular person to love. The Last Judgment is more than a work of art. It’s a profession of faith—in divine justice, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting. What does it mean for a person like me to love a painting like this? What does it mean to be moved by the beauty of a vision you can’t believe to be true? . . .

What Mark Rothko said of his own late works might be said of these [frescoes]: ‘They are not pictures.’ They are something else—something more like instruments of spiritual attunement.

The beauty of Fra Angelico’s frescoes startles, attracts, and engages the author and others who have experienced them, but most of all, points beyond itself to something more mysterious, more real. This article should not merely be consumed; it ought to be contemplated.

3. In preparation for Thanksgiving, Michael Bradley at Ethika Politika writes a beautiful piece, answering the question “What is Blessing?

Blessings are those opportunities, capacities, occasions, and providences that enable or encourage us to realize various dimension of our full-being as humans. . . . Blessings properly speaking are gifts; they evoke our gratitude precisely because we recognize them as originating beyond our own merit or scope of action, and as such we are grateful to those others—and perhaps to that Other—from whom and through whom the blessings of our lives are gifted us. 

“And be thankful.”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Over the past week or so, as I’ve anticipated tomorrow’s celebration of Thanksgiving, I’ve recalled on numerous occasions the oft-quoted words of Meister Eckhart:

“If the only prayer you ever said throughout your entire life was ‘thank you,’ that would be sufficient.”

As I’ve thought about it, it seems to me that the only prayer possible is some form of “thank you”: when we offer praise or adoration, we are simply thanking God for being God. When we confess that we have failed in our vocation to love, we are humbly thanking God for the gift of divine mercy and the opportunity for reconciliation. When we intercede for ourselves and others, we are essentially thanking God for the incredible gift of divine love, love that chooses to enter into relationship with the human family, hears the prayers of his beloved children, and answers those prayers.

Even in times of sorrow and confusion, gratitude continually forms the heart of Christian prayer, for everything that draws us closer to God is, in the final analysis, gift. We see this juxtaposition exquisitely played out in the Psalms, where even the most profound of laments rises up out of a heart that still finds voice to thank God. TheCrucifixion - Antoine van DyckIndeed, Psalm 22, uttered by Jesus as he hung on the Cross, begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and yet just verses later, the psalmist proclaims—and we in Christ proclaim as well—“I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Ps 22:22, 24). This cry of praise arises from a thankful heart; the psalmist praises God in the midst of the assembly because God has not abandoned, not forsaken him as the beginning of the Psalm suggests. In reality, God never abandons, never forsakes, as the Lord himself promises us through the prophet Isaiah:

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Is 49:15–16)

This divine love stretches to the heavens and extends beyond the farthest limits of the sea (cf. Ps 139:8–9), yet it also permeates our inmost being, penetrating the joints and marrow of our intricately woven frame (Ps 139:15). Most importantly, this divine love takes on its own frame, its own flesh, in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. This divine love endures hunger and fatigue, feels the heat of the day and the chill of evening, suffers the frustration of being misunderstood and the sorrow of being betrayed, and bears the weight of the world’s sin in arms outstretched on the wood of the Cross. This love descends until it can descend no further; there is no limit to the depths this love will go: from the humility of the manger, to the shame of the Cross, to the mystery of the Eucharist in “a little formless matter . . . a little piece of bread” (Simone Weil, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” in Waiting for God, 199).

Indeed, it is in the celebration of this Eucharist that we receive most directly of this boundless love of God, and as we receive the sacrament of his love for us poured out in the sacrifice of Christ, we offer our thanks as best we can, painfully aware of the fact that our gratitude can never equal God’s gift, that in fact our prayer of thanksgiving “adds nothing to [God’s] greatness,” that even our very impulse to offer this thanksgiving “is itself [God’s] gift” to us (cf. Common Preface IV, Roman Missal). Yet we do not offer our eucharistia—our thanksgiving—alone. We offer it with Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as members of his Mystical Body, the Church. In the celebration of the Eucharist, we learn anew that all is gift. All is gift. God has poured immeasurable gifts upon his beloved children, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over”(Lk 6:38), and through our participation in the Eucharist, through our very participation in the divine life of the loving triune God, we learn to say the one prayer that is sufficient to express our relationship as grateful creatures to our benevolent Creator, the source of all things: thank you.

learning to be

Meredith Holland

Meredith Holland

Master of Theological Studies Candidate

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry


As human beings, we love being told that we did something well. We love knowing that we accomplished something, no matter how small. Affirmations of our doing define our development in many ways: the gold star stickers we received in grade school stuck with many of us for a long time, particularly those of us with type-A, overachieving, book-smart tendencies. We recognize one another for actions, words, and ways of living.

It is all too easy to allow this interpretation of affirmation and identity to distort our understanding of love. Love quickly becomes something earned, something merited. Our goodness is grounded in how much we have offered to the world and in what capacity; our person is defined by how we choose to live, where we spend our time, what we do. We come to see love as something to be deserved, a reward for our accomplishments.

In ‘the real world,’ most interactions do tend to occur through this lens of achievement and are a function of the identity we construct and project of ourselves. One’s very being, the most human self, is of little relevance, compared to tangible actions and words that seek and deserve thanks and praise. This understanding of love, one that is far too weak, is thus only intensified. There are few medicines for this twisted vision of being.

A visit to the place where we feel most at home, however, can begin to reorient this vision. The place where we are most fully ourselves is the place where actions and doing matter a great deal less. We recognize this place as home because we know how to be there, with its familiar order of things. Home is the place where our hearts are warmed simply because we are there, existing and being the human creatures we are, created in and for love. We are reminded that we have already been called and claimed.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

For the Christian, the reorientation begins with the fact that he is not called for his action, but called to action.

Marc Chagall, "Jeremiah Receives the Gift of Prophecy
Marc Chagall, “Jeremiah Receives the Gift of Prophecy”

“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born
I consecrated you; 
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am
only a boy.’
But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 1:4-8)

 Love is not offered as an affirmation of our doing; rather, our lives are meant to be responses in gratitude to the love that God freely shares in the creation and continued affirmation of our very being. The Christian vocation is to live into the fullness of this reality, opening oneself to this freely given love and seeking to offer that same love in thanksgiving for the gift of being. The affirmation of the beauty of the human being is already present in God’s very creation; the life of the Christian is not intended to cultivate this affirmation, but rather a gratitude and praise freely expressed in love.

“While on earth this is our calling:                                              learn to bear the beams of love.                                                      We are sent to live for others,                                                        sent on mission from above;                                                    Though we tremble at love’s burden,
it is easy, it is light;
As we seek eternal splendor,                                                           may our souls with love burn bright.”                                                 —Peter Fisher Hesed, Partners in the Mission

The words of Peter Hesed’s anthem Partners in the Mission again remind us of the need for this reorientation.

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan"
Vincent van Gogh, “The Good Samaritan”

Our lives must be an offering of thanksgiving, a response to the Christian mission of self-giving love. We are sent into the world that we may learn to carry this love and joy with us. The weight of this mission to be God’s love can seem overwhelmingly heavy, but, in reality, it is incredibly light. We are loved and affirmed in our very being, not burdened by a task of creating and earning love. Our vocation and a life of seeking its realization are a response to our belovedness and the gift of the human capacity to love. The Christian life must be offered in gratitude for the freely offered gift of life, love, and God Himself.

We need to remind ourselves of this and to be the reminder of this to one another. In our living, we must remember that we are still learning to bear this love that already is and has already been offered to us. In our discernment and seeking to discover ourselves, we need to tremble a little less and love a little more, for the greatest affirmation comes from God in our very creation and being.

Hold on Loosely: Ebola’s Assault on Human Contact

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision

Contact Author

The short, sharp cries slowly disturbed the peaceful silence of our living room. “Isaac’s calling you,” I said to my wife, presuming that the child stirring in bed and troubling the sacred tranquility of the post-bedtime downtime was our 11 month old, for whom only his mother can provide comfort. I’m usually spot-on with my audio diagnoses, but this time I was wrong. It wasn’t Isaac, it was Josiah: our nearly three-year-old whose nighttime rumblings generally fall within my zone of nocturnal responsibility.

