Revisiting the “Sisters” with Colleen Carroll Campbell

This weekend after Mass I was speaking with a friend who has a close family member suffering from dementia, a condition which began to accelerate recently following a death in their family.  Whether or not you know someone who is currently experiencing the loss of their faculties, chances are that, like my friend from the parish, one day you will.  The best advice that I could give, in addition to prayer, was for her to find out about the experiences of others.  And to that end, I recommended that she pick up a copy of My Sisters the Saints, a superb book by Colleen Carroll Campbell.

Regular readers will recall that I reviewed this book a few months ago, but I have two reasons for bringing it to the attention of those of you who might have missed it the first time.  Colleen’s book, which is now in its 7th printing, has just been released in paperback today.  In addition, it just so happens that September is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  These are two very good reasons why you should consider picking up a copy.

“My Sisters the Saints” is essentially a memoir, but not quite the sort you might expect from a media personality.  For in writing about her own personal and spiritual journey, along with reflecting on the lives of those saints who have meant something special to her at different points in her life, Colleen also chronicles the decline of her father as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.  His illness is not treated as a completely separate chapter topic, to be observed, addressed, and then put to one side.  Rather, she addresses it as something that recurs like ocean waves, now stronger in their intensity, now more subdued, with quiet patches between, but endlessly crashing onto shore all the same.

In a passage from the book, Carroll Campbell notes a lesson that she learned as she grew stronger in her spirituality, even as she watched her father becoming physically and mentally weaker.  “[O]ur culture has it exactly backward when treating such people as expendable,” she writes, speaking of those suffering from debilitating diseases like dementia, or the unborn, or the disabled, or the elderly, or the otherwise unwanted.  “If productivity, efficiency, and rationality are not the ways God gauges a human person’s value,” she argues, “then they are not the ways I should measure it either.  If childlike dependence on God is the mark of a great soul, then there are great souls hidden in all sorts of places where the world sees only disability, decay, and despair.”

Chances are that someday, someone you know is going to go down this same long, dark tunnel of unknowing.  Whether the condition is brought on by a specific trigger, or whether it arises out of pure chance, the end result is inevitably the same.  Dementia, in all its forms, is more often than not a bloody, smelly, heart-wrenching mess.  We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it and say that it’s anything but.

However, we do need to learn how to see debilitating diseases or conditions in a way that brings us closer to God, rather than making us turn away from Him.  We also need to look at these moments as pathways to becoming better imitators of Christ.  And finally, we need the experiences of others who have experienced such redemptive suffering to give us at least some sense of how to go about attempting the task.

So whether for yourself, or for someone you know who might benefit from it, please do consider reading this vivid testament of one woman’s very powerful and deeply personal experience, shared through the prism of her Faith.

Detail of "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velázquez (1618) National Gallery, London

Detail of “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Diego Velázquez (1618)
National Gallery, London

Good Friday: Be the One

Regular readers may recall my review of Dr. Edward Siri’s book, “Walking with Mary”, which I read while spending the day over at the Dominican House of Studies.  One section of the book which particularly struck me was a story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It’s not only related to Scripture, but I think appropriate for this Good Friday.

Mother Teresa had a prayer card with an image of Jesus in suffering on the front.  Below the image it bore a verse from one of the Psalms which we often hear during Lent, particularly on Good Friday or at Stations of the Cross.  Psalm 69 is one of those prophetic Psalms foretelling the “Suffering Servant”, as described more fully in the Book of Isaiah; verse 21 of the Psalm, says, “I looked for one that would comfort me, and I found no one.”

Underneath the image and the quote from the Psalms, Mother Teresa wrote, “Be the one.”

There is something disarmingly simple, but also profound about this juxtaposition.  The call from the Cross, as contained in the Psalm, is answered in the to-the-point response of Mother Teresa. Hers is not simply a pious reaction, but a command to herself.  I liked the combination so much, that I created a Lenten laptop wallpaper with both quotes on it, to remind myself on a regular basis during this season of fasting and penance what I ought to be doing more often all the year through.

Maybe you aren’t called to go out into the slums of a faraway place like Calcutta.  Yet there are people you know who could use some love, some attention, and some comfort from you.  Be the one to bring it to them.

Detail of "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velázquez (1632) The Prado, Madrid

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez (1632)
The Prado, Madrid

Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20’s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”