Alter Alter Christus: Of Lab Coats, Chasubles, and Playing Priest

The saints themselves constitutionally dressed up like their holy forebears, and, with God’s grace, joined their ranks.

A young French girl poses in a costume of Joan of Arc in the 1880s. About 35 years after this picture was taken, Joan of Arc was declared a saint — and five years after that, the girl in this picture was herself canonized as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “the Little Flower.”
A young French girl poses in a costume of Joan of Arc in the 1880s. About 35 years after this picture was taken, Joan of Arc was declared a saint — and five years after that, the girl in this picture was herself canonized as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “the Little Flower.” (photo: Register Files)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
— St Paul

It’s Lent and we want to get holy – but how?

As with most things, we can take a cue from our children: How do they become what they’re not? By playing dress-up, of course!

Think about little boys who want to be doctors or firemen – they put on lab coats and stethoscopes, or helmets and yellow slickers. Or little girls who long to be moms? They put on aprons and cook on their Fisher-Price stoves, or they burp their baby dolls and change their diapers.

Maria Montessori knew well that such make-believe play is not just fun and games, but a very powerful pedagogical tool. As children tentatively adopt the postures and behaviors of others in play, they’re instinctively following developmental trajectories. The child “imitates not because someone has told him to do so,” Montessori observed, “but because of a deep inner need which he feels.” We become what we pretend to be, and we pretend to be what we want to become. It’s a principle that continues to apply throughout our adult lives.

Certainly it’s what I teach my beginning nursing students. In fact, I tell them that the dramatic arts constitute a hefty chunk of what nursing is all about. Sure, they learn how to give shots, change dressings, and put in tubes – along with acquiring the understanding of why they do those things. But their role as caregivers doesn’t end there. They’re also expected to radiate compassion and concern, even when they may not be feeling compassionate or concerned. Nurses are human, after all, subject to the ups and downs of life like anyone else. Yet once they put on their scrubs, they take on the profession’s identity of caring, and those they encounter expect it of them. Consequently, learning how to act the part, despite interior dispositions to the contrary, is an essential nursing skill.

The same goes for doctors, I imagine, and I have some experience of that firsthand. When I’m in the hospital with my nursing students, I’m often mistaken for a doctor. It’s not that I impress everyone with my erudition and keen medical insights. No, it’s only that I’m male, wearing a lab coat, and carrying a clipboard. If I happen to have a stethoscope on as well, all the better.

My students think it’s hilarious – in part because it happens with such great regularity: in patient rooms, in the halls, in the nursing stations. Just last week, in fact, I followed Kassandra into her patient’s room to supervise a med pass. She introduced me to her patient as her nursing professor (emphasis added via intonation). The patient looked up at me (lab coat, clipboard, beard), and said, “Hey, doc.”

Kass rolled her eyes; I offered my usual corrective: “No, not a doctor – just a nursing instructor.” It didn’t matter. The patient referred to my physician status several more times. He even asked my student if she was going to go on in her studies “to become a doctor, like him,” gesturing toward me with his head. It’s not like I did it on purpose – as if I were attempting a medical masquerade the way Frank Abagnale did in “Catch Me If You Can” (2002). Instead, it’s simply that my appearance overruled my words, and I knew it was going to be difficult to convince Kassandra’s patient otherwise.

In awkward encounters like this, for the sake of time, I sometimes let the tenacious misperception slide and gingerly occupy the amorphous space that separates real nurse from assumed doctor. As my students carry out their tasks, I’ll listen carefully to their patients; I’ll nod my understanding; I’ll try to be present – which is often all people want anyway. And if patients ask questions that only a physician can address, I tell them (truthfully) that they have to ask their regular doctors – that we’ll pass along their questions to their regular staff nurse.

When these episodes come up in post-conference, I take the opportunity to share with my students a parallel story from my pre-nursing days in Chicago. Back then I worked at an Uptown parish, which included within its boundaries Weiss Hospital, a Jewish facility. Every Sunday afternoon, I’d visit the Catholic patients at Weiss and bring them Holy Communion.

One day, as I made my rounds, following a little printout of self-identified Catholics provided by the Weiss chaplain, a nurse spotted me and grabbed my arm. “Hey Father,” she said, “I have a guy that needs to see you.” Again, a corrective (“Sorry, I’m not a priest – just a layman”), but it wasn’t enough. I was in street clothes – no Roman collar - but Chicago Catholics are used to priests wearing street clothes. The fact that I was male and had a pyx filled with God was good enough for the nurse. She dismissed my protests and dragged me to the bedside of her patient.

It turned out to be an elderly Polish man, and as soon as he saw that pyx, he started mumbling in broken English, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…” His wife, seated nearby, broke into tears, and I felt terrible that I had to halt his confession and explain that I really wasn’t a priest – really! I assured them that I’d have my pastor come back straightaway so that he could be shriven, and as I departed I could tell from their eyes that they still didn’t believe me.

There’s a strikingly similar scene in “The Left Hand of God,” an obscure 1955 Humphrey Bogart vehicle based on William E. Barrett’s novel. The movie features Bogart as Jim Carmody, a downed American airman on the lam in war-torn 1940s China. In a bid to escape the clutches of a tyrannical warlord, Carmody takes on the identity of a slain missionary priest, Fr. O’Shea. When Carmody, in the guise of the priest, arrives at a remote mission hospital, the staff and local Catholic flock warmly welcome him. Shortly thereafter, a nurse (Gene Tierney) takes the faux Fr. O’Shea to the bedside of a dying man who’d been lingering in anticipation of the priest’s arrival. Bogart’s character, raised a Catholic, is visibly reluctant to offer any kind of clerical consolation to the man, but the patient nonetheless launches into his confession. He dies before he can finish, and the pretend priest, with all eyes on him, plays his part, blesses the man, and recites an Our Father and a Hail Mary in the company of the gathered faithful.

There’s good reason for the film’s obscurity – it’s definitely not one of Bogart’s best. Bosley Crowther, in his 1955 review, stated flatly that the revelation of Fr. O’Shea’s true identity halfway through is the film’s highpoint. “That's the end of the mystery and, to our mind, the intrigue of the film,” wrote Bosley. I can’t agree, for there are currents in “Left Hand” that I find both inspiring and challenging.

To begin with, there’s the transformation of Bogart’s character, from self-serving renegade to substitute spiritual leader. In time, his deception is exposed, and both the warlord and Church authorities seek to redress Carmody’s actions in different ways. Yet, while it lasts, the fake Fr. O’Shea is compelled by his disguise to rise to the community’s expectations. With some notable exceptions (as when he decks one of the warlord’s emissaries), he carries himself as he imagines a priest would, extending himself on behalf of others, sacrificing and taking risks for them, loving them. In effect, the ruse gradually wears down Carmody’s selfishness, and he finds authentic joy in embracing priest-like selflessness – a selflessness that, in the end, is ironically affirmed and celebrated by both the vindictive warlord and the local bishop.

So that’s one dimension of how the film captures the power of make-believe holiness, but there’s more. “The Left Hand of God” was the last major Hollywood role for Gene Tierney who’d been suffering from debilitating mental illness for years. The demands associated with the film’s production took their toll on her, and she found it difficult to cope. Bogart, whose sister similarly suffered, saw the strain and consulted with the studio heads. “They suggested Bogart be kind and gentle,” Tierney reports in her autobiography. “He was nothing less. His patience and understanding carried me through the film.” Then Tierney adds this illuminating note: “We did not know then that he was himself terminally ill with cancer.” Esophageal cancer, it turns out, for which Bogart was treated in 1956, but which took his life in 1957.

Am I claiming that playing a character who was playing a priest somehow softened the famously hard-living Humphrey Bogart? That priestly garb somehow made him extraordinarily compassionate? Who knows? Bogart was no Catholic, but he must’ve had an appreciation for what the priesthood represented, and surely it’s not out of the question that donning a cassock and collar had some kind of effect on him. The fact that the star who acted the priest had steadfastly bracketed his own intense suffering, while simultaneously doing what he could to alleviate the suffering of his co-star, strikes me as more than mere verisimilitude.

Which brings me back to holiness and children playing dress-up. On All Saints Day, it’s noteworthy that kids don’t parade around Catholic schools dressed as Jesus – who is, after all, the eternal template of holiness, its source and its goal. No, they dress up as saints, many of them priests, and dressing up as such tempers their behavior and makes them (at least temporarily) more saintly. Along these lines, do your kids play Mass at home? Mine used to, especially when they began exploring the liturgy in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – a Montessori approach to religious education. We even purchased miniature chasubles, albs, and stoles to make the immersion as realistic as possible for them: This is what the priest does, this is what he represents, this is what he makes happen on the altar.

And what is the priest? “This is what the priest is — he is the ‘connecting link’ between humanity and God,” declared St. Teresa of Calcutta, “just as Jesus was.” The priest, the priest! The hinge of heaven, the mechanic of the Mass, the ordinary schlub chosen by God and his Church to keep us tethered to our eternal destiny. Are priests holy by definition? No, of course not. Is the priesthood holy by definition? Absolutely! Again, Mother Teresa: “Without priests, we have no Jesus.”

I’m not suggesting that we go home and play Mass with our kids (although that’s not a bad idea). What I’m suggesting is that interiorly adopting a clerical vision can have significant spiritual value for all of us; that imagining ourselves as representatives of Christ, ordained to make him present in the world, can have a salutary effect on our souls. If that’s too weird, then just imagine any old saint in your particular circumstances, consider how he or she would respond, and then act accordingly. Either way, the exercise can help us actualize a fundamental Catholic truth: That the “whole community of believers is, as such, priestly” (CCC 1546). Play-acting as holy priests and saints in our daily lives will help conform our characters to Christ and transform us into the holy people he wants us to be.

If your saintly imagination is spare, then Lent is the ideal time to beef it up by acquainting yourself with more saints – in Scripture, to start with, but also Butler’s and other hagiographic literature. You’ll find that all the saints, like you, were rotten sinners who chose to imitate those who imitate the Lord. They themselves constitutionally dressed up like their holy forebears, and, with God’s grace, joined their ranks.

We can, too.