So up the stairs I went, quickly ticking off in my head the possibilities of what might await me in his room. The best-case scenario would be that he just woke himself up, was disoriented and groggy, and would simply need me to lie down next to him for a couple minutes as he drifted back to sleep. A much less desirable scenario would be that the stomach bug had visited him and he either already had or soon would undo the cleanliness of his bed and the surrounding area, with many similar acts of expulsion to follow in the coming hours. I’ve quickly flipped through such scenarios so many times before as I made the quick ascent to one of our kids’ bedrooms that it happens without effort now. And yet, regardless of how daunting the possibilities I think about might be, I don’t remember ever hesitating on the way. The reflex is natural to a parent: child crying, child sick, child in need… go to him, hold him, make him well.

nuevas_aficionesOn this occasion, there actually was something bothering Josiah. Uncertain of what exactly the problem was, I just held him in my lap as he cried—and the more he cried, the more I held him. After several minutes, the cries softened then dissipated and he drifted off to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, all was well. I think it was his stomach that was bothering him, but I’m not really sure. There are many nights like this in raising children—most of these occasions end up being about nothing at all while others have to do with some sort of sickness. In any event, the first and most trusted remedy of all is unfailingly applied, one that is never a placebo: human contact. We hold our kids when they are not well. It is less something we are taught and more something we just know. Maladies make apparent what is always the case but all too often neglected in adult life: we want to be held and we want to hold.

I wouldn’t have thought twice about that otherwise commonplace calming of Josiah had I not read a startling article in the New York Times the very next morning. The headline speaks of a cruel paradox: “For a Liberian Family, Ebola Turns Loving Care Into Deadly Risk.” What would have otherwise seemed to me a sad predicament as I quickly read this article before moving to the next one, struck me deeply as a cruel and hidden tragedy within the already well-publicized tragedy of Ebola in West Africa. Just the night before I had done the most typical thing in the world: held my child in his discomfort. But as the article describes, when five-year-old Esther fell ill, her “father faced the anguish of going to see his ailing daughter […] but too afraid to get close enough to comfort her. ‘She tried to get to me, but I stood at a distance.’”

The only way to understand that kind of tragedy and misery is through our humanity. Science can’t tell you how bad that is, nor can medicine or protocols or politics or statistics. A father stopping himself from holding his sick child is a confounding sorrow that can’t be explained. You can only empathize with that kind of sorrow. And you can’t imagine the unimaginable suffering of a child whose parent won’t go to her except by remembering yourself as a child, or else remembering the children you yourself have held.

Ebola-outbreak-west-africa-1-537x331This is a hidden side of Ebola, where perhaps the most beautiful thing about the most afflicted societies is the very source of contagion. No institution is trusted more in Africa than the extended family, and nothing is more natural than to be with and care for one’s loved ones. It is a very human thing that is culturally engrained there in a way that it is not in most Euro-American cultures. This is why, “For most West Africans infected during the outbreak, the virus was transmitted quietly, through tender acts of love and kindness, at home where the sick were taken care of, or at a funeral where the dead were tended to.” Ebola makes compassion the most dangerous thing.

Because the family is the strongest institution in Liberia and other West African countries, this virus tears at the fabric of society there in a way it wouldn’t in a country like the United States. Ebola forces Liberian families to become the opposite of what they are if contagion is to be avoided. Even as Ebola has dawned on the consciousness of Americans in the past couple months (a recent poll showed that Ebola is one of the three most serious health concerns for Americans, along with access to and cost of health care and well above concerns about cancer and obesity), this horrifying dimension doesn’t seem to register, at least not strongly. While the crucial concerns about containing the virus are common to both Africa and the United States, the African focus on the family and human connection gives way to an American focus on civil liberties.

In response to the state imposed quarantines of returning health workers in New York and New Jersey, one commentator opined that, “What’s going on is the systematic governmental destruction of the presumption of liberty in the name of public safety.” Certainly, a concern for public safety has become as much an issue in West Africa as it clearly is in the United States, but the “presumption of liberty” is a peculiarly American thing. The question in the United States isn’t exactly about the tragedy of separating loved ones from each other and obstructing human contact; rather, it is about the perceived injustice of forcing individuals to be somewhere they don’t want to be, do something they don’t want to do, or, more precisely, not be where they would want to be and do what they want to do from moment to moment. As another American commentator put it, the “other Ebola fear” for Americans is our “civil liberties.” The argument about what to do is waged on those grounds and the added drama pertains to what individuals can and cannot do, where they can and cannot be (see this Washington Post article, for example). The free range of potential actions seems to define Americans much more than the capacity to care for one another.

I found myself on the “American side” of the ledger several weeks ago when visiting with my brother-in-law (Justin Pendarvis of USAID, Notre Dame Class of 2002) who had just returned from Western Africa for a brief visit at home before returning to the other side of the Atlantic. Justin has been in thick of the Ebola response in West Africa for the past several months, not in terms of direct care but rather as an expert coordinator from whom even U.S. army generals are taking orders due to his extensive experiential knowledge of healthcare issues in Liberia and surrounding countries. The question I asked him over a drink betrayed my predominant conception of an individual among other individuals: “How have you psychologically and emotionally coped with all the death these past few months?”

