Night Nurse: The Care of Humans, By Cats

Lately I’ve been suffering from a particularly virulent – ahem – strain of viral bronchitis. I’ll be fine, but anyone who has had a bad bout of bronchitis knows it can take quite a long time to clear. Fortunately, I have plenty of chicken soup, herbal tea, and a devoted night nurse, i.e., The Cat.

Cats often get short shrift from non – cat owners. They’re viewed as largely selfish, detached, and less intelligent than dogs. In my experience however, a good cat is a good furry friend indeed, particularly when you are under the weather.

The other day, I was having a painful time trying to breathe. I had overextended myself in trying to return to my normal level of activity too quickly, and returned home short of breath, frustrated, and a bit frightened. I lay on the couch, worried that my bronchitis was turning into pneumonia.

Into this situation sauntered The Cat. At first she climbed up on the back of the sofa, settled herself on top, and stared at me for a long time. After awhile, she came down, snuggled into the space between my right side and my right arm, and put her paw on my right ribcage, where my pain was more acute.

If this sounds surprising to you, it wasn’t really to me. Some years ago, when I was suffering from runner’s knee, she came into bed one night, settled down next to my bad knee, and did the same thing. She just knew.

Now, how a creature with a brain the size of a walnut can be so perceptive about human illness, who knows. A friend reminded me of the story of Oscar, who used to visit patients in the nursing home a few hours before they died. I don’t think The Cat here at home is a harbinger of my impending demise, of course, and yet there is a similar, uncanny ability on her part to know not only when something is wrong, but occasionally, exactly what hurts.

At night then, when not feeling my best, I can be reasonably sure that my night nurse will turn up, meowing and head-butting me, just to make sure I’m alive, and to stay with me until I fall asleep. It’s not a job I expect her to perform, and I don’t quite understand how or why she does it. And yet a little, furry comfort like this is certainly a gift from above that I am not about to question.


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

Lenten Friday Reflection: Practical Suffering

As we approach Palm Sunday this weekend and the start of Holy Week, Christians are called to remember the sufferings of Jesus, culminating in His Crucifixion on Good Friday.  If you are among those who are, for the most part, doing well, it may be difficult to try to reflect on what Christ went through on your behalf.  However if you are among those who are indeed experiencing physical pain or emotional anguish, that does not automatically mean that you are in a position to empathize with Him unless you make a concerted effort.

This Sunday at mass we will be hearing and participating in the reading of The Passion from the Gospel of St. Mark, where the Evangelist describes the following incident involving an attempt to give a 1st century equivalent of a painkiller to Jesus:

At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, He is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to Him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down.”

Of course as we all know, Elijah did not come to take Him down: His suffering continued until He died.

One of the several Lenten activities I have taken on is reading more about the life of the great spiritual writer and Doctor of the Church St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622).  His “Introduction to the Devout Life” is one of my favorite  books, not only for its content and sound counsel, but also for its style. St. Francis, who as it happens is one of the patron saints of writers, is someone who writes for those of us who are living in the secular world, with all of its opportunities and temptations. And naturally, when I went to look up some of his thoughts on suffering, he pretty much hit the nail on the head.

While St. Francis de Sales was a priest who eventually become bishop, he was also someone who had spent a significant period of time moving about in high society. Having been born in his family’s ancestral château in French Savoy, and having received all of the usual instruction of his class in gentlemanly pursuits such as riding, dancing, and social pleasantries, he spent the first part of his life being educated at some of the finest schools in Europe, and meeting other young scions of noble or well-to-do families. In fact, being the oldest son and heir, his father had arranged for him to marry an heiress and begin a political career, but by the time he was in his mid-twenties and had completed his studies, St. Francis had already decided to renounce everything and become a priest.

I have come to particularly appreciate St. Francis’ writing over the years because of his recognition that what might be practical in the convent cell may be impractical in the drawing room. He knows that the person reading his work may be deeply religious, but that they are not necessarily called to consecrated life, as he himself was. They may be a person of temporal importance such as a wealthy philanthropist, an elected official, an armed forces officer, or the like, who bears a degree of responsibility for keeping society going in some way, but also wants to be a good Christian, recognizing the passing nature of this life and the fundamental importance of focusing on the life to come.

In much of his writing, St. Francis takes Jesus’ observation that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and turns to the practicalities of the situation. He himself knew and experienced how difficult it was to live in the material world, with all of the conflicting messages that we receive in it. Thus in Part III, Chapter 3 of his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, St. Francis provides both sensible advice and spiritual counseling with respect to how to deal with what C.S. Lewis called “The Problem of Pain”, in his eponymous book on the subject.

Interestingly, St. Francis views the problem of pain as arising not so much from selfishness, but rather from a need to develop the virtue of patience – and indeed, he titles this particular chapter, “Patience”. He notes that we have to walk a fine line between complaining too much, and not complaining at all, when we are suffering from a malady of some kind, whether professional, financial, physical, etc. If we whinge and wail too much, then we are looking to draw attention to ourselves; if we do not admit that we are in distress, then we deny others the opportunity to act in charity towards us, and also lose the opportunity for personal reflection to make our suffering meaningful.

Thus while St. Francis counsels against people wallowing in their sorrow, he also believes that there is no real virtue in maintaining the stiff upper lip and pretending that everything is fine. And because we are in Lent, it was interesting to note an allusion which St. Francis made in this chapter to the suffering of Christ on the Cross, as described in the preceding passage from St. Mark, and how it can be compared to following what today we would call “doctor’s orders”:

When you are sick, offer all your pains and weakness to our Dear Lord, and ask Him to unite them to the sufferings which He bore for you. Obey your physician, and take all medicines, remedies and nourishment, for the Love of God, remembering the vinegar and gall He tasted for love of us; desire your recovery that you may serve Him; do not shrink from languor and weakness out of obedience to Him, and be ready to die if He wills it, to His Glory, and that you may enter into His Presence…Gaze often inwardly upon Jesus Christ crucified, naked, blasphemed, falsely accused, forsaken, overwhelmed with every possible grief and sorrow, and remember that none of your sufferings can ever be compared to His, either in kind or degree, and that you can never suffer anything for Him worthy to be weighed against what He has borne for you.

Note that St. Francis, writing centuries before the advent of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, points out that we are not to “shrink from langour and weakness”. In other words, writes the Bishop of Geneva, if you are feeling sick then for pity’s sake take your medicine, go to bed, and stop pretending that everything is fine, when it is not. While he does not want people to be flailing themselves about in public complaining of every bad thing that might befall them, he also does not want people to avoid getting the recuperative rest that they need. This is not only because it is impractical to make themselves worse, but also because he wants them to learn the virtue of patience, by taking at least part of their recuperation time to reflect on Jesus, and the suffering He went through on our behalf.

No doubt avoiding both the pity party and unflinching stoicism can be very difficult for many of us to achieve, myself included. However for those of us who need to work on our patience, combining both a practical, reasoned response to our suffering, whatever its cause, with a willingness to sit back and allow things to repair themselves, if it is God’s Will, will ultimately be of tremendous benefit to our spiritual well-being, which after all is more important than anything else which we possess temporarily in this life, be it health, wealth, intelligence, appearance, position, or what have you.  Using that time of enforced detachment from the world to reflect on Christ’s suffering on our behalf, particularly as we enter Holy Week, may very well prove to be the most beneficial action of all.

“Angel Holding the Sponge and Hyssop” by Antonio Giorgetti (1668-1669)
Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome