Monday, October 19, 2009

Faith and Work: Reflections On My Patron Saint's Special Day

Today is the Feast of Saint René Goupil, patron saint of anesthetists. Time for a saint cake! (Any time it's the feast day of a saint we like, my family and I try to celebrate with a special cake. Good excuse, right? :) )

From time to time I try to reflect on the intangible, even spiritual, aspects of my profession. I have come to be wary of this now-irritating word, "spiritual;" it means so many different things to different people. I write about faith and medicine, but that too leaves me feeling cautious; people sometimes equate the word faith with belief or religion, whereas to my mind faith is a more catholic term, signifying a way of relating to the world and one's life, based on deep convictions. By this definition, theists and atheists alike have faith - a way of approaching and living life, and a vision of what a person's life should be.

My personal faith is informed, but not defined solely, by my upbringing as a Catholic Christian. Sometimes I feel I am very much an agnostic, almost an atheist. But not quite. There has always been a part of me that is drawn to the hope and joy of Christianity. I have written about all this at length on this blog and won't rehash it now, but today's feast day calls to mind the way my faith enters into (or sometimes fails to enter into) my work.

My faith teaches me to regard every individual - patient or coworker - as sacred and endowed with intrinsic dignity, regardless of what he or she has done or experienced.

It teaches me that suffering, sin, and death are part of life - and that the face of each patient is the suffering Christ right beside me.

The clues I derive from Christ's actions in the Gospels - especially his acts of healing - suggest to me that suffering is not the will of God - if such a God as Jesus described exists - for the people of the world. That pain and violence are NOT what we're meant for. That we should spend our lives trying to reverse it, prevent it, heal it as much as we can (as Jesus did), and serve others, or we are wasting our time.

My faith defines love for me as the energy behind such work: a living, working affirmation of the dignity and sacredness of another. Being a good professional, an educated physician, a doctor with integrity, a reliable colleague, someone my patients can trust to care for them - these are all acts of love in my worldview. My faith.

My faith was criticized - attacked, even, I felt - on another blog's comment board a couple of years ago. I felt hurt by the narrow-minded and openly hostile attitude I encountered there. But after I picked myself up and dusted myself off, I decided that what I had described about my approach to medicine had to remain unchanged. I had a clear definition in my own mind of what I meant, and perhaps expressed it inartfully or too cheesily for others' comfort, but it was still true and I hoped it always would be.

I think it's all too easy to forget the meaning and spirit of service - the subject of the Gospel reading for this past week. Fatigue and frustration can make for lapses into cynicism or scorn or whiny complaint; I was engaged in the latter just this past weekend, when we had to be in the O.R. off and on all day and in the middle of the night, until about three in the morning. But I believe we're constantly supposed to try to work past that self-centered attitude.

I believe there should be reverence in every touch, word, look, and smile; this is the standard to which I try to hold myself. Competent medical practice and patient care are more than a duty; to me they are a way of living out the kind of love for fellow-human-being that our daily life and work should entail. I echo, then, the words we say at liturgy on occasions when we renew our baptismal vows: "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it."


Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

I am jealous that you can still find a place in your mind and soul for the present Catholic Church. I think my feelings towards the Catholic Church have become completely tainted by what I know of the reality of how it truly operates, both now and in the past.And the feminist in me can't forgive the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

That said, the teachings of Jesus are beautiful, and I try to live my life according to them. And I do so love the music that I sing with my choral group, most of it written for that same Church. And the old churches and cathedrals are so beautiful

If I could find a religion that was just the music, I'd join it in a heartbeat.

T. said...

Peggy - don't be jealous! I have PLENTY of objections to how WRONG the Church has been about many things both throughout history and in the present day. Anyone who enumerates the Church's failings is preaching to the choir (so to speak) with me! All religions are riddled with human failings. All. People just SUCK sometimes (pardon my French)!

I think it helps that I go to a Jesuit parish led by thoughtful, educated, intellectual people not afraid to engage in conversation on difficult matters. There is much that IS holy and good about the Church, just as there is much that can be sickening. It helps me to know that the jerk-versus-jerk conflicts have been going on since Peter and Paul - like, right from the start! People are people, no matter what century it is.

I think what really keeps me "in the fold" (although many of me beliefs place me squarely out of the fold), besides story and ritual (I've written about that before), is Catholic Social Teaching. From this same frustrating institution came hospitals and relief work, support of the struggling and the abandoned, a regard for the "humblest" members of society as deserving of help, protection, and respect.

And the music. I so agree with you about the music. It's so telling; all the most soul-stirring music in the Church lies close to what's at the heart of the Church - an expression of the love of Christ in this world. All the rest - the Pharisaic nitpicking, exclusion, judgment, lack of mercy, and small-mindedness that is probably just as intense in conservative brackets of ANY church or religion - are human trappings that weigh down the true Church: the "People of God."