Saturday, October 28, 2017

Hospice Chaplains and a Physician Talk about God , Suffering, and Dying

Yes, have the priest anoint me !
I don't want to die alone !
Play a  harp  for my father !
No, don't talk to me about God !

                                    But when this perishable [ body] will have put on [ what
                                    is ] imperishable…then will come about the saying…
                                   'O death, where is your sting ? '    ( the Apostle Paul, 
                                   1 Corinthians, 15: 54, 55 )

By Robert R. Schwarz

            This  report  is about  last words and thoughts of patients, people like you and me— dying in a  hospice.  It is also about  the necessary compassion and fortitude of  two chaplains  and a  physician who care for  these patients. Your Exodus Trekker reporter recently interviewed these three dedicated  caregivers at different hospices;   though having  varied  backgrounds ,they share  two strong  beliefs :  

Ø        Dying and suffering of patients  often evoke joyful life-defining moments from changed  relationships with loved ones and hospice caregivers.  
Ø       Much  of the  medical  profession and  public is  ignorant of  the true  hospice mission; equally important is that both doctors and family members of the dying should stop being shy or overly tactful when talking to each other about a patient's impending death 

                 We'll  start with Joseph…

  He is 62 and works the day shift  with two   chaplains—one is Jewish—at the Northwest Community Hospital  in Arlington Heights, Illinois . For 16 years he has cared for hundreds of the very sick, the suffering and the dying . Some are devout Christians , some have ceased being active in their faith tradition, and some are atheists .   Joseph  lived in a religious community and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience vows . " I am still loyal to those vows," he said.  He is a certified chaplain employed by the archdiocese  of Chicago and serves at the hospital  as coordinator of Catholic ministries .  It is often a leadership role,  but  Joseph's priority is to minister to  patients' spiritual comfort. 

            During our interview, Joseph often expressed himself as an evangelist might  ; he believes  that "Jesus invites all of us day by day to grow through dying and rising . "  This is especially true, he said, of hospice patients who, along with their caregivers , need to be aware of  this cycle . " I'm honored and privileged to hear  my patients share  their life stories." His check- list for  patient care-giving includes : listening with empathy, easing anxiety in times of their uncertainty, encouraging courage, and reminding them that God loves them. He emphasized,  "People need  to know that they are being cared for , " 

            Joseph's  expresses other  spiritual beliefs by painting them .  On his  office walls  are  abstract renderings of  paintings depicting  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit .  Several have cosmic or nature backgrounds . 

" Every One Should Die Well " 

Passion also comes  from 57-year-old Dr. Orlanda Mackie when  she talks about  her work as hospice and palliative care specialist at the enormously large ( 464 beds, 300 physicians) John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago. She prides herself as a "catalyst" for  meaningful dialogue between  herself and   her dying patients and their families.  "I always thought everyone  should die well, " she said .  " But what I do is not sad." .  She is assertive with medical opinions but one can easily perceive her as  a gift-bearing grandmother.  
            Dr. Mackie was born in Stroger hospital, did her internship here, and   daily sees  as many at 12 patients ;  most are low income or indigent Afro-Americans and Hispanics . She considers her entire 20 years  here as  one life  milestone .  As an aside, she added,  '' My role is also to make sure that the Afro-American community  is educated  [ about dying ] so it can be empowered . "    

            Joe , our other chaplain,  is three years older than Joseph,  and has seen suffering and dying of nearly 150 patients since coming 2 ½ years ago  to Vista Hospice in  Waukegan, Illinois. He had been  director of  medical information and review at a pharmaceutical  company, and has been a  registered pharmacist since 1971 . Joe  was ordained a deacon in  2013 at Holy Name Cathedral in  Chicago. 

            Vista is not a faith-based hospital ,  but  Joe sees patients of all of denominations and once had to find a rabbi for a patient. Joe's  core beliefs are his   three P's:   pulse,  presence , and prayers.   Pulse  means Joe has to be a live person.  "Sometimes it’s more of a matter of bringing comfort to the family,"  he said ,  especially when "the patient is journeying to   this sacred period in his life, when they're getting ready to  transition from their earthly life to their eternal life. " 

            For Dr. Mackie , who is  a  practicing Roman Catholic ,   her most important life lesson  came from a  103-year-old Baptist woman for whom she was caring. Though her patient was  dying, "she had a "very positive attitude  until the end  , "  Dr, Mackie  related.  " What she taught me was to be grateful for every situation we have in life, whether good or bad . The key is to look at the situation and process it.  If a mistake, it doesn’t have to be a  mistake for the entire day. " 

            From some dying  patients, this physician occasionally hears a "confession" , like that of a  narcotic addict who told  her he had "broken bonds and bridges to his family ."  He admitted , " I did this all to myself," and now wanted  his family to take him back home . But  he doubted if they would forgive him. Dr. Mackie told him, " You know, we can blow up bridges but that doesn't  mean they can never be repaired. " 

" I'm Dying.  What Is God Doing for Me ? " 

Dr.Mackie in her examining room at  Stroger hospital
     Another patient,  when dying of cancer and when advised by his visiting mother that he should pray to God, replied angrily,  " For what?  Look at me . I'm dying. What is God doing for me?"  He had been confirmed in a Christian church. When his pain worsened, he told Dr. Mackie, " I don't want any more pain medicine. "  Puzzled, she asked why. He replied, " I need to suffer. "  Again, she  asked why.  "I'm not going to talk about it  anymore,"  he said.

            " I then asked him," Dr. Mackie said,  " if it was important for him to have the anointing of the sick by a priest ? , and he said 'yes. '   A priest came in and we left it at that." 

