Much Sadder Sentence
My friend Sam almost died last week. That was the first sentence of my article Growing Old in Prison, published in America last Nov. 10. Today I must write a new, much sadder sentence: my friend Sam died yesterday afternoon.
Five days ago, during a spell of unusually cold weather, Sam began to feel congested and weak, andquite sensibly for a 63-year-oldhe reported to the prison infirmary. In my earlier article I compared penitentiary medical care to penitentiary food: the operative motto is as little as possible, as cheap as possible. True to this guiding principle, the nurses told Sam that he had the flu and that he should simply ride it out in his cell. No one thought it strange that he had to be taken back to the cellblock in a wheelchair.
The following day Sam was too weak to report to pill call or to walk to the chow hall. Thanks to a kindhearted fellow inmate, however, he was at least brought a tray with food. The guards on duty told this prisoner, Wilbur T., to keep an eye on Sam, in lieu of proper medical care.
The next morning, a Sunday, he had trouble breathing, so two other inmatesSylvester F. and Meredith S.persuaded the watch commander, Lieutenant M., to move Sam to the infirmary. Unexpectedly, this watch commander followed up on Sam’s progress so resolutely that the nurses called an ambulance and had him moved to the prison ward at a major hospital in Richmond, Va. I heard that at this stage the official diagnosis was still influenza, but I do not know this for certain.
Two days later, Sam passed away because of kidney failure. Because he, unlike most prisoners, still had contact with his family, civilian hospital staff were able to call his two daughters to his bedside at the end. His son is a military officer on active duty. Sam is survived by his children and a large passel of beautiful grandchildren.
Many of his fellow convicts also mourn his loss. On our side of the razor-wire fence, there are few men like him: generous, patient, funny, intelligent and stoical. Sam was always ready to give a roll-up cigarette or two to the crazies from this penitentiary’s mental health unit, and he taught other inmates how to read and write in a remedial literacy class organized by two Presbyterian teachers. Certainly his line-by-line edits and detailed critique of the manuscript of my first book helped significantly to make it publishable.
Even in Sam’s last months, he always maintained his sense of humor, arguing fiercely at the breakfast table that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would eventually be found, even if the United States had to invade Syria to track them down. But those days were very difficult for him. After the two mini-strokes I described in Growing Old in Prison, Sam experienced another mini-stroke, as a result of which he broke his wrist. No doubt those episodes contributed to the kidney failure that eventually took his life.
And the usual stresses of prison life surely played a role in Sam’s death as well. At the end of 2003, the Department of Corrections ordered all inmates to cut their visiting lists so drastically that he had to choose which of his many relatives would still be allowed to visit him in the future. What a decision to make: do I give up the right to see my grandchildren by my eldest daughter? Or do I give up the right to see my youngest grandson, by my son? And how do I explain all this to my family?
Supposedly, Sam told another prisoner three days before his passing that he was ready and prepared to die. Perhaps that is true, perhaps not. Many of us have spent so much time behind bars that we envy Sam his final release. At least he got out; we are still here.
Of course, all of us earned our trips to the penitentiary even Sam, even me. Sam, you may recall from my first article, shot an intruder twice inside his townhouse, a death that might have been prevented by firing a warning into the ceiling. So he deserved to go to jail; but did he deserve to lose his own life in a hospital’s prison ward?
The Good Liturgy article on the assembly (3/1) reminded me that years ago my parish priest said to me, Can you, as a reasonably intelligent Catholic layman, tell me why the people don’t sing at Mass? I could not wait to reply. First, I am a lousy singer and as such I don’t enjoy it. (Once in parochial grammar school, the music Sister visiting our classroom asked me not to sing, obviously in order to improve the quality of the class performance.) Second, I have always felt the hymnal should be renamed Mostly Songs Nobody Ever Heard Of. There seems to be a desire to introduce songs with which the congregation is not familiar. Third, we are often advised after Communion to kneel and meditateand also to sing hymn number whatever. I cannot do both, and I prefer the former.
With regard to receiving Communion under both species, I cite another experience from parochial school days. I was asked by the Sister if the body and blood were present in both the host and the consecrated wine. I said no, and she promptly and loudly accused me of heresy: the body and blood are present in both the host and the consecrated wine. So what’s the big deal about receiving under both forms? For old coots like me, and not a few young coots, there ought to be a way to attend Mass quietly, thoughtfully and not have to worry about remembering the name of the person in front of me with whom I am about to shake hands.
James Edward Fitzgerald, M.D.
The School of the Heart: Toward a Healthy Spirituality of Aging (2/16) does not reflect knowledge of the literature of the field. At least three other authors (K. Russell, 1985, Monastic Parallels to the Final Phase of Life, J. Thibault, 1990, Aging as a Natural Monastery and H. R. Moody, 1995, Mysticism) have explored the last part of life as a time of religious formation akin to that of the novitiate or monastery. They have done so with more depth and sensitivity than did Ron Hansen.
In his lack of attention to what has been written by others, Ron Hansen is not alone. It has been the curse of the field of religion, spirituality and aging that well over 90 percent of books, articles and dissertations are written by people who write only that one piece and never return to the subject. Few of these authors demonstrate competency in the literature of the field.
America’s longtime associate editor John LaFarge, S.J., noted in his Reflections on Growing Old (1963): Old age has its own meaning, like other phases of human life. The wisest thing to do, when old age has crept up on us, would be to explore that meaning. A first step in this exploration is systematic attention to what has already been written.
Henry C. Simmons
Bravo to Donald Maldari, S.J., for his article, The Triumph of the Cross, (3/8) reminding us that it was not the physical sufferings of Christ that redeemed us but his self-emptying agape love unto death, even death on a cross, as St. Paul put it (Phil 2:8). The New Testament abounds in metaphors expressing one or another aspect of this sublime mystery. But in the 11th century, St. Anselm suggested another model, drawn from the feudal society of his time, where the gravity of an offense was measured by the dignity of the person offended. Slap a serf, and say you’re sorry. Slap a king, and face the hangman’s rope. Since sin is an offense against the infinite majesty of God, only the infinite Son could make satisfaction for it. The model made some sense in the sociopolitical context of its day, and the simplicity of its logic had such great appeal that it all but crowded out those New Testament metaphors. Centuries later, however, it mistakenly led to what Father Maldari calls the scandalous idea of the Father’s demand for the Son’s gruesome death in order to redeem the world. Another problem with the satisfaction model is that there is really no place in it for the Resurrection. Yet St. Paul says that Jesus was put to death for our sins and rose for our justification. Father Maldari reminds us of an important New Testament model by emphasizing the triumph of the Cross.
Thomas L. Sheridan, S.J.
Jersey City, N.J.
The report of the National Review Board established by the U.S. bishops indicates that it worked within the boundaries of present church policy (Signs of the Times, 3/15). This was to be expected, but the pedophilia problem emerged from present church policy. A question remains that must be answered if respect for the church and priests is to be regained. Why did this smoke of Satan enter the church in the first place? The board goes beyond its competence in touching on this matter, dismissing celibacy as a cause. There is no study existing on which to base this assertion, and consideration of married clergy in other denominations, unafflicted by our plague, would indicate otherwise. Unsubstantiated statements and intransigent defense of the status quo obstruct the way to true results. In this moment in church history, there is no rival to the importance of answering the question of why we have this terrible, scandal-causing problem. And yet a strange lethargy, even opposition to the quest for an answer, has prevailed.
(Rev.) Connell J. Maguire
Riviera Beach, Fla.
The clear and balanced comments on the movie The Passion of the Christ that have appeared in America over the past several weeks have been appreciated (3/8, 15). I find myself in the socially awkward position of not having seen the film and having neither a desire to watch it nor an intention to do so. I am thus left out of many religious conversations today.
Perhaps my situation arises from my understanding that there is nothing unique about the specific mode by which Jesus died; that tens of thousands of humans have been crucified. Yet I also recognize its centrality to our faith, and while I am not drawn to sanitized crucifixes, I have long kept a print of one of Matthias Grunewald’s gory crucifixions on my wall to help root me in historical reality.
Perhaps also it is my ingrained Jewish cultural unease with the history of Passion plays, which have for centuries fueled and triggered anti-Semitic prejudices and behavior. I am uncomfortable with and generally decline to participate even in the communal Gospel readings at Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies. Yet I recognize and appreciate the centrality of the Passion and Crucifixion to the Synoptic and Pauline traditions of our faith.
I wonder what sort of catechesis would be effective in inseparably linking the incarnation and life and teaching of Jesus with his death, and linking his resurrection and ascension with his identity and life in the minds of Christians. If the basis of much historical error is an overemphasis on one particular truth to the exclusion of the whole of truth, then despite the orthodoxy of our Catholic faith and the progress made in recent decades, we are still far from effectively communicating and transmitting that salvific truth, both within the church and to others.
Robert V. Levine