Lenten Reflection: Charley Rardin

Lenten Reflection by Charley Rardin

March 4, 2020


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity, as a new Deacon, to write the “Deacons’ Bench” section of the newsletter, and I took that opportunity to challenge us to see Central as more than just a source of comfort, that in fact sometimes what we need is to be rattled out of our complacency, at least a little bit.  Well, now with an opportunity to share with you, in public, some of my own faith journey thus far, I think I feel just the right amount of rattled.

As a good New England mainline protestant, I choose to consume religion discreetly, mostly privately.  My defenses go up when I hear someone assert their own Christianity too aggressively, or even too early in the conversation, because I feel that, too often, my own religion has been weaponized to support a stance I do not support, and the God of my faith must surely find puzzling.

I grew up in Philadelphia, third of three sons to a Methodist minister father, and a teacher/writer mother.  As a Preacher’s Kid, church was sort of a given, but I recall that it stopped being much of a struggle after Confirmation class.  Dad always seemed to have a pretty open and accepting approach to Christianity; his pre-dinner prayers were sometimes spontaneous riffs on whatever had moved him that day, but were often some form of the Hebrew “baruch atai Adonai…”  My sense of my mother’s was also pretty flexible – what mattered to her was not the literally of the biblical stories and miracles, but the comforting assurance that, had God really wanted it to have happened that way, well he certainly could have done so.

I went to a Quaker school, where the sense of “there is that of God in every person” makes for a pretty religiously tolerant environment.  There is not a lot of bible-thumping in the quiet of a Quaker Meeting for Worship. We good naturedly-joked that “Germantown Friends School is where Episcopalians teach Jews how to be good Quakers.”  Like most alumni of Quaker education, we complained about having to sit quiet and still in a room where no-one was speaking, but as soon as we moved on to college, we actually missed that weekly ritual of stillness.

Perhaps for some folks, this more permissive sense of being a Christian isn’t, well, enough.  As we enter Lent, I ponder why it is that I never developed the rhythm or ritual of Lenten forbearance, of giving up something in order to be closer to Jesus and his time of darkness and hunger.  A good family friend of ours made what I thought was the surprising move of converting from Quakerism to Catholicism, and while I’m sure there was a lot more to it, my memory of his explanation was that he needed a religion where God’s strength was much easier to observe.

The study of medicine is an interesting anvil against which to shape the metal of your faith.  Actually, your faith is probably the anvil, but I’ll keep working on that metaphor. For some, the scientific study of the body and its mechanisms of development and repair, represent the desire to “look under the hood,” to explain away the stories of miracles we heard when we were young.  But the more that I learn about science and medicine, the deeper my conviction that science is not a contradiction of mystery; if anything, it is a way of appreciating mystery more deeply. Evolution is truly elegant (and at its allegorical roots, I don’t think the creation story is inherently at odds with science and evolution.  The time frame may be different, but the miracles are the same – bringing forth life from the earth is that much more compelling when your understanding of the symphony of processes required for life is deepened).

Sometimes this is an abstraction, but sometimes it is very real, and present, and insistent.  During Gross Anatomy, where first year medical students have the opportunity to learn anatomy in a very real way, I had such a compelling moment.  With faltering fingers and not-yet-elegant movements, my lab partners and I prepared to remove the back of the vertebral case from the spinal cord.  It’s not like in the textbooks, tissue is not color-coded and labeled in real life, it felt messy and imprecise. But when the bone was lifted away, there was the spinal cord, in a kind of silvery perfection, becoming the cauda equina as each of the nerve bundles headed out from the protection of the vertebral column and out to carry its designated signals to and from the body.  My partners told me later that they heard me gasp, “wow – nice work, God!”

And later, the retina.  To hold in your fingers the impossibly delicate membrane where the chaotic reality of electromagnetic radiation – light – had been focused and captured, and translated into 78 years of visual memories of this woman who had given her earthly remains so that we might learn from them.  Staggering moments. The medical school had been through this enough times to know that, whatever the religious backgrounds of the students, the memorial service at the conclusion of Gross Anatomy to pay our respects to those who had made this donation was always of enormous value to each of us.

So yes, now I am a surgeon, and I take none of this for granted.  And yes, whether a small case or a more consequential one, a few quiet moments at the scrub sink find me centering my thoughts and feelings with a silent recitation of The Lord’s prayer before the surgery.

This medical/mystery interplay is not always so positive.  One of my favorite quotes of my father’s is the sage advice to “take your anxieties, and turn them into curiosities.”   Dad’s Parkinsons Disease has largely frozen the body that would toss me up in the air or come to watch my high school baseball games.  But far worse than that, it has interfered with the neural signaling in his mind, taking his curiosity, and wisdom, and replacing much of it with confusion, hallucinations that create a paranoia wherein those that love him the most sometimes become part of the conspiracy against him.   My having some knowledge of the neurochemistry involved really does not take the edge off of it; it is hard to find divine justice or a grand plan in that.

So then I go to another of my favorite quotes of Dad’s:

“Well, Hallelujah, anyway”

Posted in 2020 Lenten Reflections, Lenten Reflections.