Thursday, September 22, 2016

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Why You Shouldn't Kill Yourself: an excerpt from the introduction

Friends, I'm revising a new book now.  It's titled Why You Shouldn't Kill Yourself: Five Tricks of the Heart About Assisted Suicide (to be published by Cascade Books, perhaps in 2017 yet?).  This is more Theology of the Body related than you think!  But obviously other theological matters are at play as well.  I'll excerpt different sections as I work on them and will be requesting beta readers in October...but would appreciate any comments or feedback now, if you have it.  This is the introduction for theologians and pastors.  (There is a second, shorter introduction for the general reader).  

Introduction for theologians and pastors

Nothing would seem more common, more inflexible, more historically stable than the experience of death—our own deaths, or the death of a loved one.  And yet, how we perceive and approach death has changed dramatically (both medically and culturally) in the physician assisted past few decades.  The culmination of these changes is found in increasing public support for physician assisted suicide.  This book tries to present the challenge of physician assisted suicide as a misguided contemporary quest for “safe passage.” 

Phillippe Ariès (1914-1984), a historian of family and daily life, argues that in centuries past human beings died “a tame death.”  That is, dying was a known process that was expected and folded into the realities of everyday life. People died at home, of course, because there were few hospitals.  Medical care was largely palliative care, focused on keeping the person comfortable.  The person dying was usually in the center of known ways of family life until the very end…a bed brought into a living area, for example, and receiving visitors: family, friends, doctors, a priest.  Although dying could be physically and emotionally difficult, there was a reassuring sense of place in it.  Death, indeed, was part of life, along with birth, love, grief, joy, pleasure, and sadness.[1]

But with the rise of modern medicine, Aries says our perspective on the place of death has tilted. Now, we perceive death as inherently wild, and something that we need to domesticate through medical care. The “wild death” is marked by an uncertainty throughout the experience of dying: at the hospital or at home? Will this cure work, or not?  How long should I fight? This looks like the end--but wait, we have other options.  Time in an ICU, away from most family and friends, and surrounded by beeping monitors, is likely.  Aries argues that modern medicine’s quest to cure—in itself a good thing—does unfortunately result in a kind of “technological brinkmanship,” that results in people actively fighting the disease or injury up to hours before they actually die.  People dying never leave fight mode.

Because doctors and patients never leave fight mode, a lack of cure is a perceived, by some, as a failure…as if death is not our common end.

Great work has been accomplished in the nascent hospice movement—a movement that has called for people to have a relatively comfortable experience of dying, ideally at home, with pain issues addressed, and family or friends around.  But most people, at this point, do not know how to be around someone who is dying.  We don’t know how to die at home.  The only dying ritual we know is the one defined by fighting and control. Hospice is quite the counter culture to many, and those who find themselves facing the dying process may not see why anyone would not choose to fight for control.

The contemporary experience of dying, the “wild death,” has become, more and more, a human quest for safe pasage. But most people translate that understandable quest into a desire for absolute control. They see that the only way to not hurt, to avoid pain, is to maintain control.  And physician assisted suicide is the most intense formula for maintaining absolute control.

Not a moral treatment, but written to the spiritually lost

As you can surmise, my approach to this topic is not, in the first place, moral. I do think assisted suicide is gravely wrong, and certainly moral questions are addressed in this text.  (Although physician assisted suicide opens a whole host of moral side issues that I do not touch on much at all: conscience protections for doctors, nurses, and hospices, the voice of family members in decision making, the influence of money--or lack of it--in decision making, the rights of people living with disabilities, and so forth.  But these are being addressed in many venues.[2])  People know suicide is wrong. It takes a lot of mental effort to intentionally end one’s own life: healthy people act to preserve their lives. We actively try to prevent suicide in any other case. The reason increasing numbers of people find physician assisted suicide attractive is that people are spiritually lost.

I do not mean that in any accusatory manner. When you get down to it, we're all a little more lost that we think. But increasingly people have actively chosen not to have a spiritual home, and we know this through the increasing number of surveys that indicate a sharply rising increase in the “nones”—the segment of the population that does not identify with a religion.  Sometimes they self-identify as “spiritual, not religious.”  Sometimes they bear this bumper sticker on their cars: “all who wander are not lost.” I will be candid: many religions in the United States bear responsibility for this. I can understand why people could say they believe in God, but not fully trust religious institutions.  We’ve made trust harder than it should be. 

