Oscar the Death Cat

In the good ol' days we would have burned Oscar as a witch...now we write him up for the New England Journal of Medicine.

Today's Globe has a story on Oscar the Death Cat entitled "With a Purr, Death Comes on Little Cat Feet." He's a cat who comes and snuggles up with patients in an advanced care unit in Rhode Island who are about to die. And only when they are about to die. Some highlights:

When death is near, Oscar nearly always appears at the last hour or so. Yet he shows no special interest in patients who are simply in poor shape, or even patients who may be dying but who still have a few days.

In any event, when Oscar settles beside a patient on the bed, caregivers take it as sign that family members should be summoned immediately to bid their loved one farewell.

"Oscar is a normal cat with an extra-normal sense for death," [Dr. Joan Teno] said. "He is drawn to death. Either he wants to give comfort. Or he is just attracted to all the quiet activity that surrounds a patient close to dying.

Oscar makes regular "inspection" rounds of the unit, sauntering in and out of patient rooms -- as if checking on the condition of the occupants. But he never joins them for a snooze.


"He only shows great interest in individuals when they are about to die," said [Dr. David] Dosa.

But what's most interesting about the article is the way in which the writer doesn't seem to know what tone to take with the subject. It reads a little more like an Onion article than an actual newspaper story precisely because the tone is so cutesy -- as if a story about a little death cat wandering around your hospital and crawling into bed with you when you're about to die (to steal your soul?) were in the same genre as a puppy and a duckling who have become fast friends or a dog who knows when the train is going to pass by every day...

So disturbing...

So, a story in today's NY Times on toy testing in China involves this nightmare-inducing photo: Chicken Dance Elmos being lined up to meet their doom or, as the caption says, "undergo tests." Who's giggling maniacally now?


Happy Feast of St. James

Today is the Feast of St. James, and one of my great dreams has always been to walk the camino del Santiago, the historic pilgrimage route that ends at the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain. And I wouldn't be traveling simply for the weather, or even for the plenary indulgence, but also for the chance to see the botafumeiro live and in action. The largest censor in the world, I don't know exactly how fast it goes, but it goes pretty damn fast. And it did go through the window one year. So happy Feast of St. James! Next year in Compostela...

Oberlin Faith and Order Conference

So I just got back on Monday night from the meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches at Oberlin, celebrating 50 years since the inaugural meeting of Faith and Order at Oberlin in 1957. There were around 300 people there, a healthy mix of pastors, theologians, seminary students, theology students, assorted hangers-on (I count myself in that last category...). I'm currently trying to write something up about the experience, and if no one else wants to publish it (!), I'll be putting it on here. If you want to learn more about the Faith and Order movement in the U.S., or to look at some of their online journals, their website is here.

One of the smarter moves the planning committee made was to fund the travel and attendance of about 100 students and younger theologians, which was a good way of involving lots of us who are deeply concerned about ecumenism, but often find it hard to break into a conversation that has been going on for a long time, and some of whose leading lights are still with us, serving the cause. Plus, for many of us who sometimes find ourselves somewhat isolated from our colleagues -- either because our churches or departments think ecumenism is a betrayal of our identity, as happens in some cases, or because ecumenism seems passé and not as sexy as other work like interreligious dialogue, as in the case in other places -- it was a great chance to get some refreshment of soul and body, and geek out with some of our fellow ecumenists.

You can see from the schedule and the abstracts of papers just how interesting, powerful, and challenging many of our topics for discussion were, but the theme of the entire session was "Being Christian Together." For me, the highlight of this came in a strange place. The last night of our sessions together, after sitting around having a drink and, even after 4 days of talking, still talking about our lives, our churches, our hopes for the future, the bar closed down and we had a short walk across the common in downtown Oberlin to the dorms in which we were staying. An Episcopal postulant whom I'm now happy to call a friend pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and a group of us, mostly not regular smokers, suddenly felt the call of the Spirit. So there we were -- an Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic, a United Church of Christ ecumenist, an Orthodox theologian, and a Mennonite, heading across the common, sharing a smoke and a laugh at how unexpected the future of ecumenism might look to our ecumenical forebears, heading back for a night of rest. Being Christian together.


Summorum Pontificum

As usual, Rocco has the scoop on the Latin Mass motu proprio over at Whispers in the Loggia -- and he's careful to point out that he didn't break any ecclesiastical laws by promulgating substantial parts of the document ahead of its, well, its promulgation...

That being said, I'm leaving this morning for a beach weekend down at Rehoboth in Delaware, thanks to one of my dearest friends in the world...


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some reflections I gave last night at church, focusing primarily upon the reading from Paul's Letter to the Galatians:

At every Mass we stand for the proclamation of the Gospel, because it’s the Gospel, the “good news” of who Jesus Christ proclaimed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that is the source and the root of our faith. But on the weekend after the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, I think it’s legitimate, for a change, to spend some time reflecting on the good news as proclaimed by the apostle Paul to the church in Galatia, as proclaimed in our second reading tonight.