His response was secretly jarring to me not so much because it wasn’t what I expected but because I immediately recognized it was what I should have already expected. To paraphrase, he said that,

Death is really common in Liberia. People die all the time. It’s just part of life there. What is really challenging is that people can’t help each other how they normally would.

1407502809087_wps_1_epa04345634_A_photograph_Without a doubt, the massive task for containing the outbreak is persuading people to take up precautionary measures, remove themselves from situations of direct contact with the ill, and, perhaps most difficult of all, to let go of dead bodies after their loved ones perish. That work of persuasion is really, really challenging, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of the tragedy. That story comes down to the fine line between caution and fear, such that the increasing anxiety about Ebola is leading to the abandonment of those in most need even when they are not themselves infected. This is nowhere more tragic than with the abandonment of women in labor, for whom the need for medical care and accompaniment is greatest at because of their vulnerability. “I personally know of at least seven women who have died in childbirth because nobody cared for them.”

This is a particular issue wherein the medical and human crises intersect in a most vexing fashion. Even with stringent precautionary measures, the amount of bodily fluid and human contact inherent in childbirth makes healthcare workers extremely susceptible to infection if the mother happens to be infected. In the vast majority of instances, of course, the woman in labor is not infected, but fear extrapolates singular cases into general threats. Women in labor have become a threat. Now that the counter-instinct of isolation has been introduced into a society that would otherwise bond people together in times of need, that isolating tendency spreads and becomes the new norm.

In a horrifying segment of an interview recently aired on NPR, Ester Kolleh, the lead midwife at a missionary hospital in Liberia tells of this epidemic of neglect that is sweeping her country underneath the veil of the Ebola epidemic: “Last night we received three ladies. They had been in labor one week, two weeks. Nobody to help.” The three women had gone from hospital to hospital in Monrovia. They were turned away at each one. By the time they made it to ELWA, it was too late for their babies. “All of them had stillbirth,” she says. “They couldn’t get help from anyone. The babies died before they came. Now we have three dead babies in the delivery room.”
In America, people would be justifiably outraged and this would be considered an affront to each of these women’s right to healthcare. In Africa, there is an additional sting to this horror because it is so contrary to the ethic of care that is born in the institution of the family and pervades outwards into society. In either place, it is a tragedy for which Ebola is to blame.

Ebola-Catastrophe-West-AfricaThese are desperate times. The desperation does not come because this outbreak is uncontainable, for it seems as though the vigilant adherence to protocols—including targeted quarantines and the proper handling of dead bodies—along with better communication, organization, and early detection and care will slowly limit the exponential growth of the infection and eventually allow for its containment. What is so desperate is that, in the meantime, Africans are forced to act against the beauty of their humanity: to hold and to heal one another. There is also a sort of desperation in the general lack of recognition of this deeper tragedy on behalf of the rest of the world, especially in the United States. In failing to see the tragedy of parents unable to hold their children, of mothers left alone in their time of greatest need, we are confronted with the reality that perhaps we have lost touch with the beauty and goodness that would and should be there if not for this insidious virus. Even if the virus disappeared today, would we run to hold each other in sickness and in need, or is the urge to isolate that seems to come so much more naturally in the United States indicative of our character? It might serves us well in this instance, but is it a good in itself?

On issue in which the American tendency to isolate exacerbates the very real threat to Africans’ tendency to care is in the dis-incentivizing effect of mandatory quarantines for healthcare workers returning to the United States from West Africa. Without a doubt, this is tricky situation and one for which few would want to be responsible for making policies. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the self-protective impulse of American policy makers and of the American public at large is contributing to an international crisis of abandonment that will only prolong and further exaggerate the intra-familial abandonments that Ebola is forcing West Africans to endure. Governor Cuomo is certainly right that in a region like New York, “you go out one, two or three times, you ride the subway, you ride a bus,” as an Ebola carrier, and “you could affect hundreds and hundreds of people.” Governor Christie may also be right that, as an elected official in a position such as his, “Your first and most important job is to protect the health and safety of the people who live within your borders.” But what these positions are symptomatic of is an underlying mentality that focuses first on the individual: my health, my safety, my right to isolate. In this case, the individual has become a metropolitan area or even a nation, but the meaning is the same. Us-and-ThemThere is “me” and there is “you”; there is “us” and there is “them”. The fact that the forced quarantines don’t bother Americans because of that bifurcation but rather because of the assault on civil liberties is alarming. And lest we think that these policies aren’t having an effect on West Africans, the decline in healthcare volunteers in the past month provides evidence that they do. “The word is out on the street: if you go, you’re at risk of losing your liberty,” says Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University Law School. “And people don’t volunteer because of it.”