But…this move to “spiritual, not religious” is clearly not all about institutional trustworthiness.[3] I know quite a few of these people—you do, too—and often they say that their limited experience with a religious home was fine.  Just not essential, and couldn’t compete against the allure of the open road, the freedom of wandering and finding your own way.  We are a country of self-made men and women—or we like to think so—and that is increasingly including our own religion.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, let’s begin with dying, and begin with a story.  One of the most poignant books I have ever read is a memoir called My Own Country by Abraham Verghese,[4] an Indian-American infectious diseases doctor working in the mountains of East Tennessee during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  The book is about how medical doctors came to learn to diagnose and treat that disease when all was mystery and fear--but even more so, the book is about home.  Verghese began noticing that all these initial AIDS patients—mostly homosexual--were from big cities (New York, San Francisco, Chicago).  They were dying, and they knew it.  When they were dying, he realized—all they wanted to do was to come home.  Not even certain that they would be accepted, seeking out a “foreigner doctor” for treatment, not even admitting publicly what they were dying from—they just wanted to come home.  That struck him, and me, as deeply poignant.  In the end, when we are weak, and in some pain, and maybe afraid—that is, dying--we all just want to go home.

The problem with “all who wander are not lost” is that when illness and mortality appear, they want to go home—but do not know how to do so.  When you have dedicated your life to exploring, you probably don’t know where home is.  So people increasingly are attracted to treating dying in the same way that they have treated living—with a focus on freedom, making choices, and being in control of the exploration.  With physician assisted suicide, they are “crafting an end.”  When you have no home, you build your own house, while you still can.  We are self-made women and men.  We take care of ourselves.  Right?

Of course, as Christians, we say there is a home: and that home is God the Father.  Jesus Christ is our guide and mediator, and the Holy Spirit our advocate.  But acknowledging that home, through our Church, requires hanging up the traveling shoes and spending time at “with the family.”  Ultimately, it means allowing God to take care of us rather than create our own end. 
This book is written to the traveler, to the spiritually disoriented. I want to tell them about their journey, and to tell them about home.  The only key to understanding the journey and the homeland is the human heart.

As Christians, we are well aware of the scripture “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8).  Learning you have limited time to live is undeniably God’s voice.  Hardening your hearts is being closed to God’s revelation in your life: not just about your end of this life, but about the good news of the life to come.  The good news that God is not finished with your life and loves you beyond all knowing, and has the power to turn this difficult time to good. 
This book is trying to speak to the human heart, encouraging it to be open to the good news that a natural death will be challenging, but it can also be beautiful.  There is no reason to be afraid, take absolute control, and try to “create an end.” A natural death is, ultimately, safe, and can lead you into God’s life and your destined home.

Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are realities that must be addressed through the human heart.

[1] Phillippe Ariès’ work is referenced a great deal in Daniel Callahan’s popular book The Troubled Dream of Life: In Search of a Peaceful Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 26-27.  Ariès’ most relevant work is translated in English as The Hour of our Death.
[2] An extremely useful compendium of concerns worldwide regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia can be found in David Albert Jones’ “Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: A Guide to the Evidence,” Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford University.
[3] Michael Lipka, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Left Religion Behind,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers blog of The Pew Research Center,
[4] Abraham Verghese, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story (Vintage Books, 1995).

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Giveaway! Three copies of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God's Presence During Childbirth

Friends, it is my pleasure to announce that The Gift of Birth: Discerning God's Presence During Childbirth is published and available for purchase!  Hurrah!

Many of you know this has been in the works for a while.  Those of you who have read Theology of the Body, Extended, this book is a more practical, popular version of the exploration of childbirth as a sign created to point to God.  It is rooted in John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Ignatius of Loyola's work in spiritual direction.  In fact, it is structured to read a (short) chapter at a time as an evening spiritual reflection or "retreat at home" reading.  It is written for women who are anticipating childbirth or processing their previous experience(s) of childbirth, and for all those who minister to pregnant women.  I'm excited this is finally out (I'd say "born" but that is too awful a pun, even for me)!

We are celebrating and trying to spread the word a bit by running a book launch giveaway!  Gracewatch Media is providing three copies to give away...all you have to do is share the book through one social medium, like facebook (with a link to this blog post or the Gracewatch book page), and that earns you one entry.  Another share (say, on Twitter) and you get another entry.  If you have a blog and want to write a blog post with one of those links, you get ANOTHER entry. (And Pinterest, and google+, etc.) And you could, theoretically, do all of these once a day and it would count!  (But no more than that, please.)  Record your shares on the Rafflecopter widget below, and we will get Rafflecopter to randomly choose an three entries as book winners on April 17!

Good luck and share away!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Why is the Theology of the Body important to you?