            Another patient of hers died an atheist . "I had told him I wasn't there to change his perception about God, that is not my skill set. But I respected his belief. "    (  Hospital chaplains cannot minister to patients unless the patient has requested  it. )     Do her patients ever talk about heaven?  "  I have to be honest with you," she said. " We move them out as quick as we can.  They don't even have time to process a lot of things. Some die quickly because we  get patients so advanced and so late. " (Stroger does not have an actual hospice unit but relies on four hospice stations outside the hospital. )           
            Religious faith has always played  a role in her medical practice, Dr. Mackie said. "When dealing with people who are impoverished, you have to have the energy to more forward and sometimes just leaning on your faith is what makes it happen.  " When she is down, her favorite prayer is Psalm 23.  "Yet,  sometimes I don't have anything to offer my patients except kind words. " 

            Dr. Mackie is  the youngest of four brothers and three sisters and  was  raised in the Chicago Afro-American community of Englewood , where she became  aware that a  "lot of people were dying there yet nobody  was talking about it.  And I  said, let's change  some of this and let's have a conversation. So that 's what led me into palliative care . "   Today Orlanda  is an advocate of open , honest "conversation "  between  hospice patients, their families, and especially doctors  , many of whom she maintains are "afraid "  to have an honest , no-holds-barred  dialogue about death and dying.   One of her biggest challenges is "to make people understand what I actually do. It's not all about dying. Not all my patients die. "  Before graduating from a medical school on the West Indies island  of Dominica, Dr.  Mackie  taught special education classes in a Chicago public school.    
What Motivated Them to Be  a Hospice Chaplain ?    
            Obviously, a chaplain like Joseph or Joe  needs more that comfort  skills to be steadfast with compassion for  the suffering and  dying  day after day.  Joe and Joseph would agree that some aspects of hospice care money cannot buy. Is it something the  caregiver is born with, an attribute which develops  from self- discipline and experience ?  I asked Joseph. 

Joseph with two chaplain colleagues: The Rev. Janet Frystak
of Christ Victor Lutheran Church in Elk Grove, IL, and
The Rev. John Bushi, a  Mennonite from St. Peter Lutheran
Church in Schaumburg, IL.  
      He and  I  talked  in his small office on the hospital's third floor . ( The eight hospice unit beds are on the ninth floor. ) Joseph stands at  five-feet, six-inches and said humorously , " I'm shrinking. " . He has brown  eyes   and brownish black hair and wore a tie and  a button-down blue shirt. His voice today  was  a bit hoarse and often punctuated with exclamation points and outstretched palms.  He wanted to share heart-felt thoughts   and began to express them with colorful metaphors,  with a  sprinkle of metaphysics. 

    Joseph satisfied my curiosity by  relating two events .The first was his  surviving triple heart bypass surgery in late 2015 .  "The doctor told me [ afterwards ] ,  'Joseph, you're a miracle ' You survived it ! ' "

            "And now, Bob,  I'm a changed person as a result of that experience !  I look at life now in a much more hope-filled way. I really wasn't meant to survive this .There must be something that the Lord wants me to do. And so now I've been given a second chance ,  and so I'm not going to waste it because every minute of my time now is very valuable and important. I' m devoting my life and all my energies to those people who are grieving and suffering and dying. " 

            The other inciting experience which strengthened   the  calling of   Joseph's ministry occurred at  Lourdes, France, known for decades for testimonials from people who claimed they  had been  healed there of various illnesses and  disabilities . Joseph was standing at the cave site where the Virgin Mary  was seen by Saint Bernadette in  1858 ,  an apparition known today as Our Lady of Lourdes. He said that the  minute he touched the rock and the flowing  water  from the spring from which Bernadette had drunk,  he had goose bumps.  " I knew I was in a holy place. " 

            Joseph then help lift up the arm of a frail woman with an oxygen tank at her side  so she could touch what he had  just touched. "I looked at the expression on that sick person's face and sensed  that a peace, an indescribable   transformation had taken place in her. And this was affirming to  me that  the hospice work I was  doing is what I'm supposed to be doing. "  Though  the woman walked away with her oxygen tank with no outward appearance of being healed,  Joseph said ,  "I knew that she was healed emotionally and spiritually. "  

Dying to Harp Music ( really )

            A few days after our interview, I visited Joseph to check on a few facts. He was still feeling the emotions of an event two  days earlier in the room of dying man whose two daughters   One of the daughters  was thanking Joseph having brought a priest in to anoint  her father before he died.   She started to cry when she recalled that father had hired a harpist  for her wedding . " "Then she said," Joseph told me,  " ' I want to pay my father back and have a harp player here when he is dying.'" 
             " We do this at times; harp music gives a calming presence ." Joseph said. 

            Joseph left to room to fetch  a harpist named Tony , who soon arrived and started to play his harp.   Hospice harp music, Joseph explained, keeps rhythm with the patient's breathing.  The father could not  speak,  but Joseph noticed he  had been "tracking their conversation. " 

            The father died the next day. His wife had died in this same hospice.         

Joseph's favorite painting, The Goodness
      of Life .
Light does shine through our darkness
and difficulties, he  believes.   
Into the Light…a poem  by Joseph Marco
There often is no way to explain why our creator permits
            some things to happen.
To give meaning to life, to make sense out of it all, is only
            possible through the eyes of faith in a God who never
            ceases to love us.

God of day and night, you journey with us through
            darkness into light.
Your are love that  dispels the suffering of our heart
            and mine.

You are healing for the body.

Your are peaceful light that helps us live in  the
            hopefulness  of life.

"It's the Sort of   Thing 
                                     the Spirit Leads You Into "                                

Deacon Joe outside a McDonald's after coffee with Bob 
Deacon Joe Casey thought about being a priest at age 15 .Though his mother occasionally nudged him to realize it , Joe , after two and  a half years in a seminary, knew he wasn't called to the priesthood.  " You know," he said, "it's the sort of thing the Spirit leads you into. "  As for hospice  work, he said he "sort of fell into it after years of working as a pharmacist and dealing with a lot of sick people. " 

            We had met for coffee at a McDonald's oasis on a toll way near  Lake Forest, Illinois. Joe  is six feet tall , has white hair and brown  eyes, and was wearing  blue jeans  and  a long-sleeved red and black check shirt. Joe is a mild- mannered man whose personality often includes a smile when he talks to you. Unlike Joseph, he is frugal with words; this begs a journalist  for follow-up questions .  He is married, has two sons, and was one of ten children . After his father died at age 36, leaving Joe's  mother  to raise five of them at  pre-school age ,  Joe , then only ten, began  paying room and board  to his mother by working in a drug store . 

