Showing Up

They say that 90 percent of life is showing up. As a spiritual director, I can tell you that sometimes that’s all that is needed.

I hadn’t been back to the gross anatomy lab in some time, preferring to spend time at the simulation center at the medical school. I also think that after awhile the students need to know that they can stand on their own feet.

But today was their final exam and I’ve always gone over and offered some support and a post-exam meal. I felt strange returning to the lab, but this year’s crop of students are some of the friendliest students I’ve encountered at the med school. I walked in and immediately a group of three students engaged me in conversation. One even whipped out their stress guy doll and said “Still using him!” It made the others jealous and they asked if I had any more with me.

“Those darn things cost $500. I have to find a cheaper one but I can’t find any as cute as this guy.”

The students were surprised that they were so expensive and then remarked, “Well, the main thing is that you’re here! Thanks!”

“I’ll be praying!”

Even the atheists said “Thanks!”

Just then Sarah, a student I got to know after calming her down after her first exam, caught sight of me and said, “Oh thank God! We were hoping you’d be here! We were just talking about that and said “Man, I wonder if Mike is coming! I could really use someone to talk to to calm down.”

“Hey, free lunch in the lounge after the test!” I bellowed as they entered the lab.

Lots of “thanks” and “awesome” followed the announcement.

Later we headed to the lounge for pizza and wings and even a little salad. And Sarah was one of the first to arrive.

“How was it?” I asked inquiring about the test.

“Who cares? It’s over!”

I laughed and agreed as we clinked pizza slices.

“Hey thanks so much for everything!” Sarah said.

“No problem. I mean all I did was show up!”

“Um, sometimes that’s enough! See ya at the memorial service…oh wait! We’re cleaning the lab Friday and saying good bye to our cadavers. It’s gonna be sad!”

“Sarah, I’ll be there!”

And her face said it all….gratitude. Not for me but for all that she’s learned from that person who donated their body to her and her classmates and my honoring that gratitude.

Sometimes showing up is more than enough.

Because when we show up, we have the opportunity to meet God and to find gratitude in that moment together.

And that, friends, is sometimes all we need.

Later Sarah caught

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Gross Anatomy Hackey Sack

So today out first year Medical and Dental students took their first big exam in gross anatomy. For longtime readers, you’ll remember that each year I give out these little stress dolls to the students to keep them loose:

He doesn’t look like ME at all. But isn’t he cute? Scrubs, big teeth for the dental students and he’s seriously helpful.

So why do I do this? Well, I know my role as the chaplain of the gross anatomy lab is basically to keep people calm and loose. All of these students have been the smartest student in their class since they were like…well…five years old! And let’s face facts, each time I walk in there I know that this is the closest I’ll ever be to the admissions office of a Medical or Dental School.

But we all have gifts and I know that I have something to offer everyone I serve–even these super smart medical and dental students.

I disarm them with the stress guy–he’s goofy and fun. I chuck them to them as they pass by and it gets them to calm down and simply relax. Once in awhile someone takes things way too seriously and says “no thanks” or “I’m good” and they dive back into their notes. And that’s cool too. For me, the experience is a serious study in human behavior. Some folks have their iPod in ears and they don’t want anyone to get in their zone. Others are mixing it up and telling jokes. Others are drilling each other with names of muscles and arteries. It’s amazing to watch.

Today, I really felt like the chaplain when the second wave of Medical Students showed up for their test. They have to wait for the first section to finish and they get really antsy. So stress guy is a big help to a good deal of them. Last year one student set up a little game where they tried to knock one stress guy doll down with another one. But this year’s group took the cake with stress relieving creativity:

We had Jugglers

We Played Hackey Sack with Stress Guy

He even became a fashion statement in Scrubswear

All in all, it was so much fun. But at the same time, I knew my role and served the needs of the students creatively. And it gets them to open up a bit more to me as well. It even opens them up to one another. One dental student decapitated his stress guy when we were running low on them so that his colleague could use the head while he used the body. He looked at me and said:

“See! I shared! We’re really a team here!” I laughed heartily with them and it brought everyone’s stress level down even further.

A female student who I won’t name to protect her anonymity, started to worry as the time got close to the test. I stood with her for a few minutes and simply comforted her fears. I reminded her that she’s really smart and always has been and just because everyone else here is smart it doesn’t mean that she won’t be successful. The first test is very comprehensive, but it’s not incredibly difficult, according to the other students I’ve been with. I reminded her of that and made her take a deep breath and made her squeeze the heck out of the stress guy who she just loved.

At one point I entered the exam area and she was sitting at a rest stop. She gave me a knowing glance and then a small smile. At the test’s conclusion, she was one of the first people I saw and she thanked me for helping her stay calm. She had thought that she had done pretty well. And I’m proud to just play a small role in that.

Kevin, who works in the lab, was watching the Hackey Sack game break out. An athlete himself, who knows how important exercise is to relieve stress, looked at me and said: “Y’know, anything you can do to help them de-stress is awesome. That little thing was a great idea.”

The lab’s director, Dr. Dannenhoffer is a big fan of “those little cupie dolls” as he calls them and has praised me for the idea before. But today, he said to me, “OH good! You’re here, calming them down today!” That really made me feel like a necessary part of the team. Dr. DiLugos another member of the staff said, “Hope you don’t have to pick anyone up off the floor today–but I’m glad you’re here just in case you do!” Then we laughed a bit.

There’s an old spiritual maxim that I try to live by and it is simply this:

“Ministry is about doing small things with great joy and thoughtfulness. And then praying that God provides the rest.”

And today friends, God did just that.

For them… and for me.

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They Learned From Their Bodies and Today They Remember

Today was the memorial service for the donors to the gross anatomy lab at the medical school and so, I was asked to offer this opening prayer:

They could not see, but yet their eyes gave you insight.
They could not speak, but their voices whispered to you to learn all you could.
They could not move, but their generosity moves even the most jaded hearts.

That first day, I walked among you as an observer, a rube, a non-student and a non-scientist. This is the closest I will ever be to medical school and I am not envious of one of you. I watched you uncover and meet these unnamed people that day and make your first clumsy cuts. I watched you cut through the layers of skin and fat and eventually open body cavities. I grew in respect for you as medical students and for those who have gone before you, like my colleague Fr. Pat, who was brave enough to take the course himself some years ago.

But most of all, I began to respect and even, like these donors, these teachers, who cheat death just an moment more, by giving you an opportunity to learn from their now stilled bodies. I asked myself if I might have that same spirit of generosity? After all, as a campus minister, I often call on people to give back–to the poor, to the homeless. Why would I not encourage an even more intimate gift to the students we serve?

The lab is often a stressful place, especially during exam time and I watched as you entered those tense exams fluttering from station to station–or, better put today, from teacher to teacher. Each donor, provided a glimpse into the glorious human body. It was during that time that I hoped that an after-exam meal, or a stress aid might provide a moment of relaxation for you. But as I kept vigil in the halls or the lounge during exams, I knew down deep, that these first teachers had given you all you would need. Their gift is more than enough, more than any staff member, be they Ph.D, M.D. or even campus minister could ever provide–at least while they still have a heartbeat.

They even sacrificed their privacy, allowing you to probe and touch their most intimate parts. They have given every inch of their bodies to you as gift.

Their deaths are now no longer quiet ones, no they rescind a quiet and tasteful burial in favor of hope, the hope that they have served you in this initial journey with their body that has now been given for you and they ask for you to simply do your work in memory of them. Perhaps you’ll remember your first teacher’s ear when a child has an earache, or recall their hand when you treat an athlete with nerve damage or an old woman with arthritis.

But this semester, I believe, has not merely been a test of bone and tissue and nerves but rather, it has been a test of grace. And you have had great models of grace for your first teachers.