A friend asked me to write on this, and my first response was "heck yeah!," and my second response was..."oh no...that's a whole new book!"  There is so much in the Theology of the Body, and often it is so misunderstood.... Since I have written on this extensively (Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Gifts of Birth, Impairment, and Dying, The Gift of Birth: Discerning God's Presence in Childbirth, in the background (or foreground!) of many articles, and certainly a deep part of the current book I am writing, Why You Shouldn't Kill Yourself: Five Tricks of the Heart about Assisted Suicide), I think I will do the less wordy thing and go for bullet points instead.

But first, a little candor: I am also a theologian, and part of my "stealth mission" is to introduce John Paul II's anthropology and the potential within it to a wider academic audience. The Theology of the Body is more appreciated in ecclesial circles than some academic circles.  Mind you, good people can disagree on the value of a given argument (get a Thomist and Augustinian in a room and watch them go), but I honestly hold that most of the people who tell me they don't like the Theology of the Body haven't read it, or have encountered some twisted stereotype of it that has badly informed their reading.  We need to be clear what the audiences are about: that God created human beings male and female as a form of incarnational revelation, a sign that we best perceive in relationship that points to our destined relationship to God. The Fall skewed our ability to see and live out this sign, but it remains the reason why humanity was created--and we can see it, with God's help. The audiences are rich (and occasionally difficult), but truly the tip of the iceberg.  We live in a world that is desperately asking what it means to be human any more.  There is wisdom here to answer that question.  So the Theology of the Body is important to me, but I think it could be important to everyone, academic or not.

OK, a few bullet points about the importance of the Theology of the Body (or ToB):

  • Revelation and sacramentality.  So many efforts theologically to recover a thick sacramentality of the human being...and John Paul II's is one of the very best.  The idea that before there even existed the scriptures, there existed the human body--this is a radical notion that changes the way we see and treat the body, not as a machine or vessel or functionary, but as the visible sign of God's revelation in the world.  Many Christians want to say the body is important.  John Paul II's work reminds us why.  p.s. I find it very interesting that many of my Protestant friends and colleagues in Theology (I went to an ecumenical divinity school) are deeply and favorably intrigued by this notion.  It could be a point of ecumenical dialogue....
  • John Paul II's gift to spiritual direction.  I am trained as a spiritual director, and so much spiritual direction is informed by the groundbreaking work of Ignatius of Loyola, the saint who founded the Jesuits and famously proclaimed that we must learn to see God in all things.  The Theology of the Body is about seeing as well, precisely, it is about perception of the divine in human bodies and their relationships.  There are so many insights in ToB that work brilliantly with spiritual direction: the meaning of shame, fear, self-giving, receiving, God in the everyday, vocation, avocation, discernment of spirits, the work of the Holy Spirit.... OK, I'll admit, it's probably the next book!
  • It lends itself to a theology of childbirth.  You guys.  Women make up half the human race and we basically have no theology of childbirth.  How did that happen?  I won't "go there" right now, but although John Paul doesn't say much about childbirth, he opens the door to it and all the possibilities are right there.  If the man and woman are created and told to be fruitful and multiply, and the body exists as sign, then doesn't childbirth serve as an extension of the sign of marriage?  Might it be a form of revelation?  Is that why many women name it one of the most spiritual moments of their lives?
  • It helps us learn how to give our dying bodies to God in love.  That is, it teaches us how to die.  Many refer to the law of the gift or the hermeneutic of the gift as the dynamic heart of the Theology of the Body--and there is another word for it, usually applied to Jesus Christ's death on the cross.  That word is kenosis, or "self-emptying."  It is a rich and loaded theological term, but most importantly here, it teaches us how to die.  Death is a consequence of original sin.  But with Christ's redemption, we can approach death as he did--an emptying of the self into the arms of God the Father, a gift originally received and offered back to God.  We simply don't know how to die in our culture--look at the 17 states considering passing laws on physician assisted suicide right now--and John Paul's insights give us a new art of dying (ars moriendi). 
  • We are not trapped souls.  We are, each of us, a unity of body and soul.  ToB speaks to this is clear ways, undercutting the gnostic tendencies that still reside in Christianity and the wider culture.  Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that (among other things) held the human being was a good soul trapped in an evil body, just waiting for the release of death.  Well, ToB says clearly we are both spiritual and bodily, and these realities are not opposites.  It is a freeing teaching when absorbed, and brings a lens to what it means to be human that is not what our culture typically holds.  ToB, in this regard, is a medicine to our culture.
There are many other things I could mention (understandings of marriage and sexuality, for example), but I wanted to go with some of the lesser known reasons I think ToB is important, the ones that I think need further exploration.  