And what a reading it is: there’s nothing like a Saturday night in the middle of the summer to talk about the opposition of the Spirit and the flesh. Now, when we hear Paul talking about “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” the scripture scholars warn us to avoid understanding “the flesh” as “the body,” as anything “material”; rather, they explain, the flesh refers to our ways of living in opposition to God, in opposition to the Spirit Christ gives to us. But even those of us who might have read that before tend to carry around a lot of baggage around the idea of “the flesh,” myself included.

For many of us, when we hear Paul talking about not living according to the flesh, the synapses in our brains hear “the flesh” = sex. Or anything to do with sex. And ironically that shortcircuits our ability to hear Paul as good news, in a couple of ways. One way is to focus on all of our past or current errors that involve our sexuality, our mistakes, our anxieties, our failures to love, which for a variety of reasons resonate with a lot of our particular hang-ups as Christians in a historically Irish, quasi-Jansenist part of New England. Hearing Paul telling us not to live according to the flesh pushes us directly into that slightly neurotic, self-loathing place in which we secretly might wish that we weren’t sexual beings at all, that we didn’t have bodies that had desires, and in which living according to the Spirit might mean freedom as “leaving behind” all of that stuff.

A second place we tend to go, however – and most of us go in both of these directions at different times – is to take a look at ourselves and, by thinking of flesh only as sexual, let ourselves off the hook. After all, we’re good people who are here at church on a Saturday night, not on our way to a brothel or an orgy – most of us, at least. So we can smugly sit back and ignore Paul’s message to those people, you know, those other people.

In both cases, the result is the same: once we make the equation “the flesh” = sex, we zone out and miss what, I think, Paul is really trying to tell us about Christian life, about the journey Christ talks about in the Gospel. We miss his words about life in the Spirit as being, for us, not a place for condemnation and self-loathing, but a recipe for a different kind of living. And I’d like to spend the rest of our time exploring a way that might help us imagine that kind of life in the Spirit.

One of my partner Nathan and my favorite places to go out for dinner for a treat is Redbones Barbecue in Davis Square. If you haven’t been there, and you’re not a vegetarian, I would recommend it as one of the 5 best restaurants in the city. Our dog likes it too, because he usually gets some beef ribs out of the bargain. But you have to be willing to get a little dirty, and get a little animal, in order to really enjoy the food. Eating barbecue ribs is not like eating chicken mcnuggets; there’s no way to ignore the fact that a formerly living, breathing creature has become the source of your nourishment in such a meal. And there’s no delicate way of actually eating it; you need to get in touch with your inner carnivore, and tear the meat off the bone, rip some beef off a rib or some pork off a chop. Vegetarians, you’ll have to try imagine a really, really good ear of corn at this point.

But paying attention to something as mundane as how we eat barbecued ribs might be a way of breaking out of the flesh = sex shortcircuit. Paul warns the Galatians that “if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” Life “according to the flesh” isn’t only or even primarily life in bodies – we don’t have any way of imagining another kind of living. It’s a life in which we treat each other, in varied and numerous ways, as though we were just flesh to each other. When we bite each other, we tear each other, we devour each other – that in my opinion is what Paul is getting at when he warns against life according to the flesh.

In the lines following tonight’s passage, Paul writes that “the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” The beginning and the end of the list sound a lot like what we first think of as “the flesh” and there’s a good reason, namely that our sexuality is a particular place where we’re often tempted to devour each other. But think of the middle of the list: hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, envy – these ways in which we devour each other, tear each other, consume each other – and ourselves – are far more subtle, and often have little to do with sex. But this, says Paul, is life “in the flesh” or “according to the flesh.”

So, given that Paul seems to be pointing out so many different kinds of ways in which we can treat each other according to the flesh, how can this word be good news for us? Well, the only reason Paul can talk about life according to the flesh is because he also knows, and we also know, what a life not according to the flesh can be like, what the life according to the Spirit to which we are called looks and feels like. The fruit of the Spirit, Paul writes, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” It’s learning to treat each other as children of God, as temples of Christ’s Spirit, and not simply as flesh.

And if you think that my gastronomic comparison is entirely off base, then we might think about the fact that every week we enter more fully into that life in the Spirit by coming here, not to a cooking school, but an eating school. The fact that we are “liturgical vegetarians” – that we eat Christ’s flesh as bread and drink Christ’s blood as wine – is not accidental to learning how to eat with each other without eating each other. The fact that the bread we share is freely given and freely broken, that we line up to receive it, and not to take it – each time we return to this table, we are not only learning how Christ made himself food for others without devouring them, we are also learning how we can be food for others, without devouring them. In Paul’s words, we are practicing life together in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, so that, at the end of Mass, we can go back out into our world as bread for a hungry world.