It is hard to imagine a practical response to such dire and far-away circumstances for those of us who have neither the power to make policy nor the expertise to help with healthcare. At the risk of proposing an embarrassingly minimalist response, I can’t help but think about that peculiar Spiritual Work of Mercy: to pray for the living and the dead. What would it mean in this instance to pray for the living? It would mean reorienting our hearts to consider the pain that comes from family members pulling apart from one another in order to save one another. It would mean allowing ourselves to imagine that this is not “their problem” that we only fear because it might become “our problem”; rather this is our problem together because it is not just a healthcare issue or a public safety issue but a human issue. And what would it mean to pray for the dead now? It would mean honoring the suffering of ones who have been forced to die not just in pain but also alone. It would mean reaching out through the human contact of prayer towards those who were denied human contact at their time of greatest need. It would mean begging that what has been rent asunder in families and communities and between nations will be put back together in the love of God.

Works of Mercy always appeal to our humanity, and an appeal to our humanity is precisely what this Ebola epidemic and the attendant, hidden epidemic of isolationism require. Unless we learn to see the plight of our African neighbors through the lens of the parent hastening to his crying child in the night, we will continue to miss the real tragedy and thus lose some hold of our own humanity.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: Martyrdom, Adoption, and Silence

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1. Today the Church honors the martyrs St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his companions. Anna Keating at The Catholic Catalogue offers a brief reflection on these brave souls, followed by a brief video posted by the Apostleship of Prayer in 2008. The video draws further attention to the continued persecutions faced by Christians in Asia by holding up the life of Servant of God Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuán (1928–2002), reminding us that persecutions and martyrdoms are not a thing of the past, and that we as a Church must continue to pray for those who are not only enduring but also perpetrating such persecutions. St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions, pray for us.

2. As we near the end of National Adoption Awareness Month, Elizabeth Kirk, J.D. offers profound insights about the ways in which adoption can teach everyone about the very nature of family in her article “Is Adoption Second-Best to a ‘Real Family’?”

…adoption is a particular calling (perhaps out of the circumstance of infertility, perhaps not) and not a second-best way of building a family.  This reminds us that parenthood is not simply a natural consequence of biology, but rather the occasion for all fathers and mothers to serve God through the children entrusted to them.

3. Finally, NPR’s Guy Raz’s interview “What We Learn When We Find Silence” profiles environmentalist John Francis, who voluntarily stopped talking in 1973 and only began speaking again after 17 years. Francis describes what led him to his unexpected vow of silence, and how it changed him.

I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening, and then I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say that better or, look how smart I am, you know?

Insights well worth stopping for a moment to consider in silence as we enter the hustle and the bustle of the holiday season, and more importantly, as the Church enters the sacred season of Advent, preparing for the night when we will marvel together, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n.”

The “Personality” Trait We All Need

HopeHope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

A few weeks ago, an old link for a blog about relationships popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. I tend to scan most “relationship articles” that promise the secrets of, “how to be your best self in relationships!” or “how to find a [good, independent, kind, Christian, insert adjective-of-choice here] man” with a very skeptical eye. Many “relationship articles” deserve nothing more than a fate as a permanent placeholder in a cyber- trashcan.

holding-hands-1But this particular article made an insightful point. The author, Kevin Thompson, stipulated that there is a factor people who hope to marry should be looking for in spouses and conscious of cultivating in themselves: an ability and willingness to suffer together.

He put it this way:

*Who do you want holding your hand when the test says “cancer?”

*On whose shoulder do you want to lean when the doctor says, “We’ve done all we can?”

*With whom do you want to lie beside when you don’t know where your child is or if they will ever come home?

*When your world turns upside down, in whose eyes do you want to look?

Find someone who suffers well.

Those examples might sound particularly dramatic, but for all the love, joy, dedication, unity, and beauty that we hope men and women encounter within the sacrament of marriage, we also know that some element of suffering inevitably will come. Husbands and wives will deal with the deaths of each other’s parents, siblings, family members, friends, and maybe even children. They will face moves, job changes, and boss drama together. They will cope with illnesses, and they will take on the realities of their spouse’s life before marriage and the family histories that he or she cannot control.

To paraphrase my friend Samantha, in relationships headed for marriage, you take on another person’s crosses and you shoulder those burdens together. I can think of some of the most beautiful examples of marriage in my life; I don’t admire those couples because I know that they have always felt in love or that they have never had a tough day. In fact, all of them have been through some excruciating times, but they kept choosing and still choose to go through it together.

Thomas Merton saThomas Mertonid that “vocation does not come from a voice out there, calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given to me at birth by God (“No Man Is An Island”). A willingness to suffer with someone is not a masochistic tendency; neither is it allowing the other person to be selfish and suck the life out of you. For Christians called to marriage, learning to suffer with a spouse and being willing to enter into the vulnerability of sharing personal suffering will be an important part of the way that God works through marriage. It will be part of the life-long process of forming us into the people He has called us to be, more like Him.

Knowing that we should be conscious that we will suffer with someone helps us to keep things in perspective for those of us wondering how our vocations will play out in the future. Someone who will have the courage and the grace to suffer with you is probably a lot more vital on the “characteristics of a good spouse” list than, say, someone who is a fanatic of the same sports team that you avidly follow, or a person with whom you can binge-watch The West Wing, or climb mountains, or [insert your own preferred activities here].

Shared activities and interests are important. But shared activities, or even promising personality traits are not the end-all or be-all. The qualities that first attract folks to each other will probably not be the characteristics that will make their marriage endure. At least some part of married life will consist in how a husband and wife deal with suffering together, and if they are both willing to die to themselves at the service of the other until death do they part.

Two boys with bikes sitting on bench at Narrow Neck, DevonportAnd in fact, this holds true for relationships in our lives in general; it isn’t just food for thought for married men and women or those who will enter into marriage one day. Entering into any authentic relationships with people (marriage, friendship, or family bonds) goes far beyond about having my needs and my desires and my present wants met. Constancy—sitting with people in their suffering—is not just a passive choice one makes mentally, to figuratively be present for family, friends, or significant others so that they have someone to call after a terrible day. Constancy and compassion have to be lived out by active and continual choices. As another one of my friends recently said, this happens when one asks the question, “How can I best be here for you?” and then shows by action that the answer of what the other person needs has been heard.

So regardless of what we think our vocations might actually be (fellow college students) or for those folks in the midst of living out the continual choices to say “yes” to marriage, to the single life, to religious life, or to priesthood, we all are called to be willing to suffer with others. We are all called to give our fiats as Mary did, day after day after day. cs-lewis-recordingThis willingness to give up ourselves and empty ourselves for another’s sake is not even just a quality that will help form a person for our particular vocations; it will, in fact, be a quality that C. S. Lewis thinks ought to be incumbent upon every Christian, always.

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions, and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. (Mere Christianity)


A distinction ought to be made here: willingness to suffer or submit, as Lewis puts it, “to death, death of your ambitions, and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end” does not mean resigning ourselves to a life of self-annihilation or the destruction of our own personalities for the sake of someone or something, even if that is Christ. We are not being asked to somehow cheerfully become utterly miserable. What Lewis is saying is that in order to become who we are truly called to be, we have to recognize that those personality traits and wishes and desires are only most authentically our own if they are looked at through the lens of looking for Christ. And we look for Christ in the faces of the people in our lives—with whom we at times enter into suffering. Our personalities and everything about us become more truly “ours” as they become more truly Christ’s. Keep in mind the quote from Thomas Merton from earlier: it’s not about becoming something we’re not or destroying our happiness: vocation is all about”fulfill[ing] the original selfhood given to me at birth by God.”

In the sacrifice of His life for the salvation of the world, Christ emptied Himself; He poured Himself out (this is the translation of the Greek word, kenosis) and took on the suffering of the whole entire world. And we participate in that because our individual vocations all contain a universal purpose: they will help us to become more like the God who has saved us.  Again quoting Mere Christianity, in order to be who we are called to be, we have to realize that

The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they’re not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.