ToB is important, more important than some people know.  I encourage you to read it with an open mind and discover for yourself.  I'm here to talk about it anytime.

--Susan Windley-Daoust


This will be a a separate post later, but indeed, The Gift of Birth is now out and available for purchase!  This is a more "popular" treatment of the sign of childbirth for any one who has given birth, plans to give birth, or is working with one giving birth.  Lots of ToB, quite a bit of Ignatian spirituality, and many women reflecting on the spiritual nature of their varied experiences giving birth.  Please feel free to share the news!  Available at Amazon in hardcover and softcover, as well as ebook, and at Gracewatch Media in hard and softcover editions.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Presentations, retreats, and o.m.goodness, an award

Happy July, everyone.  I hope summer is warm and restful and has a s'more or two in it.

First, since this is a "book blog," I do need to start with news about Theology of the Body, Extended and its research.  The book has been published for a year now with Lectio Publishing, bless their brave souls.  It's a tough, tough time to start a new academic press.  That is one reason I was really happy that this book (my work and Lectio's work) actually won a national award!  (I know--I'm still floored!) Theology of the Body, Extended won first place in the "Best Book by a Small Publisher" category in the 2015 Catholic Press Association Book Awards.  Here's the jury's blurb:

Really, this is an enormously flattering honor, and I am grateful. 

Other book-related news:  I was happy to offer two workshops at the Diocese of Winona's Ministry Days in June, where 150 priests, deacons, and lay church workers gather to pray and learn for two days.  One workshop was called "Beyond the Wheelchair Ramp: listening to people with disabilities in your parish," and the other was "A Theology of the Dying Body: helping the people of God learn how to die well."  I really enjoyed the conversations with so many great people and getting feedback, and should anyone want me to give those workshops again, or you just want to know what they were about (I have powerpoints, people!), please contact me.  I'd be happy to talk.

At the end of July, I will be offering a directed weekend retreat called "The Gift of Birth: Seeking the Holy Spirit in your Birthing."  Many thanks to the Franciscan Spirituality Center in Lacrosse, WI, for being excited about this and promoting it so well!  There are spaces available if you are a woman who thinks she could become pregnant in the near future (or you are pregnant now).  Please contact them asap if you are interested.  You do not need to be Catholic to attend, although I am speaking from that perspective.

Finally, I have written a spiritual direction-style book titled The Gift of Birth: spiritual insights for expecting mothers.  It is meant to translate ch. 2 in ToB, Extended to a popular audience.  Well, at long last, it is getting published!  If all goes well, it will be available in January of 2016.  (Publisher to be announced...I know, I'm such a sneak, but there are decisions to be made about which imprint within the publisher is best suited to the text.  You will know when I know for sure!).

Thank you, everyone, for your support of this book and the research and argument embedded in it. This has been a long road, but people's responses have been deeply encouraging. Honestly, the last and significant piece of this project is if you appreciate the book, get someone else to read it...ask your library to order it, use it in a class, or a study group/book club (I do Skype, if you're interested in me joining in).  Lectio took a chance on this book, a new look at a topic so hot that some people won't even touch it.  The editors at Lectio have been everything kind in this process, but selling the book is a grass roots movement of sorts.  I honestly don't get lots of money from this; it is not about the money.  It's about better conversation on what it means to be human, and now more than ever, we need those conversations.  We need them in our church, and we need them in our culture.

It you liked the book well enough to recommend it, or review it, or give it to a friend: thank you! 

Last but not least: Lectio has created a facebook page for the book.  I will be posting there from time to time.  Please "like" it if you want to keep up, and/or invite a friend.

Peace, Susan Windley-Daoust

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Help us help families! And the story of my crazy few months....

Blessed Lent, everyone.  The revolution has begin, and I'm up in alms!  (See what I did there?)
Performance art is overrated.