            When asked  what events in  life shaped his the most, Joe had to  paused and  reflect. He went through a list of events: One of his brothers was  still- born;  three of his  high school classmates died ;  and, unbelievably, his father , uncle, and grandfather all died on a Dec. 19.  It all made Joe realize "that we are going to face a death and, because of that fact,  I'm not uncomfortable about talking about death . " Today he finds that many of his patients , though not uncomfortable when  talking about death to a stranger,  are so when speaking to  a  family member.  

            Unforgettable patients ?  Joe had just made a home visit to a World War  II  infantry veteran , a cancer patient ,  when much later he  remembered that he had never thanked him for this veteran's  service.   Joe learned that  his patient had been a German soldier in the war and was a "very strong  Christian " who emigrated to America .   "I didn't harbor any bitter feeling about him ," Joe said,  upon realizing   this man could have been shooting at  his  father, who had been an American combat soldier in Germany during the war. 

            Joe, who is  also a deacon in his church, also  recalled an elderly  patient  dying from cancer, who " made it absolutely clear he was an atheist " . ( Medicare requires that hospice patients be given an option to accept or decline chaplain visits ;  Joe and Joseph made it clear that giving religious care to a patient who has declined it  can do more harm than good. ) Joe's  patient said he could deal with dying but not  pain. His wife was a Catholic Christian.  Nevertheless, he agreed to seeing Joe every other week. Said Joe,  " We developed a friendship . We had a mutual respect for each other and didn't get into deep discussions but he would talk a bit about why he was convinced there was no God. I did not argue with him, nor try to convert him. " 

            One day Joe's  atheist friend , with his wife in the room, asked Joe  to arrange a funeral service for him   " His bones  were deteriorating and he was becoming slowly paralyzed," Joe said. . " He told me , ' at one time I hoped I would have no pain but now I have no feeling whatsoever ' "

            One week before his death  the man was unable to speak, and Joe read to him a chapter from a book written by the noted Catholic author, Fr. James Martin , S.J..  Joe told him to signal any time he wanted  Joe to stop reading. Joe read the entire chapter . 

            What was his reaction ? I asked Joe. " He showed me two thumbs up . "  Joe does not know if his patient at the end had  refused or accepted  Christian beliefs, though at the man's funeral Joe saw a crucifix above his casket. 

" We are dealing with people with denial and disbelief " 

Joseph giving communion in the hospital chapel to Eucharistic
ministers he has trained for their visits to shut-ins.  
    I asked  Joseph if any of his patients died still refusing to believe in any higher or  divine  power . " Yes, " he replied.  But added his belief  that  "in their own way they had  touched that higher power at the end. "   He said that perhaps people today "are more spiritual but  very much less religious. They are not interested in a structure where they are boxed  into believing in a certain way. "
            Joseph's comment   prompted the  question  of  " is this a good thing? "  Replied Joseph, "Yes, if it's good for them and it helps them dealing with suffering and dying. What I've learned is that we need to be present   with these people in a loving way, to accept them in the moment wherever they are, and bring them love, a listening presence, and compassion. Every day we are dealing with people who are dealing with denial and disbelief. 'Why do I have cancer, why is this happening to me? ' They are dealing with a lot of heavy stuff, and if I can bring a listening ear and a compassionate heart to them, then that's good. That's what any wonderful hospice program should be all about, and that 's what we do there. " 

            Joseph's  words made me recall  holding my mother's hand as she died while I prayed Psalm 23 ,  and  talking to my brother during his  last few,  pitiful  days on a hospice  respirator . 

            We talked about doubt and heaven and hell. Joseph agreed that the  last weapon of the devil is to sow doubt in the patient about God and heaven. He believes that at the very end of life of a person who has lived a wicked life and now still denies God's existence, that God "gives him a second chance " to convert.  Joseph offered no comment on hell ,  but did say   "we need to be accountable for the mistakes we have made if life. "  Family members of patients have asked Joseph questions about heaven and hell many times . Joseph  tells  them:  "There are a lot of things we don't understand " . He   assures them, however,  that " the Lord is in the midst of the suffering of their loved one. " 

            At 9:15 a.m. each morning Joseph  leads a group of six or more Catholic Eucharistic ministers from nearby parishes,   in a communion service in the hospital chapel. One of the ministers told this reporter that " Joseph has a real passion for what he does. He tries to train the best people for the job. "
            The act of leaving his office at day's end  sometimes saddens Joseph. To restore himself, he says he then needs to be alone in his  condominium.  After long  moments of silence,  he  might turn  on television and  watch "political stuff "—he says he's on the liberal and of things—or  go out with  his "supportive family of  friends " for a pizza. 

     But painting is what uplifts Joseph's spirits the most. He often uses scenes from nature as metaphors and symbols to express his core beliefs about dying, loss and grief , and  the cycle of human life such as the metamorphous of a caterpillar into a beautiful monarch butterfly.  Nature itself incited Joseph to paint ; he often went camping as an Eagle rank Boy Scout.  "All life," he said, "can be the ground work for growth ."    He cited the tree leaf which is green in summer and in fall is a "shimmering  gold or vibrant red color. Look at your own body: new cells are constantly replacing dead cells. We   have to go through loss, then death before we can get to    the other side, to resurrection. As a chaplain who daily sees people who are dying, I am able to see that process.  " ( "All of my art work has a resurrection theme to it, " he told  a retreat audience last Oct. 28 who had come to learn how to "put their feelings on paper." ) 

            On the wall today in the  hospice social worker's off ice hangs a colorful piece of art done by crayons by a woman while dying of cancer.  Knowing the woman was artistic, the staff  had brought her a coloring book, and she went to work on it.  "It was beautiful !"   Joseph exclaimed. "It looked like a stain glass window. It was one of the very few behaviors she had not lost. " 

Patients Dying Alone Make This Physician  Sad 

Dr. Orlanda Mackie, hours away from a joyful trip to Disney
Land , a birthday present to herself and nieces, and nephews
    When patients die alone sadden   Dr. Mackie .  "Sometimes I just can’t change that,  " she says with a sigh.  Listening to jazz, particularly that of deceased pianist Thelonias Monk ,  in the apartment she shares with her sister,  picks her up. " I listen to music all the time." She also  reads mysteries and  books about Afro-American history. There is no television set in her  apartment.  The doctor's favorite dish is baked chicken with rice   and vegetables .  " I eat that just about every day. "  He sister does the cooking. Perhaps Orlanda's greatest  pleasure is that trip on her birthdays  with nephews and nieces to Disneyland . That's where she was headed a few hours after our interview.

            Chaplain Joe sees an occasional movie and reads religious books, giving some away as  gifts such as the classic The Imitation of Christ.    He tries to forget  that  "worst experience " of his life: watching his adult son bury his own three-week-old son. But the tears which were welling up as Joe related this at McDonald's   , disappeared when our talk ended and he  told me of his plans to drive 12 hours to see his three grandchildren in Nashville, Tennessee.   
            When asked about his own death,  Joe replied —smiling , of course—"I will not have any epitaph on my tombstone. I'm being cremated. I've already purchased  a columbarium . It's just a ten-by-ten."

The End

            All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz


Saturday, September 30, 2017




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You can contact him with a  comment at the bottom of this or any other post ; email him at "; or with ground mail at 833 S. Beverly Lane, Arlington Heights, Il, 60005. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

( part 4 of 4 parts ) What I Learned as an 82-Year-Old Trekker on a Bucket List River Cruise to Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic

  • An Update on the Berlin Wall and Check Point Charlie  (part one )

  • Luther and a Few things You Might  Not Know about Him and  the Reformation He Ignited (part one)

  • Cruising The Elbe with the Wealthy ( part two )

  • Polish Catholics and Their Hero Pope and the Scars of Communism   ( parts three and four )

Part Four 

By Robert R. Schwarz

                                    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
                                    corrupts absolutely  ( Letter to Bishop
                                    Mandell Creighton , April 5 , 1887 )    
   Bussing to Warsaw,  we stopped  at a McDonald's, and  Mary Alice  and I had coffee and French fries .Two hours later we checked into the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria, a five-star hotel where many of its guests during the Soviet control of Poland were diplomats and high ranking officials.  That Sunday night my wife and I headed to Warsaw's main street, Kraowskie Przedmiesʹcie , which was very wide, without sidewalks, and lined on one side by outdoor  restaurants and cafes for a good half-mile. We sat at one of the cafes  for a meal of  pierogi (meat dumplings ) and bigos ( a stew of various cuts of meat and sausages, cabbage, sauerkraut,  honey and mushrooms). 

Mauriusz, one of our Warsaw guides
     We held our table for  at least two  hours, so enchanted we were by the constant flow of  Europeans  strolling closely past  us with cheerful faces and voices.  There were families with their children , an occasional  pregnant mother or a mother  pushing a baby carriage, and laughing teenagers ( who knows at what )  wearing shirts and  jackets imprinted with names of American athletic teams or eye-catching  prose  and  slogans in English. There were  twosomes and foursomes of women of all ages with stylish   hairdos and  wardrobes ( a few mismatched ) .  Many hands were holding  ice cream cones and ,  now and  then , you  saw  an e-cigarette.

            A few large,  cement-gray buildings  reminiscent of those in Prague lined the other side of  Kraowskie Przedmiesʹcie . In front of a palatial government  building my wife and I watched   a crowd of  protestors  expressing outrage over their  government's plan  to put  Poland's  judicial system under  political control; they were accusing the ruling party leader of being a dictator.  Though the  protest group was well behaved,  Police had formed a ring of security .

            Mary Alice and I were the only ones who appeared startled when a siren-screaming ambulance   came speeding—yes, speeding—down the middle of this crowded Warsaw artery.  We saw the flock of strolling pedestrians casually take a few steps to the right or left as if deaf to the siren as well as blind to the  vehicle rushing right through them at arm's length.   

            This  entire scene resonated deeply with me ; my father's parents had emigrated from Poland  and  survived the Great  Depression in America  by owning a small grocery store in Chicago's Buck Town  neighborhood.  ( How I wished I could be interviewing them here and now ! ) .

VI     Resistance Fighters;  My Turn to Lecture a Guide;  and Mission  Accomplished (for now ? )

                                    Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
                                    hardships, persecutions, and constraints,   for the
                                    sake of Christ; for when I am weak, than I am
                                    strong. ( the Apostle Paul , 2 Corinthians,
                                    12:10 , New American Bible )

       Brushing elbows with security police and a curious crowd of tourists outside the Museum of Warsaw Uprising, we  waited an hour while Prince William and his  Duchess of Cambridge wife , Kate Middleton,  finished their tour inside. The two  unexpectedly exited   from another door.
        The heroic  Warsaw Uprising between August and October 1944  was  passionately related  to us by a museum dulcet as  she pointed to photographs and exhibits . It made no difference that we had often seen much of this  in newsreels;  this woman brought it to life for us. Without melodrama but determined to  give us all the horrific facts, she  made us   feel these facts whenever she paused related  them while pointing  at a gruesome  scene or at  heroism displayed in an  exhibit or photograph. She had been giving this tour for several years (as she told me later , adding that she was a  child in Warsaw during the war ) , and  I sensed in her voice that she still had to choke back her  emotions . In a sense, this museum had become her personal shrine.  

Statue to honor the Resistance fighters
 For two  hours  we moved slowly with reverence  through dimly-lit narrow corridors of  nightmarish  reminders of the years of  brutal murdering and  ineffable suffering which the German army  had inflicted upon innocent people since  invading Poland in 1939 , especially during the  Uprising .  We saw a new dimension of  sacrifice and courage . 