Westley in the movie The Princess Bride can help us think through this in two different ways. First, when he is still in character as the Dread Pirate Roberts, he quips to the forlorn Buttercup: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling you something,” he actually speaks a great truth! Life is not only about pain; many times it willthe-princess-bride-pirate-princess be about deep abiding joys. But anyone (self-help or relationship articles included) that tries to say suffering, pain, and surrender aren’t part of entering into the reality of our lives is indeed trying to sell you something. Maybe these folks are not selling a product, but they certainly are selling an ideology that is incompatible with Christianity. And second, the narrator reveals in the movie that Westley’s pattern of saying, “As you wish” to Buttercup is actually a way of saying “I love you” time and time again. Although the examples given in the movie are mostly trite (“Fetch me that pitcher?”), the recognition of “as you wish” as a way to say we love someone exemplifies that giving of ourselves for the sake of another or for the sake of helping them in their struggles will be required for authentic relationships that more closely mirror the self-gift of Christ.

I will close with a question directed to my fellow college- aged students: (mostly the women; I don’t even pretend to know what “bro time” is like). During our sleepovers and coffee breaks when we puzzle over vocations in general or a call to marriage specifically, do we think about becoming the kind of person who can suffer alongside another? Do we have “someone who I will suffer with” at the top of our figurative list?

If we don’t, maybe we should. And maybe we ought to pray that God will form all of us, whatever our vocations are or may be, into becoming the kind of person who will suffer well alongside others.

Preparing to Prepare

Chris LabadieChris Labadie

MA Candidate, Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary

Director of Liturgy, Saint John’s University Campus Ministry

This past Monday winter arrived here in Minnesota with a bang. As I was going home on Sunday night from our 9 PM student Mass there was green space a-plenty and just the hint of cold in the air. When I awoke on Monday morning to the sound of an alert on my phone informing me that the university was closed, central Minnesota was in the midst of a blizzard that would end up dumping around a foot of snow on us in just under 24 hours. P1080134All of the sudden we had gone from a beautiful, if somewhat protracted, fall into the deep of winter. For me it was a jolt to the system and a reminder that the end of our liturgical year draws ever closer. With the odd way in which the temporal and sanctoral cycles lined up this November we end up celebrating only one Sunday in Ordinary Time this month.

As I was drawn into the celebrations of All Souls Day and the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica it was hard to also keep track of the changing seasons of the Church—but here we are, having just celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King and less a week from the beginning of a new liturgical year. In a “normal” liturgical year the last few weeks of Ordinary Time are spent in preparation, they are the “season of waiting” for the season of waiting. During those weeks we would hear from the prophets about the end of the world and we would read in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God. The Church is reminding us that just as the liturgical year will come to end and transition into a new cycle, eventually our lives will come to an end in this world and transition into a new life. The last weeks of Ordinary Time call us to conversion as we await the immediate time of preparation for the coming of our Lord.

Just as I was unprepared for the coming of winter, I feel unprepared for the coming of the new liturgical year. (Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I am trying to ignore that with the new year comes the final semester of my graduate program!) It always seems like Advent moves too quickly and before I know it or am prepared for it, we are celebrating Christmas. The month of November, with its focus on remembering the deceased and with the liturgical reminders that the end is near, usually gives me those extra few weeks to put myself in the proper state of mind so that Advent can actually be a time of preparation. So, just as I had to switch into winter mode on Monday morning, these last few days before the beginning of Advent need to be a time where we can switch into Advent mode. How might one do that?

LectionaryThe lectionary cycle, which I alluded to earlier, is a great place to start as we switch into Advent mode. If you have the chance to attend daily Mass over the next several days, pay close attention to the readings as they draw us closer to the mystery of God’s Kingdom. I would even recommend looking up the readings for the 31st and 32nd Sundays in Ordinary Time, the Sundays bumped off the calendar this year, and taking those readings to prayer. Many parishes may have already put out their Advent prayer resources— grab a copy and maybe spend some time looking over the first few days of reflections or prayers. If your family or community has a special time of prayer each day, consider adding an element which evokes the sense of preparation that will take place in Advent. We do not want to jump the gun and begin Advent before we have completed this time after Pentecost, but if you are like me and need a running start it cannot hurt to begin adding these elements to prayer.

On Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is a fitting way to end the Year of Grace 2014—remembering that Christ is the King of everything that we do. May these last days of the year be a grace-filled time in which we can thank the Lord for the blessings we have been given this year and prepare ourselves for the coming season of Advent. Let us prepare ourselves well for the coming of the King into this world so that when we see him face-to-face he might say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).