As our time together closes,

“Now there is no body but yours. No hands but yours. No feet but yours.
Yours are now the eyes which will look on with compassion for the sick;
Yours are the legs which will walk to places you may not wish to go–to burn victims and car accidents and little kids with leukemia. Yours are the hands with which will heal and dare I say, bless the lives of those who seek your healing–especially the poor, the lonely, and the dying.” (paraphrase of Teresa of Avila)

May these first teachers, now merely a memory, continue to inspire you to become that gentle graceful presence to your future patients and, especially to one another.

And thank you for letting me be just a small part of your journey this semester. And as we remember these first and greatest teachers let us join together in a moment of silence.

Dear readers, please keep these donors, students, staff members and future donors in your prayers. Eternal rest grant to all the faithful departed, let perpetual light shine upon them and through the mercy of God, may they rest in peace. Amen.

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Why Priests Should Wear Their Collars…and why lay ministers need something to identify themselves like it


Earlier this week I went to a campus function with Fr. Pat, the pastor of our North Campus. It’s rare that I see him without his collar on, as he wears it often, especially when on “official business.”

We walked into the gross anatomy lab, as I was getting a tour of the facility from Fr. Pat and a young man was getting ready to leave. As we were about to turn the corner the young man stopped us, out of the blue.

“Excuse me, Father…”

Fr Pat turned towards him and the young man broke down in tears within seconds.

“I just found out that my grandma died about an hour ago and I wondered if you would pray with me?”

I excused myself and let Fr. Pat and the young man sit together to talk and pray for a few minutes, sensing that he wasn’t inviting me to prayer but that “the collar” called him towards an identifiable minister.

We just happened to be there that day. But had Fr. Pat not been wearing his collar or had I been by myself, that opportunity would not have presented itself. That symbol of ministry, the symbol of priesthood, the identifiable sign to this young man that said, “I can ask this guy to pray for me…I NEED him” was welcomed and not abhorred.

I could have been the campus minister there all semester, but for those not readily aware of me, or of my position (which I fear is most students, especially in the med school–one because I’m new and two, because many aren’t regular churchgoers) would never have dared to ask me the same question.

Jesus asked us to “go out to all the world and tell the good news” and to “not hide our light under a bushel basket” but for the unaware, or the agnostic, or the sporadic attendee, we all need to be welcome signs of Christ’s presence. For priests an easy way to accomplish this task is to wear the collar. For nuns, a habit perhaps (although most have “kicked the habit”–however many young nuns are trying to be more intentional about wearing theirs and some like the Felician Sisters here wear a very identifiable pectoral cross) does the trick as well. But for us lay ministers…it’s more difficult. I’m pretty vocal about who I am, introducing myself to all I meet as the Campus Minister, but it’s not as easily recognized. I’m considering getting a golf shirt with “campus minister” scrawled on the crest, maybe with a cross? Maybe I wear a cross around my neck over my clothes? Deacons have an identifiable lapel pin, but even that “whispers” their presence, especially to the young. Many deacons like to keep their presence as lay people in a parish and have found that “looking like a lay person” outside of the liturgy often makes them “more approachable” to many. However, I would argue that this is true only to those who are already initiated into parish life. What about when you head off to do prison ministry, or head to the hospital? For deacons, I wonder if their diagonal stole might serve more than a liturgical purpose, even over street clothes?

A friend of mine was a volunteer down at ground zero after September 11th and he reported something similar. That symbol of the priesthood invited him to be a presence for many. When workers found two vertebrae in the wreckage, the priest was immediately found and a makeshift prayer service for those remains occurred–at the workers request.

So I’d like to hear your stories, priests and ministers…for those who wear their collars, tell me the good and the bad of wearing it. For women religious, how do you make yourself present to those you minister to? Campus and other lay ministers, how much harder is this for you? For those in the marketing or fashion field, what might you suggest for us lay Catholic ministers?

Maybe our friend Peacebang, whose blog should be on your must-read list might have an idea or two as well?

Don’t misunderstand….this is not about recognition in terms of haughtyness…but rather it’s about serving the needs of those seeking someone in their time of need. With few priests around and some not wearing collars, I wonder how many opportunities fall by the wayside?

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