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Friday, January 16, 2009

“Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:17-18)

“SOUL-SURFING” – January 25, 2009
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1:14-20
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

“It’s been another long day at the pearly gates, and St. Peter is dutifully processing people. An amazingly long line of people waiting to get in stretches for miles before him. Then, from the back of the line, a lone figure starts to walk toward the gates. He’s clean-cut, dressed in scrubs and a white coat, and has the word ‘neurosurgery’ stitched under his front coat pocket. He smugly walks to the front of the line, winks at St. Peter and strides into heaven. The people in the line are dumbfounded and outraged. ‘Just because he’s a neurosurgeon, he doesn’t have to wait in line?’ the people start to yell. St. Peter looks back at them and answers, ‘No, that’s just God. He sometimes likes to pretend he’s a brain surgeon.’” (Original source unknown)

At the hospital where I serve, such jokes are common fare, physicians of one specialty barbing those of another with regularity. And those of us who are non-physicians just enjoy hurling barbs anywhere, sure that a target is within easy earshot. It’s considered part of the sport of medicine. Even so, the jokes can be readily enjoyed even by those who are the butt of them because they are, for the most part, gross caricatures of those who practice the healing arts. For the most part, I say.

The six-year neurosurgical resident training program at our hospital has produced some of the most sought after brain surgeons in the country. Also has it produced, I’m guessing, one or two who truly believe themselves to be God’s equal. And while there’s not a whole lot to be done about these finished products, it’s not too late to monitor the humility of our current crop of residents. Daily do I encounter the bevy making early morning rounds throughout the hospital. And like the court jester whose job it was to keep the king humble, often do I approach these young physicians with the jarring question, “So, how’s your soul today?” Many who’ve been speared by the question now flee my approach. Not Angelo, though. We spar regularly.

We first met several years ago in the ER at the bedside of a trauma patient newly-arrived by helicopter. Suffering a life-threatening brain injury, the family had asked that I anoint the patient before he was whisked off to surgery. As I entered the cubicle to do just that, 2nd year neurosurgical resident Angelo spied me, threw up both hands as a blockade and protested, “We don’t need any of that stuff yet!” I froze in place and glared at him as two embarrassed nurses ducked their heads into the work at hand. My freeze only momentary, I spoke up. “Doctor, I’m going to anoint this patient at his family’s explicit request. I’ll do my job and you do yours.” And so we did. I prayed; Angelo doctored.

I met him again a few days later as he sat at a desk in the ER. “Angelo, what the heck was that all about the other day with the trauma patient?” Red in the face and laughing, he didn’t exactly apologize, but almost. “I was only kidding, you know?” Wanting to trust him, I conceded, “Okay, I didn’t know you were kidding, but now I do.” And then, sitting down with him, I heard all about his very Italian Catholic upbringing in the Bronx, concluding with, “I was always a real mouthy wise guy. Guess I still am.” We parted with an understanding.

These days, with Angelo in his 4th year of residency, we still meet at bedsides, and if he’s not gained a respect for what I do, at least he’s learned not to mess. For, you see, I discovered some months ago this budding young brain surgeon eating a huge bowl of Coco Puffs in the hospital cafeteria before heading into the OR to open someone’s skull. Unable to let such an opportunity pass, I approached him. “Why Angelo, this is what you eat before surgery? What about Wheaties, ‘the Breakfast of Champions’? If your patients only knew!” Spouting soggy Coco Puffs across the table, he excitedly replied, “I know, I know. This is kids’ stuff, but I like it. You won’t tell on me, will you?”

And that’s the truth of it: he may walk like a god, but he eats Coco Puffs. And so it is for many of us. We may appear to preside from high atop a pedestal, but we still eat Coco Puffs for breakfast. Underneath it all, we are mere mortals, every one of us, ordinary people called to do extraordinary things.

In the gospel passage we hear today, we find Jesus gathering his first disciples, common fishermen who will soon do extraordinary things. Walking along the Sea of Galilee, “Jesus said to Simon and his brother Andrew, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:17-18) So simply the church began, common people about their everyday tasks responding to a warm invitation!

But today’s gospel passage is more than a recounting of the first days of the church; it’s also our invitation to respond to the continuing call of Jesus: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And why would we want to fish for people? To haul them into the boat, of course! We Christians traverse stormy seas as we journey home, and though life’s storms threaten our craft, Jesus is our onboard companion. It’s the safest place to be. That’s why he asks his 21st century disciples to haul humanity aboard. It’s arduous, dangerous work for sure, but God gives strength and protection to those he’s called.

Early one recent morning I once again discovered Angelo gobbling his Coco Puffs. I approached with a joke. “How many neurosurgeons does it take to screw in a light bulb? One: he holds it and the world revolves around him.” Poking me in the ribs with his cereal spoon, not a word was spoken as he continued shoveling the chocolaty cereal into his mouth. A long day in the OR lay ahead, and even this mouthy Italian Catholic wise guy from the Bronx needed strength from above.


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