            She  began with a commonly known fact that in the final weeks of the  Uprising  , when  the capitulation of the  German army was  evident , the Soviet army was  encamped at  the Polish border near Warsaw  . For weeks its commanders  had been communicating their intention to cross the river bordering the two countries  and then to liberate Warsaw. The Red army, however, never made  good on their intent but chose to wait week after week while the German soldiers continue  to decimate the Warsaw resistance fighters. This  group of  patriotic and ill-equipped volunteers had gone underground and had been pitifully reduced in size , yet  continued to fight   German soldiers, often with only  knives and Molotov cocktails.    Meanwhile , Warsaw citizens continued  to exit the  city as they had been doing all during the war. Whatever remained of  the Jewish population continued  to be rounded up and shipped by freight cars to death camps in other parts of Poland. 

    With more than her usual passion,  our dulcet ,  however, told us that the dying wish of each resistance  fighter was that the Soviet army never should liberate their  country, let alone Warsaw.  As Poles , they had seen what a Communist-imposed government and lifestyle had done to cripple the Soviet Union's satellite countries, how inimical to freedom-loving people it was , and how the worship of God had been diminished  by the viral influence of  atheists like Lenin and Marx . No, the battle cry of these few , now doomed  Polish  men was, our  dulcet exclaimed, Poland must liberate itself  !
" Poland must liberate itself !"  they vowed before dying

            No one  could ever be certain what impact this patriotism  eventually had when described   at post-war peace  conferences of world leaders. Nevertheless ,  Poland in 1989 was free and independent country.  

            Our dulcet ( I never got her name  ) also related to us another Uprising, that of more than 100 , poorly armed  Jewish fighters who were killed by German soldiers  while trying to liberate their captive Warsaw  Ghetto .

[Wikipedia gives these statistics: An estimated  16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 were badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Jews being harbored by Poles  were exposed by  German soldiers making  house-to-house clearances and mass evictions of entire neighborhoods. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically leveled another 35% of the city,  block by block. Together , with earlier damage suffered in the 1939 invasion of Poland  and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 . ] 
Our impassioned dulcet 


            Back at  our pierogi restaurant that same day, Mary Alice asked: " After our museum excursion, I saw you holding your recorder up to that woman. What did she say ?"

            I replied, " I  had asked her ' what can we do to prevent all this from happening  again? "

            " And ?"

            " She simply said, ' Take care of our youth. Teach them. ' "  

            After  lunch we walked back to the hotel and connected with Mariusz Nurkiewicz , who was as  much an  actor as  a top-notch Viking guide . He   constantly was assuming a dramatic posture  with spread-out   arms , sudden quick steps to left or right, and facial expressions to match the inflection points of his speech.  I chided him about  this.

            " I'm not an actor," he said.   "That's why I'm a tour guide ." It drew laughter from those in our group who had overheard him.

            At a revered Jewish site he explained how the statues of  trees there  "represent life" and that another , rather large abstract icon over  the  doorway meant to be the  " parting of the Red Sea by Moses . "  He  went on tell the story of a brave spy who infiltrated a  concentration camp to gather vital information about the early aggression of the Nazis . His reports , Mariusz said,   were  ignored by both Churchill and our Pentagon. 
            At the end of our tour , all of us  rested on the steps of some statue—there seemed to always be a  nearby statue in Warsaw—while Mariusz , holding a small microphone, again  dove into  his favorite topic  (as it had been  among several of  our past guides ) :  the bad or evil deeds  of Communism. This time I couldn't help but get on  an evangelical soap box, something I try to avoid.  I didn't know Mariusz had left on his microphone .
            "You know, my friend, "  I began, " I am as opposed to Communism as much as you are , but why haven't you and the rest  of the guides mentioned  the root cause of a century of conflict between Soviet communism and most of Europe , why people of good will hate and  fear  Communism  and oppose it , sometimes with their life  on the line ?"

            His expression told me he  thought my question was a no-brainer, and he  politely remained silent.

            I drew closer and ,  with  an edge to my voice, answered my own question:  " Because it is a godless form of government,  as godless as their godless Communism's founding fathers , those atheists  Lenin and Marx. You know that, I'm sure . "

            All chitchat in our group  stopped. Mariusz looked at me again and spoke quickly and without his usual guide- tone of voice. I never had any reason to doubt that he was a moral man or person of goodwill;  I saw him as a humanist who believed that intelligent  and self-directed behavior could by itself  correct those evils, which he now described in detail. 

            I  debated with Mariusz , but only for a few minutes. Our  group was restless to get back to the hotel. ( Mary Alice had returned there earlier . )  Mariusz said goodbye to all ,  but remained with me on our  statue step. I asked if I could hear him say more, and say it into  the voice recorder  I pulled from my pocket. He agreed. We began with Pope John Paul  II.

            Mariuz  began like  a college professor : " Invited by the Polish communist authorities,  this pope he came to Poland on June 2, 1979 [ to give his  homily at Victory Square  ] . The people , they didn't know what they were doing…They were just fulfilling the  wish of a nation which was very proud that one of them was now a pope. But they were opening a Pandora cage… The pope  would start here his campaign against that [Communist ] system in the name of freedom , in  the name of Christ,  and  in the name of humanity  that the Polish people deserved something more than what the Communist authorities had given  them. "    
          Let the Holy Ghost come down and renew the shape of this land  is what  Mariusz quoted me from the pope's famous address to the Polish people and  the Polish communist authorities present that  day  in Victory Square. (Historians have noted  that Soviet leaders  were on edge at that very moment  as to what impact the words of this world figure  would have on the entire Polish population—and therefore on Soviet power , which,  we know , eventually collapsed . )  The pope's actual words were :

                                                              Let your Spirit descend
                                                             and renew the face of the earth,
                                                             the face of this land.   
Victory Square in Warsaw where Pope John Paul II spoke
boldly to the Soviet Union  in 1979. 
            People in the square  roared,    We want  God !  , a  roar that  was televised  around the world.

            Mariusz  continued: "The Poles had not fought against the commies because of lack of faith,  which was strong,  but because they were afraid of losing so much like what happened to Czechs  and the Hungarians. "   

            I switched our topic to Nazis and asked why he thought the Nazi  Germans had a demonic, homicidal hatred of  the Jews. He surprised me with an answer which would , I reasoned,  discomfort a true humanist . " The potential for evil is hidden in the heart of every man…"  
            I now had to ask— and  I admit it was a baited question— " Would you agree that there would be peace on earth if all of us obeyed the Ten Commandments ? "

            " Of    course. If only all of us read the Bible well, there would be no crusades or inquisitions."

            "I'll leave you with this," I said.  " I think you'll agree that power corrupts  and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

            "I do."

  We exchanged smiles and a handshake. I was compelled to leave behind  a  New Testament bit of wisdom , one which   either confuses or is  flatly  rejected  by many  people I have met: " By the way,  "You know that power is perfected in weakness. "

            He did not react, and we parted company .

A television crew taping protesters  on Warsaw's main street
            ( Upon my arrival at home , I came across  these words   written by Pope Pius XII  in 1945 that superbly expressed what Mariusz and I  were unable to express: We know well that the resources of men are unable to heal these great injuries. We know that the human mind, especially when hate and rivalry have blinded it, cannot easily determine a just and equitable solution of affairs along with a fraternal agreement. It is therefore necessary to implore the Father of light and mercy repeatedly. He alone, in the midst of such violent disturbances and tumults, can persuade those concerned that too many catastrophes and devastations have been piled up in a fearful mass, that too many tears have been shed, and that too much blood  has been spilled.)

            On the way back to  our   hotel, I stopped at  the square where John Paul  II had delivered those  history-making words . Our American president also spoke there on July 6, 2017 .  As reported in the July 23 edition of the National Catholic Register, President Trump told  his immense audience in Victory Square ,  " We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. "            

An artist at work in the Jewish quarter
         This square was now empty except for a girl standing next to her bike  she had  leaned at the base of a  large stone cross known as the " Pope's Cross. "  I clicked my camera a few times . Many unlinked thoughts began to flow concerning  people in my youthful days with whom I had vigorously interacted, one way or another, people  with hearts and minds as different as their fingerprints. A few  obviously had needed acts of love ,  but,  I regret  to say , I too often had waited for someone else to give it.  I also  thought of my brother Lester ( I loved him a lot ) , a paranoid schizophrenic whose adult life was  pitifully lived . Yet,  he  joyfully (and with  full  cognitive attentiveness )   surrendered to a  Christian conversion  months before he died. And strangely,  I thought of an old Hollywood  movie about family love and sacrifice  I had seen recently, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  

          That last  thought led my mind  once again  to  a  spiritual concept   (The Body of Christ)  , which continues to stay beyond my grasp ,  allowing  me no more than  a neutered , intellectual understanding of  it.  Here is the gist of  it :       
                                    For  in one Spirit we were all  baptized into one body,
                                     whether  Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
                                    and were all given to drink of one Spirit…Now
                                    you are Christ's body,  and individually parts
                                    of it.  ( 1 Corinthians: 12 :13; 27 ) 

            But I wanted to feel—I mean really feel—that I was a bona fide member of this Body ; I wanted to touch this Body,  hug it .  

            In my mind I now had childhood  glimpses of my parents and brother and our love for each other , a kind of love that can't be replicated, a truism  I sadly discovered decades ago.  Unfortunately,  after I became an adult, I  ignored the  weddings ,  anniversaries , picnics ,  and funerals  of  my  many  relatives . Perhaps if I hadn't missed all these opportunities to bond with kinfolk, then …Dear Reader, well, you can  fill in the blanks...

             I walked back  to my hotel and told Mary Alice that my mission , my raison d'entre  for taking this trip , was not accomplished .

            "Oh , Robert, " she said—she never calls me Robert unless she is very, serious—" We had a great  time . Our friends are really going to enjoy all those photos. "

            "Think so ?" I replied rather lamely. ?

            She answered me with a hug  and a  kiss. Never did I know that while we were taking a  tour on  boat, bus , and foot, God  was taking  my heart and mind  on a parallel tour.                     

Epilogue:  The Birthday Party…

                                                            Love not only labors less than all,
                                                            it lessens the labor for all…Return,
                                                            my soul  ,  to where your peace lies.
                                                            ( Blessed Isaac  of Stella )

            On September 8, seven weeks after our return to Arlington Heights, Illinois ,  Mary Alice and I sat down at our dinner table with seven  friends to celebrate my 83rd birthday. There was  Mary Richter and husband , the Rev. "Rick" Richter, my coffee  buddy for the past ten years and retired pastor of a Lutheran church where I once hosted  the local  televised program, " Crossing the Finish Line " ; Marcia and Donald Knorr, a CPA and my Catholic faith mentor  when I joined his church ten years ago;  Bruce Kuss, a boyhood friend whom I now visit weekly at a nearby rehab center ; he had come with his niece ,Connie Obrocht , his sometimes caregiver ; and  Lisa Duffy, daughter of my deceased brother Lester , who flew down from Woodstock, Canada.

            All of them were on the list I had  made three weeks earlier  of friends to whom I wanted to draw much closer . I would not expect the same relational   payback from  them ; no, the priceless  freedom of selflessness that would come from loving them and from allowing my true self to be transparent and vulnerable  to wounds.  

            Before  we began munching on roasted chicken and lasagna , Rick prayed . I was a bit embarrassed that his prayer centered on graces he asked for me.  Our  table conversations  crisscrossed a multitude of topics.

        Only Mary Alice heard the phone ring;  it was Scott, her son, joined by his wife Karen and their  son Sterling. For various reasons  (none worth mentioning here ) ,  my relationship with Scott and Karen had cooled during the past three  years , which had had a negative effect on Mary Alice. But now I heard not only a cheerful  "Happy Birthday" on the telephone but  a Happy  Birthday overture of  reconciliation  in their voices . It was , Mary Alice and I believe, our  best phone call of the year !

          Anastasia—we were her first audience to hear her sing it—and  my favorite, Going Home , from  Dvořák's "New World Symphony."
The best birthday of my life ! Our cantor Julie ( standing )
has just arrived. ( I'm at the far end on\ the left . Photo
by my niece Lisa Duffy . )  
  Julie Cohen,  the soprano cantor from my church, arrived after dinner and, sitting a only  few feet from us in the living room , began to sing  songs rehearsed especially for me . They included a hit song from the new  Broadway show , 

             Contentment seemed to fill the room; every face I looked at glowed with it. In his wheelchair,  my  friend Bruce retained  a stillness I had never seen on  him.  Julie closed with Ave Maria.  

            When the last friend had left and the room was empty, I turned to my wife and slowly said,   "Mission completed , Dear."  Indeed, I was a happy camper and so was she.

The  End
( photos by the author )

All comments are welcome.

© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz

Saturday, September 16, 2017

( Part 3 of 4 ) What I Learned as an 82-Year-Old Trekker on a Bucket List River Cruise to Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic

By Robert R. Schwarz
v Cruising The Elbe with the Wealthy ( part two )
v An Update on the Berlin Wall and Check Point Charlie  ( part one )
v Luther and a Few things You Might  Not Know about Him and  the Reformation He Ignited ( part one )
v Polish Catholics and Their Hero Pope and the Scars of Communism   ( parts three and four )

                                    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
                                   corrupts absolutely  ( Letter to Bishop
                                   Mandell Creighton , April 5 , 1887 ) 

Part Three
V    A Pickpocket in Prague; Memories of a Painful Epiphany in Prison; and a Klezmer Dinner in Krakow  


                                 Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest,
                                 whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure,
                                 whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are
                                of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there
                                be any praise, think on these things.  ( Paul  to the
                               Philippians, chapter 4, verse 8…King James version)

            Mary Alice and I arrived in Prague  as fatigued  tourists .With  two knee replacements, my wife  had   wielded a cane from the start, and I , who had been lugging   a  heavy camera bag   in and out of crowded  churches and up and down castle ramparts ,   had been slowed  down to her pace during our half-day walking excursions . All 24  in our group had also been suffering the nuisance of   having to constantly  fidget with the individual  excursion communication devices hung around our necks with dangling  earplug wires.  But we did learn much from  those  comprehensive lectures given by our guides ,  the ones which never seemed to pause even  when we were  crossing busy intersections or entering an elevator or when we  scattered into smaller groups. ( I had to zone out  occasionally from listening to a never-sending  liturgy of history dates . )

One of five guides  we had...

I can think of only one really bad thing that happened to us during the entire trip… Mary Alice and  I  one morning hopped on a tram to do some exploring of this  culturally dynamic Czech Republic city . We were observing how the city center was colored with cement-gray;  its mammoth  buildings loomed as  a  monolith of rectangles which  , except for width and height  , never varied.  Our guides in Berlin , Dresden, and now Prague  had related  how Moscow authorities , when restoring these severely   bombed cities after the war,  imposed  their constrictive  Socialist philosophy of  art and   architecture by often  choosing only one—likely unimaginative—architect to design the entire city's reconstruction .  One of our guides had   pointed to a large area blanketed with  five-story, identical  apartment buildings:  "We call these Commie Condos, "  the guide had said with muffled  mirth.

     Back to that bad thing…At our tram's first stop , a  somewhat shabbily dressed , heavily whiskered man got on at the rear door  and stood close to where Mary Alice and I   were standing  while  looking out a window. At the next stop, the man got off  quickly in  sync with the  jolt of the stopping  tram and  disappeared into  a  dense web of  streets and pedestrians .    A minute later, responding to a conditional reflex that acts up  whenever I am  traveling in city crowds,  I brushed a hand across my  left pocket. My wallet  was gone, along with $150 in Czech money , driver's license, and debit and credit cards ! ( My passport was in a safe on our hotel room , and and within an hour ,   the bank and credit card companies had  cancelled  my passwords . I managed to satisfactorily take care of the rest when I got home.)       

        I was angry about  losing my wallet to someone whom I imagined was now amused by a vision of my anger as he bragged to a cohort about his criminal skills .  I knew I needed an antidote for this anger. Thought-blocking would not work. 

      I did something an hour later  which I was not capable of; I asked God to stir this criminal's  heart  into empathy for me and his past victims  and that this be  followed by a permanent change of heart about  all his criminal behavior . 

Teenagers from South Korea  and their nun music director ( center )
on a European concert tour, stopping over at our hotel  in Prague 

 That same day Mary Alice and I visited the church and monastery  of Our Lady of the  Snows, founded by Emperor Charles IV in the mid-14th  Century. Here I now  thanked God for giving me the willing  spirit to pray for that man on the tram . I recalled the Apostle Paul's words of perennial comfort for those who hit hard  bumps on life's road: All things work for the good for those who love God.            

  Before retiring that night , I  shared all my thoughts with Mary Alice, " You know something, dear, maybe the whole reason for me taking this tour was to …"

            " ...What , Bob? To have your wallet stolen ? " 

            I smiled as she turned off the bed table light. 

A Czech family  in Prague  kindly poses for my camera

There was no road sign  saying "You Are Now Entering Poland"  nor had there been any border-crossing welcome sign during any of our bus rides. Had not two world wars made many Europeans hateful of new, imposed  national  borders ?  Reflecting on border crossings as we exited  the Czech  Republic  rekindled in me  a life-changing epiphany  which   occurred in August of 1950 while in a maximum penitentiary cell in Bratislava, the capital  of what was then named Czechoslovakia .  I was a 25-year-old freelance journalist who had been entrapped into  illegally crossing  this country's border with Austria, believing my late wife Judith  and I were actually entering our destination of Hungary  .  There was no sign, human or otherwise, to be seen. Judith waited in our car while  , with camera in hand and passport left behind in my jacket,  I approached   a weathered , large wooden road block on  an unmarked , deserted  countryside road. I  took a few steps around the barrier and snapped a photo of  a quaint looking  shack about two hundred yards down the  road . Immediately armed Czech ( or Russian) soldiers lunged at me  from a thicket of weeds and seized me and  the camera.

The main square in Krakow 

I was  freed after ten days imprisonment , thanks to Judith's  prompt drive to an American embassy in  Vienna . [ note: my parents received  this telegram from the State Department soon after my release:  "American Embassy Vienna requests inform your son Robert safe and letter will follow…Allyn C. Donaldson, Director Special Consular Services."  ]     But a  much greater freedom had occurred within that  prison cell . Having been intimidated into  signing a long confession which contained not a word in English and being  acutely aware of the current  Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, I feared  I was a likely candidate for one of those  infamous Siberian  concentration camps known as a Gulag.  I paced  the floor ,  in a  desperation foreign to my senses .  I can only describe it by comparing it--as I would later--to the wild mink who,when snared by a trap--has been known to chew off a  leg to gain freedom. 

        Here is that epiphany I noted in a report  several years ago:  
        For the first time in my life ,  I  cried out to God in a  voice with all the honest and sincerity I could muster. " God," I cried, "I promise that if You free me,  I will keep Your  commandments all my life . " 

        The  epiphany  pierced me  so suddenly and  deeply that I was senseless for a long moment.  Then, with  labored breaths of fear and shame,  I realized I was actually trying to con God ! Hiding in a cloud of self-denial, I   had  reverted to my  childhood  strategy of getting my way: say anything and make it believable!  My promise, my sincerity before God was as unreliable as those white-collar professionals, those alcoholics I had written about in articles, those men and women who really  believed they were being sincere and honest when they said ,"Me an alcoholic ? Hey, I can stop drinking anytime I want ."

            Worse though, I now  realized  a  new and  awful truth about Bob Schwarz , this fairly well-behaved journalist with a passion for facts and truth: He  was absolutely incapable of keeping  that promise to obey all those Ten  Commandments for the rest of his life ! Not today or tomorrow nor, maybe, even by next year.

      Coming to terms with that dark side of  my humanity-- which we know all humans struggle with--was a pang of a radical change,  which would , unfortunately,  take years to fully develop. It did, however, immediately created in me a preoccupation with  finding find out how to walk with an  omnipresent, omniscient, and especially omnipotent God.    


Perhaps one of the cutest images among the more than 500 taken 

     Our Viking group spent most of  the next day in Krakow's Jewish quarter and inside 
the   Wawel Castle cathedral , where   Pope John Paul II  delivered homilies as a cardinal. We took photographs of homes where  Max Factor and Helena Rubenstein  had lived and learned, sadly, that the pre-war Krakow   Jewish population before the Holocaust  was  65,000 , and today  is 150. 

             That night we sat down to a Klezmer dinner and heard a trio play  life-celebrating  Yiddish  music. We ate only feet away from the musicians (a woman violinist, a bass fiddle player and an accordionist ) in a small dining room with window views of   narrow cobblestone streets.  Our small room pulsated with a  surreal rhythm of  animated conversations,  a  swaying violinist, and waitresses constantly trotting back and with steins of beer and plates of  turkey meat, cold cabbage covered with a purple vinaigrette,  and chicken broth with matzo balls. Fingers drummed table tops in beat with  Klezmer music.  When we heard the Fiddler on the Roof  melody , " If I  Were a Rich Man," there were murmurs of nostalgia.

     I left my table for a few minutes to get a close look at the photographs  on one wall; two were autographed by  actors Liam Neeson and  Ben Kingsley from the move shot on locations in Krakow,
         Schindler's List .  Also autographed was a  photo of the  movie's director,  Steven Spielberg.  When the conversation at our table turned to the group's morning excursion    to Auschwitz, I mentioned the name of one of my favorite martyred  saints, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe ,  who at that death camp prevailed upon the guards to execute him by starvation in a cell rather than the innocent  family father  condemned to die there .

  On other  walls were maps showing  how the different borders of Poland and the Czech Republic  were often changed by  the whim of power- ambitious  kings and dictators. Such events always forced resettlement of Jewish populations, we learned.    " It made misery and a mess, " the  restaurant manager told me.

At the Klezmer restaurant  

            Mary Alice and I the next day attended a Mass in the St. Francis Basilica, a 17th Century church with soul-stirring  beauty of  enormous oil paintings of religious  scenes,  stone and wood carvings of Biblical saints , and many interior chapels adorned for  centuries with different,  beautiful sacramentals. The knees of countless number of worshipers  through the ages had worn the wooden pew kneelers into concave shapes. At least fifteen  people were waiting outside a confessional for their  turn with a priest.  ( One could only imagine how long this line was when  peoples' virtues were repeatedly tested during the horrors and daily stress of  Nazi and  Russian occupations. ) 

Our Viking group at a holy place in the Krakow Jewish quarter

    Mary Alice leaned her  cane against a pew and suggested we sit for a spell. She was still perturbed from being mooned a few minutes  earlier  by a man  at the church entrance. At the time, I had moved ahead  of her and  did not see the incident but  heard her shout—it echoed through the basilica—" Stop it, you dirty old man!" 

            We left Krakow ,  which  had become our itinerary favorite . Our first stop before  our 300-mile ride to our tour finish line at Warsaw , was the Jasna Gore monastery ,  Poland's holiest shrine and home of the well-known Black Madonna  painting.  While in the monastery,  I became quite impatient with my heart and intellect. I still didn't know exactly why I was here--and there were only a few days left  to find out.  I yearned deeply  to come home with something important to give people even if only a few. Everything  was still nebulous . 

Wawel cathedral ( and castle ) where Pope John Paul II
spent several years as a cardinal in Krakow 

   It didn't help that  I was  discomforted here by the  holiday-like scene  of literally thousands of tourists streaming in and out of the monastery taking photographs—I was , at first , conspicuously  one of them—and queuing up for souvenirs ; I also had been bitten by  some petty  scrupulosity: I didn't like  the several "ticket office " windows here where people were lining  up to leave or record their written  prayers with "prayer agents ."
( photos by the author )

End of Part Three.
 Part Four  will 
appear next week.

All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz