Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. A Catholic convert by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement, Rick has studied theology at Evangelical institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel University, Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
“Day by day, it is our duty to live within [the liturgy] and by means of it.”
Chinua Achebe’s landmark novel, Things Fall Apart, is about colonialism and its aftermath in Africa. When it was published in 1958, I’m quite certain that the author hadn’t the slightest notion that it would become a constant reference point in an American undergraduate nursing program fifty years later.
And yet, so it has.
I read it long ago in a high school lit class, so I can only vaguely remember its narrative contours. However, the title (drawn from a line in a poem by Yeats) has always stuck with me, and I’ve drawn on it numerous times in my medical-surgical nursing class.
Med-surg nursing (as we call it in the biz) is an umbrella term for what I call “grunt” nursing, the very first stepping stone beyond rudimentary nursing fundamentals. Med-surg encompasses the broad sweep of knowledge, skill, applied critical thinking, and integrated understanding pertaining to the full range of adult health and illness, including all the major body systems – how they work and what happens when they go wrong.
A recurrent theme throughout med-surg nursing education is aging and its effects on the human body. Every new section in our textbook – from cardiovascular to musculoskeletal to endocrine and beyond – includes information on “age-related changes” and how growing older impacts the relevant anatomy and physiology. That’s where the novel comes in, because there’s no better way to summarize aging’s influence than to repeat Achebe’s title: Things fall apart. Pretty much, that’s physiological gerontology in a nutshell, and it’s a handy phrase for students to keep in mind. “Trying to remember how growing older affects the (fill in the blank) system?” I ask them. “Just think ‘Chinua Achebe,’ and there you are!”
Obviously there’s more to it than that, but you get the point – particularly if you’re growing older as I am. Gravity and entropy are beginning to have their way with me, and these days I can frequently share with my students firsthand knowledge of what those med-surg aging summaries bespeak – think “knee awareness” here, for example, and “squinting.”
However, there are dimensions of my descent into senescence that I rarely share with my students – namely, the more abstract, non-physiological falling apart of things. If you’re like me, you’re finding that, as the years fly by, it’s not just your body that’s feeling it. Despite our best efforts to keep things connected and on track, the depredations of time and human frailty increasingly batter our friendships and family relationships, our life goals and dreams, and even our spiritual lives. At some visceral level, our faith might be solid as rock, but maybe we’re nonetheless haunted by nagging doubts, idiotic scruples and/or persistent venial faults, and the worst kind of spiritual malaise imaginable. In that, we’d be in good company, for that’s what various saints experienced later in their lives as well – like Mother Teresa, for example, and even her namesake, the youthful Thérèse of Lisieux.
I’ve also found that, increasingly, these personal and interior conflicts come to a head or are most painfully highlighted during Holy Week. In a way, this recurrent annual phenomenon is like an echo of the trauma accompanying my adult conversion to Catholicism 30 years ago – the anxiety, the inherent risks, the terror of the unknown: “What in the world am I doing?” Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that so many Holy Weeks since have been associated with some kind of personal turmoil and turbulence.
Is it selective memory? Maybe it’s just a confirmation bias – like nurses who expect their night shifts to be crazy busy when there’s a full moon, and, voila!, that’s what happens, every stinking time. The stats and various studies don’t bear this out, but plenty of healthcare workers and first responders will swear it’s the case regardless. Similarly, is it just selective memory and confirmation bias that causes me to associate personal upheaval with the arrival of the Easter Triduum? Perhaps, but I suspect there’s more to it, and it has to do with that Catholic calendar you have hanging in your kitchen.
You have one, don’t you? Of course you do! You grab it from the back of church every Christmas (there’s usually piles of them stacked at the exits – free!) and you put yours up on the wall when you get home. Every month features a religious picture of some kind – a saint, maybe, or a reproduction of a sacred image – and all the feasts and observances of the Church year are laid out in the day-spaces below. As a new Catholic, these calendars were like step-by-step manuals for acclimating myself to the liturgical year, and I’ve looked forward every December to getting one. And after I married and became a father, I considered it a paternal responsibility. It hangs in the same place, year after year, and it’s a focal point for our family.
Recently I had an unexpected confirmation of just how central that calendar was to me and my family. We were visiting good friends, Cliff and Cecilia, who’d just had their first baby, a marvelous boy, little Peter Andre. As is our wont in such situations, we couldn’t help inquiring after the name. Because of the family’s Notre Dame connections, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Andre was for St. André Bessette, the humble Holy Cross Brother whose devotion to St. Joseph culminated in the construction of the grand shrine in Montreal. But Peter? It was well into March at that point, so the first pope’s February feast had gone by, but I had an inkling there another feast of St. Peter around then. (There wasn’t; I was thinking of St. Peter Canisius, also in February). Offhandedly I asked Cliff, “Where’s your Catholic calendar?” and trotted off to the kitchen – not there! “I guess I’ll have to get one,” was Cliff’s sheepish response when I came back with a quizzical look on my face. (Note: I subsequently set Cliff up with one of my spares, so no worries.)
The Catholic calendar was such a cohesive element of my family’s identity, even in this digitized epoch, that I automatically assumed it would be in every Catholic family’s kitchen. It has not only kept us tethered to our parish (with contact information listed at the bottom), but it has also kept us tethered to our faith. We’ve used it to mark feast days and holy days, to keep track of baptismal days and first Holy Communions, and even record confessions as a reminder of when we last went before the kids entered Catholic schools and they started going routinely.
Thus, with that calendar’s assistance, the liturgical year became an integral part of my identity and my family’s identity – organically, naturally, a matter of course. It’s an integration in two directions: As we willingly subject ourselves to the liturgical days and seasons, those days and seasons impinge ever more deeply on our consciousness and subjective experience. As the Catechism teaches, “the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance” and “the year is transfigured by the liturgy” (CCC 1168). Eventually, the liturgical cycle becomes our chronological and linear reality. We cease “observing” it, and, instead, start living it.
Consequently, why should we be surprised that the liturgical apprehension of Holy Week’s approach – the edgy tone of the readings, for instance, and the muting of church decoration – would be reflected in our own lives, in my own life? “The liturgical rites detonate an explosion,” writes my friend, David Fagerberg, “but the radiation from these sacramental outbursts is not intended to be contained by the blast walls of the sanctuary.” That ritual radiation not only extends to our manner of life and way of thinking outside of church, but to our very navigation of time itself.
In this regard, I think it’s noteworthy that those free Catholic calendars are invariably paid for and distributed by funeral homes – one of their primary marketing tools it seems. And why not? They know that countless Catholic families will keep those calendars up year round as a constant reference, and so when unexpected tragedy hits – or even expected loss – it’s reasonable that those families might call on the services of the sponsoring mortuary.
Having that constant reminder of death associated with a household center of scheduling gravity is a healthy thing, an appropriate thing for Christians. It’s as if a “memento mori” were built right into the very fabric of a family’s inner life – a constant, gentle reminder that, yes, eventually all human things do indeed fall apart. Similarly, it shouldn’t surprise us that our annual observance of Holy Week can lead to personal reverberations – that the liturgical unsettledness we embrace at this time will initiate parallel waves in our own day-to-day existence.
Those waves can lead to tears, but we have confidence that the tears will be wiped away in the end. “The mystery of the Resurrection, in which Christ crushed death, permeates with its powerful energy our old time,” reads the Catechism, “until all is subjected to him” (CCC 1169). Our forward-looking hope will not be in vain.