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Extraordinary physician shows medicine as a spiritual vocation, not job Print E-mail
Written by Rachelle Linner, Catholic News Service   
Friday, 20 April 2018 14:01

"Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing" by Victoria Sweet, M.D. Riverhead Books (New York, 2017). 304 pp., $27.

In her acclaimed 2012 book, "God's Hotel," Dr. Victoria Sweet wrote about the 20 years she practiced at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, the last public almshouse in America. During those years, she watched the transformation of medicine into health care, but she also discovered an antidote in the writings of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century mystic, nun and doctor.

Sweet's wonderful new book, "Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing," is a chronological narrative of her education and experiences, highlighting the professors, nurses, aides and patients who were her teachers.

In medical school, internship and residency, Sweet learned and mastered "fast medicine" -- the mechanistic basis of modern medicine that asks "What is wrong? And how can I fix it?" From Hildegard, an accomplished gardener and herbalist, she learned "slow medicine," based on a model of the body as a plant. Much of the pleasure of this book is seeing how she practices both fast and slow medicine.

Sweet writes beautifully. She obeys the dictum that a writer should show, not tell, and gives us incisive word portraits and medical narratives that do not condescend to a lay audience. Her prose is clear and direct, with a warmth and intelligence that engages the reader from the book's first pages, a harrowing description of her father's near-fatal hospital admission.

"Slow Medicine" is imbued with a vocational sense of medicine, of the spiritual ground of being a healer. More than once Sweet reminds us that, in the Middle Ages, "nursing and doctoring were done by nuns and monks as a calling."

There is a contemplative dimension to her practice of medicine. Slow medicine is a "way of seeing, doing, and being. ... of stepping back and seeing the patient in the context of his environment. And asking, 'What is in the way of the patient's own healing power of nature?' And then removing what's in the way. It is a way of doing, which is slow, methodical and step by step."

Once, when she was an intern, Sweet helped care for a patient who was in the intensive care unity for 63 days. At one point a nurse challenged such futile care for a patient who was "past the point of no return." "What are you doing! Mrs. C is dying! She's nearly dead! I don't know why, you don't know why, but she's never going to leave this ICU, not ever!" And because the ICU nurse confronted her, "I got up and went into Mrs. C's room, stood by her bed, and looked. And saw. That was another distinction fast medicine didn't pay attention to. Looking and seeing. ... Now I did see, and I was shocked."

When doctors do not have time to look at patients, when they become slaves to the demands of electronic health records, they can no longer appreciate that "the essence of medicine is story -- finding the right story, understanding the true story, being unsatisfied with a story that does not make sense. Health care, on the other hand, deconstructs story into thousands of tiny pieces -- pages of boxes and check marks for which no one is responsible."

And being a doctor means accepting responsibility, as she learns when she, alone in the back of a medical helicopter with an unconscious, dying patient, made the decision to give him an injection of atropine, used to relieve spasms. "This is what is so detrimental about algorithms, regulations, requirements and mandates. They lift that mantle of responsibility off the doctor and turn him or her into a provider, a middleman, someone who takes the box of health care off the truck and delivers it."

Sweet is an extraordinary physician. It is clear from the medical narratives that she is a gifted diagnostician, in part because of her intelligence and training, but also because of her humility. Medicine, she reminds us, is a craft. "The craft of medicine is a beautiful thing, very human, very much about body, not only the patient's real bleeding body, but through and in your own body. ... You can't fake it. It takes a warm human energy, a commitment, a struggle, a giving up of a piece of yourself to attain that craft."

"Slow Medicine" is not an angry or despairing litany of the sins of the health care industry, but it is a sober and lucid examination of what we lose when medicine is shaped by economics and not vocation, when it is informed by litigation and not reverence. One can only hope, and pray, that Sweet is not a prophet crying in the wilderness.

Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, has a master's degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Author recalls era when women fought Europe's 'glass ceiling' Print E-mail
Written by Daniel S. Mulhall Catholic News Service   
Friday, 05 May 2017 13:29

"Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe" by Sarah Gristwood. Basic Books (New York, 2016). 351 pp., $28.99.

European history between the years 1474, when Isabella became the regnant of Castile (in what is now Spain), until the death of the English queen Elizabeth Tudor in 1603 is a remarkable era for many reasons, one of which is the number of women - 16 in total - who played significant roles in ruling their respective countries either as queens in their own right or as queen mothers or regents. The story of the role these women played in history is delightfully told by Sarah Gristwood in her book "Game of Queens."

In France, where the law prevented women from inheriting thrones, women could not rule in their own names or by their own authority. While law did not prevent this in other countries, custom called for thrones to pass to the oldest surviving son or male next of kin. This period of 110 years saw more women occupy thrones than ever before.

As Gristwood notes, prior to Isabella's reign all pieces on the chess board were male. The queen, with her almost unlimited ability to act, was added in Spain during her reign and spread throughout Europe. Just as adding the powerful queen to the game changed chess, Gristwood suggests, adding powerful women to political rule changed the world.

One of the most difficult challenges to telling the history of this period - whether history in general or the role of women in it - is keeping track of the names, countries and dates of the characters. This is especially complicated by the fact that the ruling families of Europe intermingled incessantly to create alliances, for example Katherine of Aragon's marriage to Henry VIII linking the English and Spanish thrones. Add to this mix the popularity of the names Mary (Maria) and Margaret - 8 of the 16 women were so named - makes for confusion. Although Gristwood provides dynastic charts, a "dramatis personae" - a list of significant actors - and a chronology, keeping track of who's who remains a challenge.

The style of type used in this book is confusing. For example, Gristwood uses asterisks within the text to indicate her many informative footnotes. Unfortunately, the asterisks are so small that they are difficult to find, even when one searches the page diligently for them.

Another type problem is that single quotation marks are used for quotes, not double marks, which takes a while to recognize automatically. One additional disappointment is that while the book is filled with helpful quotations taken from the letters of the period, they are not footnoted. Gristwood does provide helpful information in this matter at the end of the book in the Notes and Further Reading section, but this information would have been more helpful if noted at the time.

Those problems aside, this book is well written and the chapters are short and well organized. The story told here does justice to the lives and memories of the women who broke the European glass ceiling so many years ago.

Mulhall lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Two new offerings on connection between faith, science disappoint Print E-mail
Wednesday, 19 April 2017 12:15

"Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science" by Stacy A. Trasancos. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2016). 178 pp., $15.95.

"The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion" by Stephen M. Barr. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016). 226 pp., $25.

Few areas of thought today are as exciting and as important as the conversation between religion and science. Unfortunately, these two books don't contribute that significantly to this dialogue. Both authors, with strong backgrounds in science and far weaker backgrounds when it comes to theology, disappoint the reader in different ways.

Stacy Trasancos, a chemist and a Catholic, teaches online from home while she helps raise and educate her children, and she talks early in her book about the excitement of seeing the connections between science and faith and does so well.

However, besides Pope Francis' encyclical "Lumen Fidei" ("The Light of Faith"), many of the theological sources she uses are pre-Second Vatican Council, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and the fathers of the church, helpful in the tradition but not as useful here as the many contemporary voices on this topic. Authors such as Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, John F. Haught, Father Thomas Berry, Father Diarmuid O'Murchu and Judy Cannato merit not a mention here at all.

Trasancos is trying to address the right issues here. For example, she observes that "science can be the very venue through which we reach out into the world and shine our faith to illuminate the path to truth." And she reminds us that "faith and science are two different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete."

There also are occasional stories from her experience as a mom; when her son heard her say that everything was atoms, he wanted to know if he was eating atoms and was told he was. "He put the idea of 'science in the light of faith' into words during our blessing: 'Bless us, O Lord, and these thy atoms.' Leave it to a child."

At times her questions as well as her answers fall short. Examples of her questions that seem to be the wrong ones include: "Is the Atomic World the Real World?" "Does Quantum Mechanics Explain Free Will?" and "Did We Evolve from Atoms?" Her discussion of Adam and Eve and evolution seems to be woefully lacking in an understanding of the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture, first encouraged by Pope Pius XII, which might see the Genesis account as true in another sense than scientifically.

This is a worthwhile effort, but unfortunately she is hindered here in her treatment by a limited and overly dogmatic theology, which changes the whole conversation.

Stephen Barr is a professor of theoretical particle physics at the University of Delaware and brings a highly academic perspective to the questions of science and religion. (It isn't completely clear what his credentials are when it comes to theology.)

He, too, sets the perspective well for the reader: "It was in the heavens that the orderliness of nature was most evident to ancient man. It was this celestial order, perhaps, that first inspired in him feelings of religious awe. And it was the study of this order that gave birth to modern science in the 17th century. It is not altogether accidental, then, that it was an argument over the motions of the heavenly bodies that occasioned the fateful collision between science and religious authority that will forever be evoked by the name of Galileo." (He goes on to talk about that controversy as being between two naturalistic theories of astronomy, not as supernatural.)

He also describes the role of the scientist in an interesting light: "So we see in science something akin to religious faith. The scientist has confidence in the intelligibility of the world. He has questions about nature. And he expects -- no, more than expects, he is absolutely convinced -- that these questions have intelligible answers. The fact that he must seek those answers proves that they are not in sight. The fact that he continues to seek them in spite of all the difficulties testifies to his unconquerable conviction that those answers, although not presently in sight, do in fact exist. Truly, the scientist too walks by faith and not by sight."

The bulk of Barr's book, as indicated by his subtitle, are essays, largely book reviews or comments on blogs, as well as an occasional lecture, which have limited usefulness to the reader unfamiliar with the specifics of what he is referring to.

One hopes for more helpful books than these in the conversation between faith and science soon.

Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including "The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace" and "Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses," and has just finished teaching in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.

Retrospective of original Donald Duck comic book artist fills the bill Print E-mail
Written by Mark Judge Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 05 April 2017 10:28

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Parents looking to lure their youngsters away from digital devices and toward material that might foster reading and imagination should consider the work of legendary Disney comic book artist Carl Barks. In fact, Mom and Dad may enjoy Barks' work as much as their kids.

For three decades, beginning in the mid-1940s, Barks (1901-2000) created Donald Duck comic books for Western Publishing. For the past several years, Fantagraphics has been republishing Barks' classics in beautiful new editions.

These hardbound volumes contain all the original comics, including their covers, as well as commentary by comic-book historians. Their content is, of course, suitable for all -- and they're especially fun for youngsters learning to read.

Surveying Barks' work in issues like "Lost in the Andes," "The Terror of the Beagle Boys," or in the latest release, "The Ghost Sheriff of Last Gasp," it becomes evident why he was one of the first three artists inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame, together with legendary Jack Kirby and the hall's namesake. Eisner called Barks "the Hans Christian Andersen of comic books."

Barks' texts work on two levels. The first is simply as delightful comic strips. Barks was a master of sequential art, and the characters he created to interact with Donald -- miserly moneybags Scrooge McDuck and the robbing Beagle Boys, among others -- are constantly getting into situations that pay off in slapstick poses and kinetic action.

Whether it's longer 10-page stories about hunting for gold or tangling with a sea monster, or single-page gags about baseball, Donald's adventures are always alive with color and motion. Yet, as the commentary that comes at the end of each volume notes, Barks also used his Donald Duck strips for personal and social commentary.

Barks was born in 1901 on a farm in Oregon. His family moved frequently as they tried to make a living from stock-breeding or through selling produce.

After studying the work of master cartoonists such as Winsor McCay and completing four lessons from an art correspondence course, Barks began his professional life. He made his way to Disney Studios in 1935.

Over the course of his lifetime, Barks held many different jobs and often struggled financially. His stories sometimes set Donald against obstacles reminiscent of those the artist himself faced.

In "Terror of the Beagle Boys," for example, Donald is exhausted from overwork when he is pressed into service by his Uncle Scrooge to defend Scrooge's pile of money from the nefarious bandits of the title. As genre scholar Jared Gardner writes in the notes, "this is a tale not about the Beagle Boys but about terror and worry." The story reflects the anxiety Barks felt as a result of his second wife Clara's mounting medical expenses.

For all the serious subtext underlying them though, these wonderful stories can be appreciated straightforwardly and exclusively for their celebration of life in all its craziness, color and fun.

Author offers guidance for those on journeys of spiritual renewal Print E-mail
Wednesday, 22 March 2017 10:05

"Interior Journey: A Spirituality for Contemporary Seekers" by Dolores Leckey. Twenty-Third Publications (New London, Connecticut, 2015). 83 pp., $12.95.

A five-month sabbatical after experiencing several key losses in life "was salvific" for Francis, a Jesuit whose story is one of the many told in Dolores Leckey's "Interior Journey: A Spirituality for Contemporary Seekers."

"The anxieties associated with transition and with accumulated loss dissipated" for Francis during his sabbatical. At the same time it served him as a time of unique insight.

The sabbatical "revealed his subconscious attitude of 'entitlement,' namely, that somehow he was entitled to have his life move along smoothly." He explained, "I had lost touch with my creaturehood."

The account of Francis' sabbatical appears in a chapter of "Interior Journey" devoted to "the power of gratitude." Today, this Jesuit's "cup of gratitude overflows because he knows that the Lord is ahead of him, beckoning him onward," the author writes.

Leckey calls attention in this context to medical research indicating that patients "heal much more quickly with an attitude of hope and gratitude, rather than what ... Francis calls 'entitlement,' which often carries depression and anger in its wake."

Few people, I am sure, consider themselves strangers to the sense Leckey describes that life sometimes does not "move along smoothly." Indeed, a good many of us renew our spiritual journeys precisely when we feel under siege, so to speak.

Perhaps this is because of a long illness in the family, or a job loss, or the realization that an important goal of ours will not be achieved, at least not now. It is fascinating how real-life events and developments intersect with Christian spirituality, stimulating its growth and expansion.

This book's great strength is its capacity to illustrate how this happens with stories of spiritual journeys in the lives of people much like me or you.

Such stories, the author says, "point to the possibilities for happiness if we trust the surprising path God is pointing us to." They are stories about people who "went inward to find the courage to act, and to act creatively."

The author's honest writing and willingness to share personal experiences that pushed her own spiritual journey forward are another of the book's fine points. Her countless friends and associates know well that spirituality is a driving force in her life, which she shares with them in rewarding ways.

In fact, while like many spiritual writers Leckey affirms that measures of solitude and quiet are essential to spirituality, she nonetheless firmly believes that room must be made for friendship and community. A concern otherwise, she writes, is "that one could live only for oneself."

Leckey will be known to many as a former executive director of what is now the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is the author, too, of numerous books, including "Grieving With Grace" (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and "The Ordinary Way: A Family Spirituality" (Crossroad Publishing).

She hopes readers will view "Interior Journey," which is part of Twenty-Third Publications' Adult Faith Formation Library, as an invitation to know themselves by exploring the "inner space" that constitutes the "landscape of the soul."

The book approaches spirituality under four headings: change; simplicity; solitude and friendship; and gratitude. Each of these "reflects an aspect of one's spirituality, which is the innermost part of a life, where desire and hope and life sparkle."

Individual readers intent on according a larger place to spirituality are sure to benefit from "Interior Journey," but I can well imagine it serving as a valued resource for parish discussion groups, retreat participants, parish and diocesan staff members, classes and others.

"Interior Journey" is a brief book, easily read in a few hours. I hope, though, that readers will not finish it off too quickly, but revisit and reread various passages and paragraphs again and again.

"Prayer changes us," Leckey insists. She mentions this after telling how, many years ago as a young mother, she "joined with other women to explore the world of prayer." As the group's members "grew more confident," they shared their needs and worries.

"When we discovered that someone's alcoholic father had joined AA, or that a depressed spouse was seeking medical help, or that the atmosphere of worry in someone's life was lightened, we felt the Spirit's encouragement to stay with it," Leckey says.

A leitmotif of sorts emerges in the book through its occasional quotations drawn from meditations by Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, a major 20th-century theologian. "Let us step forth on the adventurous journey of the heart to God," Father Rahner advises at the book's conclusion.

He adds: "Let us forget what lies behind us. The whole future lies open to us. Every possibility of life is still open, because we can still find God, we can still find more."

Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.



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