I apologize about my absence on this blog, and hope all of you are well.  I have been, um, busy! Let's see, I've been--
  1. trying to get a second (fully written) ToB book published, called The Gift of Birth
  2. teaching a lot of general education theology in a country where we lost 7.5 million believers since 2012 #frontlines
  3. writing an academic article on reader-response criticism, genre, and the Theology of the Body (trust me, its better than it sounds)
  4. trying to start a second academic article on a Theology of Disability.  The non-academic version is getting published in a couple of weeks (in Sojourners)
  5. lassoing my five kids into school, back home, to various events
  6. negotiating my son Alex's great big surgery to alleviate his CP spasticity this coming May
  7. getting named chair of my department at work, because I guess I looked bored (don't congratulate me, its all the responsibility and none of the power)
  8. continuing to promote my book Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying
  9. considering starting a new book on ToB and physician assisted suicide
  10. pondering my friend Rob Kroese's brilliant statement: "If Pi Day, the Ides of March and St. Patrick's Day could get their act together, they could combine into one awesome celebration of beer, pie, snakes and stabbing."  We so missed an opportunity here.
Oh, and this thing: my husband has been starting a small press devoted to making it easier and more practical for families to pass on the faith!

Here comes the pitch....

Here's the thing. We Catholics have a problem, a big problem. Parents are not teaching the faith to their children. They may be taking them to mass, or enrolling them in Catholic schools.  But they aren't talking about the faith--and all the studies say this has devastating effects.  But to be fair, a lot of parents don't know what to do.  They had poor catechesis themselves, or just aren't comfortable being in a teaching role of any sort.  These parents need family faith helps that are as simple as slapping together a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich: easy, tasty, solid nutrition for the next couple of hours.

My husband used to work as a development editor at a press, and has been doing free lance writing and editing for years.  He's good at design and social media engagement.  he has a solid background (including a master's degree) in Catholic theology.  He can create these books and more.  So in October, he decided to take the plunge and do it.  He created an imprint called Peanut Butter and Grace: books and resources for parents to better teach, pray, and live the faith with their kids, and books for kids to read with their parents.

Amazingly, my teaching career at a small liberal arts mission college and sporadic success as a blogger (erp) has not put us on easy street.  He got a little help to begin this ministry and has made it work so far based on a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  Lack of sleep has factored in too.  But the time has come to fundraise some money to get these items out more quickly.  He has published three books (two books that help children and adults pray the rosary with a classical art image for each prayer, and one book for parents needing ideas beyond saying grace, called 77 Ways to Pray With Your Kids.)


He wants to publish seven more books by the end of the year.  But there are some costs--paying illustrators, copyright permissions, editing costs, and especially marketing.  People love these books so far; if you go to the website, you can read the effusive reviews.  But there needs to be marketing so others know they exist!

To that end, in addition to the top ten items I am also the current "campaign manager" for a month long crowdfunding endeavor to raise some funds to move this press forward quickly and well.  There is a lot more at the website: all about the books, published and upcoming, FAQ, the weekly newsletter with ideas to implement in your family's life this week, and more!  But consider this passing the collection plate.  Brother, if you have a dime, could you drop it in here?  There are perks for this almsgiving, and you have our heartfelt gratitude as well.  

If you don't have a dime, maybe you could spread the word.  Just like you spread peanut butter?  OK, OK, I'm done.  Thanks for reading and I promise to get to writing more ToB related a very busy and embodied life right now.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Looking for deep theological reading this Christmas?

My review of Jeffrey Tranzillo's John Paul II on the Vulnerable is up over at the Journal of Disability and Religion.

Jeffrey Tranzillo has compiled a thick text here: exhaustive, but not exhausting; multi-faceted, but focused. The book is an impressive analysis of the theological anthropology expressed in John Paul II's life and written corpus, with a focus on the category of persons Tranzillo calls “the vulnerable.” As Tranzillo writes, the aim of the book is “to articulate philosophically and theologically the principles that allow us to affirm true personhood and personal agency in vulnerable human beings” (p. xviii). It is an aim generously met.
The vulnerable, in a certain sense, includes everyone: the vocation to be human necessarily involves vulnerability through bodily reality. When Tranzillo speaks of vulnerability, however, he pays particular attention to the most vulnerable: children (in the womb and those already born), the aging, the poor, the socially marginalized, and the disabled. Tranzillo makes a huge contribution here to scholarship on John Paul II and Catholic anthropology in general by tracing the explicit and implicit attention to the vulnerable throughout John Paul II's life work. This book could stand as a rich resource for Catholics (and all Christians) interested in a specifically Catholic approach to a theology of disability.
If Tranzillo had focused entirely on the social encyclicals of John Paul II, there would be little new here. Indeed, John Paul II has been widely acknowledged as a champion of the poor and marginalized, and credited with a renewal in Catholic social teaching across the board. What is new about this work is ....

Yes, a cliffhanger!  If you want to read more, you need to follow the above link.  Or buy it at Amazon. This is definitely an academic text, suitable for upper level undergrads and graduate students in Theology and Philosophy, or people who really love Pope John Paul II and are up for a good challenge.