Sunday, December 22, 2013

Being pregnant during advent, and hospitality

From the book:

Many people are familiar with the story of Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Worker, a radical movement dedicated to serving the needs of the homeless and vulnerable through depending on God’s providence. As a young adult, Dorothy-- a strong-willed young woman in love and living with a man named Forster Batterham, writing for socialist and communist papers in New York City, and joining marches for women’s suffrage and worker’s rights--found herself pregnant. In fact, she was pregnant for the second time; she had an abortion of an earlier pregnancy by another man. This pregnancy, wholly unexpected since she had thought she was barren after the earlier abortion, she was determined to bear--despite Forster’s objections and her own precarious financial situation. While pregnant, she decided that the baby must be baptized in a faith she wished she could fully embrace herself. She was attracted to Catholicism, sitting in the backs of churches full of people she was trying to stand in solidarity with, the working immigrant poor of New York City--but she hesitated to become Catholic, in significant part because it would mean the end of her relationship with Forster. When recounting this story, Jim Forest, a friend of Dorothy Day as well as her biographer, said “And this birth, the birth of Tamar Teresa, was a turning point, the beginning of her ministry of hospitality. It all began with the hospitality of the womb.”[1]

[1] Jim Forest lecture, March 2002, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (Winona, MN). Forest’s most recent biography of Dorothy Day is All Is Grace: A Biography Of Dorothy Day, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2011.

Three of my five children were held in my womb during advent. It's a common experience for pregnant women--a nine month pregnancy does cover most of the year, and the chance of hitting advent is high.  But it's a privileged time to be pregnant and to hear of another pregnancy, Mary's childbearing of Jesus.

So much of pregnancy can be just uncomfortable.  Even painful., sometimes scary.  But there is also something like holding a great secret.  And  the real sense that you are able to nurture and care for your child by doing so little, really--eat, a little exercise, sleep.  It may be the one time in life that living out your vocation given by God doesn't require any real thought or deliberation: at this point, it's simply about providing the other room to be and grow.

This is a note that Dorothy Day's biographer Jim Forest highlights beautifully: Dorothy made a decision to offer her child the hospitality of the womb, and all of her hospitality to the most vulnerable in society began in a concrete way with that experience of making room for a child of God.

So much of the Gospel of Matthew's nativity story is about a lack of room: no room (initially) in Joseph's heart for a miracle child, no room at the Inn, no room in Bethlehem thanks to Herod and a hurried flight to Egypt.  But Mary made room, and we all make room when we embrace a pregnancy as God's work.  And soon enough it will be work: the labor, the raising.  But for a few more days, we get to practice hospitality by simply breathing, eating, drinking, and resting as needed.  This end of advent, let us remember Mary's hospitality, and our own call to hospitality as we understand it in our state of life.  And I wish all of you a blessed Christmas.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Article published: "The Sign of the Dying Body: How the Theology of the Body Helps Us To Die In Love"

Thank you to the good folks at Homiletic and Pastoral Review for choosing to publish this article I wrote.  A number of the pastoral themes in the chapter on dying in the main book are presented here. 

This may be the closest you get to a sneak peek of the book, so go take a look if you're interested!

Friday, November 15, 2013

An open letter to Anne Lamott

Dear Anne,

I hope you don't mind that I call you Anne.  It's your Christian name, and you may call me by mine: Susan. I'm writing this publicly in part because I have no idea how to get your address.  I guess your story has been so public I feel I can address you publicly as well.  But also because even though I am addressing you, in a sense, I am addressing many.

Anne, I have heard you say that even though you call yourself a foot washing revival tent born-again Christian, and have written numerous memoirs and essays about walking the Christian life, you don't feel especially accepted in those evangelical circles because of your background and politics.  Well, I'll be straight up: I'm Catholic and sometimes I feel the same way, mostly because I reject both political parties and am as close to a pacifist as a person can get.  I'm happy to be Catholic, devoutly Catholic, and by the way, a big Pope Francis fan-girl (I bet you are too): but I know the feeling getting labeled "outsider."  So I write this to you hoping we can eschew labels for a few minutes and recognize each other as one friend of Jesus Christ to another.

I have read your essay "At Death's Window" many times over the years, where you write out how you came to help in the assisted suicide of a long time friend and cancer sufferer named "Mel," at his request.  I can understand wanting to help a friend who is suffering.  I hope every Christian, indeed every human can understand that.  It is certainly the way of Jesus, who never turned away a person who cried for help.  But every time I read it, I stumble straight out of the shoot when you say:

He and his wife still loved each other very much, but he'd lost the ability to do the things he had most loved to share during their 30 years together: to cook and overeat, hike and travel. He had always been passionately literary, but he was losing the ability to read and write, which had defined his life. Both elegant and down-to-earth, with lifelong depression and a rich, crabby sense of humor, he was 60 when he was diagnosed with cancer. ...

Everyone recommended that he contact a hospice provider to help with pain management, but this was not his way. He said that if it was just his body deserting him, maybe. But his mind? His ideas? His self?
The essay goes on multiple times to say Mel would no longer soon be himself.  And that prospect pained you and perhaps terrified him.  So you offer to help him "end life on his own terms."

Here's what I wonder, with sadness.  What would have happened had Mel continued to live until his natural death?  OK, let's get it out there: let's assume given the nature of his disease he would have been mentally absent at the end, and yes, that would have been terribly hard, maybe the hardest reality of his life.  He would have needed the constant care of others for feeding, toileting, bathing, and medication for comfort.  24 hour care.  Yes.

But this man, who you say dealt with lifelong depression--and a symptom of that is an inability to feel loved--would have had love lavished on him in the most concrete ways.  I know you would have done this, Anne, and it sounds like his wife and other friends would have rallied as well.  Maybe, mental constructs frayed, he would have felt loved in a way he couldn't before.  If people responded by saying "I love you and will help you live and die as well as possible, because no matter what happens, you are so much more than your mind, your ideas, your 'self'?  Your goodness is not qualified by what you can do...."  What would have happened?  Another symptom of depression is constant questioning whether your life has meaning.  What would have happened if people said and did the hard thing: I will stand by you throughout this passage because you are you, you have meaning to me and to God, no matter what this disease does to your body?  Would something have clicked?  Would it have been a witness, a pointing to our dependance on the goodness of God?  The thing is, with assisted suicide, you'll never know.  And although I do not think you consciously meant it this way, what does it say to agree with a person that your life is what you can do, to the point of ending it when you're not as productive anymore?  There are all kinds of examples throughout history of people deciding for others that they no longer meet the mark of usefulness, and end their lives.

Now, this is where you say, Anne, "But he requested this.  This was his free choice."  And you're right, that's true.  We all have free choices.  (Hey, don't argue free will with a Catholic--we're all for it!)  But the choices have consequences.  I'm not going to say he knowingly committed an ultimate rejection of God in choosing to end his life before its time, because I cannot know whether he fully understood what he was doing there.   Who knows?--not me, certainly, only God.  But choosing to end his life through assisted suicide had consequences: who knows what possibilities (and yes, life still has rich possibilities even on your deathbed) were closed off through this act?  Who knows what love was unexpressed?  The death scene you describe sounds relatively idyllic, but I read it and thought--where are their adult children?  Or other friends who may have thought there were months to live, to connect?  To put it as directly as I dare: an experience of Jesus Christ changed both of our lives, Anne.  He gave us meaning and hope in some very, very dark times.  How do we know that Mel wouldn't have been given that grace as well?

At one point in the essay, you say you were sure that God would be with him and all of you no matter how this shook down.  I'm sure of that too, because God never abandons us.  God is kind of nutty in love with us that way: that's the cross for you.  But we need to choose to live our lives--and honor others' lives--in such a way that opens US to God's love for us, and trusts God can work in some flat out lousy and hard circumstances.  I'm recalling two other lines from different books you have written: one is "God loves us exactly where we are, and God loves us too much leave us in that place" (that's a paraphrase, sorry), and the culminating line of your conversion, after sensing Jesus' presence for days: "Alright, $%& it.  You can come in." (Yes, its a family friendly blog).  When someone close to me is suffering or dying, I would invite (in fact, beg) Jesus to "come in."  I would remind him that he has said he loves us too much to leave us in this awful place and act, do something, help us see where he is in this, help my dying friend have courage and peace. 

Why am I writing?  Honestly, Anne, I want you to see that dying is hard but it can also be a place where God is especially present, the veil lifted.  I do want you to see that ending another's life is wrong, not because I'm a rule freak and lacking in compassion, but because we need to trust Jesus and let him be in control.  Jesus Christ IS our compassion, and he will manifest it for us and through us if he let him come in, and take our sticky hands off the wheel (I think that is one of your lines too).  Assisting someone's suicide is seeking a control over life and death that belongs to God.  And for all of you who agree with Anne, who take the movie Million Dollar Baby as your moral guide, please: this is for you as well.  Just put your name in Anne's spot.

Finally, Anne, I'm not sure if Mel's final gift to you (the framed picture of Lincoln before he was shot, the deep sorrow and compassion in his eyes) haunts you.  It haunts me.  Please, think about it.  And you may hate me for writing this public letter, or not. I hope not.  But you can contact me if you wish (my email is pretty easy, it's on the sidebar), and I promise I would keep any communication confidential from here on out.

As a Catholic, we honor November as the month where we pray for the dead.  I will pray for Mel.  I will also pray for you.  Perhaps you can pray for me as well.  We are family.

Peace and all good,
Susan Windley-Daoust

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Theology of the Body, Extended: to be published summer 2014, Lectio Publishing

Publication announcement!

The Theology of the Body, Extended: the Spiritual Signs of Childbirth, Impairment, and Dying has been accepted by a new Catholic academic publisher, Lectio Publishing.  It is part of the "first wave" of peer-reviewed books for release in Summer 2014, and will be available as a paperback and ebook.  The slightly revised text is in their hands (I've been sitting on this news a few weeks now.  Sorry!).

This is definitely exciting: to see this research and then manuscript come to fruition, receive positive peer reviews, and have the confidence of a new and interesting academic enterprise in Catholic theology is just a great thing. I am very humbled.

I deeply thank people who follow this website and are on the email list for their support.  If you want to be on the email list, there is still time, just find the address on the sidebar at right.... I promise not to overuse the email list; it's just to tell people when the book is available, and perhaps other publication-related news (cheap copies for reviewers? etc.).

In the meantime, I will update this website more regularly with topics and issues related to the topic.  I am writing a review for Jeff Tranzillo's excellent book John Paul II and the Vulnerable, coming soon, and also want to write some reflections on Pope Francis' call for an extraordinary synod on the family, which strikes me as relevant to this topic in important ways.  Also, I am working up a variety of more popular public presentations on this topic, if you are interested in having me at your parish or retreat center--and an online article is set to be published next month.  Please continue to "be connected" if you are interested in this topic, and let's keep conversing!

Many thanks, Susan WD

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West

I have never encountered a book that was more stylistically “pitch perfect” to not-necessarily-religious-but-I-don’t-know-for-sure college students.

People who have even a passing knowledge of the Theology of the Body as implemented in the United States know Christopher West: he is easily the most prolific popularizer of the audiences.  What is different about this text is that he is paying prime attention to the first half of the audiences, the theological anthropology, rather than second half, the morality and sacramentality of marriage (where he has directed most of his work).  Fill These Hearts is a welcome addition and a very appealing interpretation of the Theology of the Body’s anthropology.

The purpose rings clear as a bell throughout: “…the simple and, at the same time, lofty goal of this book is to help us aim our desire according to God’s design so we can safely arrive at our eternal destiny: bliss and ecstasy in union with God and one another forever.” (xv)  He calls this "living in 3D" (clever), and takes a page from John Paul II by focusing on the importance of how we interpret what we see.  As we walk through life, what do we perceive?  It is a highly visual book, replete with pointed reflections on art (pop and classical), movie (somewhat religious and entirely secular), and song (mostly from classic rock radio, but with a traditional hymn or two in there as well).

I’m very sympathetic to this presentation, since his interpretation of the theological anthropology of the audiences bears real similarities to my own (that is, we’re both highlighting certain sections of the audiences): a focus on seeing rightly, a focus on the original sign of the human being, and a focus on desire as the active expression of that sign…often warped by original sin.  It’s not an academic text, but it is faithful to both the audiences and the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI (who he quotes at some length), and the Communion and Liberation call for the primacy of “encounter.”  

In short, my review is: absolutely worth reading as a canny, young adult-oriented introduction to John Paul II’s theological anthropology.  As for academics, perhaps this is how you begin to teach to a hostile crowd that doesn’t know any significant theology.

Now for the second half of my posting: things I learned teaching college students through this text.
I teach a general education (aka required for graduation) course in theological anthropology; it is the students’ second course after a scripture requirement.  There are quite a few students at my university who are very devout Catholics.  After all, we have a minor seminary, and there are other active Catholics as well.  But the student population mirrors much of American culture: most of them, Catholic or not, come in “spiritual but maybe not religious.  Just not sure about that.”

This text electrified most of the class.  People really resonated with the treatment of desire, were open to the treatment of design, and were really thinking through consequences by the time we got to destiny.  As a professor, it struck me as an ideal first text before moving into more “academic theology” and primary sources.  Indeed, we went from this text to reading Augustine's Confessions, and they got it: Augustine wasn't an overly guilt-ridden sex addict who talks too much about his sinfulness.  He was a man with disordered desires who opened himself to a new way of seeing through grace.

What was intriguing to me was how they latched on to a piece that West has been criticized for in the past: West writing from the perspective that people have received a Christian upbringing that was cold, stoic, and rule-centered.  Some have criticized West that most Catholics after Vatican II simply have not had that upbringing: the stereotype is more “felt banner and singing about God’s love round the campfire” (which is not a fair stereotype, but moving on).

These students thought the cold stoic Church description was right on.  The Christianity they know, they say, is ALL about rules.  This “frame” (as West calls it) of desire, design, and destiny, wrapped in God’s lavish love, was seen as truly radical.

The thing is, that is not their experience—because a lot of them have no experience of being in a Christian church outside of major holidays.  The Church they “know” is a bizarre echo chamber of their parents’ apathy and fear, the culture of the mainstream press and movies, and a projection of their fears.  It doesn’t exist.  But for them, the echo chamber is keeping them from listening to the wisdom of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons West’s approach is effective is because he is talking to Christians, especially Catholics, who have fundamental misconceptions of what Catholic theology is about: and he addresses those misconceptions head on.  You shouldn’t end your reading of theology with West (does he ever argue that?  of course not), but this book whets the appetite for a faith seeking understanding that they do not know they have.  People on the inside forget that teaching theology in American culture neither builds on a solid catechetical foundation, nor a blank slate.  We unteach before we teach.  Christopher West’s popularity in many young adult circles—to the point of people saying things such as “the Theology of the Body changed my life!”—is attributable directly to West exposing the delusion of this echo chamber and presenting the revelation of Christianity in both the natural world of signs and the Church they clearly do not yet know.  He is a dazzling "unteacher," and this book makes space to truly explore what it means to be human.

It’s a potentially life-transformative book.

(By the way...apparently there is a tour.  Having read the book and not experienced the tour, I can say the book stands on its own.   But I could see how multisensory presentation on this book would  be profoundly effective.  I'd be interested to hear perspective from someone who has experienced it.)


p.s. good news on my own manuscript is JUST about ready to be announced!  Stay tuned!

Friday, July 19, 2013

What would a conversation between John Paul II and Jean Vanier be like?

Jean Vanier pictured in 2008 (Photo: CNS)
Jean Vanier pictured in 2008 (Photo: CNS)
 Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together, is to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
For the first time in its history the US-based award is being taken overseas, to France, where Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport, Iowa, will present the award to Vanier in the village where he founded L’Arche in 1964.

The award honours Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”)....
(More of the news article here.)

I have joked to some people that the third chapter of this manuscript, on the sign of the impaired body, is pretty close to planting John Paul II and Jean Vanier in the same room and watching them have the conversation they should have had when both were alive.  They did meet--but as far as I know, no in depth conversation occurred.  Vanier's way of gentleness and openness to the other, and his focus on being an embodied ecclesial community, is lived out in L'Arche communities worldwide--and has points in common with the spirituality and phenomenology of the Theology of the Body.  Vanier and John Paul II both began as students of philosophy, and one sense that although they may be on different pages, they play from the same book.

A clip from the manuscript on Vanier and the Theology of the Body:

Vanier (and others) exemplify the phenomenological attitude when they affirm that  L’Arche is “a sign, not a solution.”....

The sign of  L’Arche fleshes out the shared reality of limitation and weakness and the common reliance on the unlimited strength of God, and points to the divine call to love as God loves. The mission of  L’Arche, as stated in its charter, is simultaneously ambitious yet humble: “Our mission is to create homes where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured. We want to reveal the unique value and vocation of each person, and to live relationships in community as a sign of hope and love.”[3] The process of living in community together involves acknowledging weakness, and confronting fear with the concrete power of love. The end of the lived experience is celebration and joy: not that every moment is joyful, or a celebration, but that the lived experience is a real gift of life shared.

But Vanier also says that community is not achieved but received, not a goal but a gift. Living together, guided by the above mission, opens our hands to receive that gift. And in doing so, he undercuts what I think can be a subtle temptation: the purpose of welcoming people with disabilities into small community, into the Church, into our families, is not first and foremost to witness. It is a response to a call from God to love as God loves. It requires a “spiritual seeing,” as Scheler would say, that all human beings are our brothers and sisters, called in Christ to be adopted sons and daughters of God. In doing so, Vanier clarifies what seems to be a temptation among first readers of the Theology of the Body literature: as central as the doctrines of Incarnation and incarnation are, the audiences are not about seeing the body of oneself or another in isolation. It is about the visible lived experience of call to love and response to love, of relationship to God and others. It is about the divinely ordained witness to love. This is seen in a powerful way by the union of a man and woman in sacramental marriage, and as John Paul II argues, was given to us at the dawn of creation as a sign of how we are called to be in union with God. I argue this can be seen in a woman giving birth, yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, living out the “pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness” through answering the call to motherhood.  The relationship of those who are obviously impaired to those of us who are less obviously impaired gives us practice in loving one another without preconditions, in accepting our identity as beloved children of the Father, and in sensing how our mutually sensed limitation and weakness points to God as our fulfillment. The sign is fully manifest in the finite human being’s relationship to the infinite God and each finite other.

[1] A good summary of this notion is provided by John Swinton, in the preface of Living Gently in a Violent World, 17.
[2] Living Gently in a Violent World, 34.
[3] The Paradox of Disability, 60.

Congratulations to Vanier and L'Arche for this well deserved award!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Theology of the Body for Every Body": a book review

Leah Perrault’s Theology of the Body for Every Body (2012): book review


It’s the incarnation, stupid. 

True, Leah Perrault is nothing but gracious when she writes Theology of the Body for Every Body (MontrĂ©al: Novalis, 2012).  She would never say “stupid.”  But she does take her experience as a pastoral minister (as director of Pastoral Services in the diocese of Saskatoon) , a wife and mother of young children, and a teacher and writer on the Theology of the Body audiences to say with infectious joy: the Theology of the Body is about the incarnation of God and the bodily realities of being human.

Perrault (who also wrote a book on dating and the Theology of the Body) argues that the Theology of the Body literature is, more than anything, about what it means to be human.  Most secondary interpreters focus on the sexual ethics within the audiences, and Perrault adds to that conversation in new ways.  But she sees opportunities lost if we do not pay attention to “the first 500 pages of the audiences”: the theological anthropology and spirituality of John Paul II.

This is not an easy task.  As she notes, John Paul II’s audiences are less linear, more thematic and circular in their argument.  The audiences, especially here, have the feel of a theological exploration, full of wonder and mystery.  But what John Paul does theologically is internally consistent, and best broken down through thematic treatment. 

In Part I, Perrault uses short, eminently readable chapters to introduce salient motifs within the audiences: John Paul’s understanding and use of human experience, scripture, “original man,” the spousal meaning of the body, sacramentality, seeing through hope, and the philosophy of the acting person.  As one who has written an anthropology of the audiences, I applaud her for the succinct thematic summary (I wish she had included a treatment of John Paul II’s Carmelite influences, but otherwise, I think she hits all the high notes).   Besides providing some background outside the audiences, she peppers the first half of the book with pastoral examples.

But what may really open people’s eyes is the second half of the book, “Living the Theology of Our Bodies.”  Perrault’s own background as a pastoral minister serves us here as she moves through narrative after narrative of Christians, young and old, single and married and divorced and widowed and consecrated, facing messy realities that require discernment as to how to give oneself to God through others.   While Perrault connects the dots in some of the narratives to the Theology of the Body themes, other narratives are left to stand as evocative possibilities.  It is fascinating and poignant reading, made important by the implied challenge given the reader: how is this lived reality--a decision between two goods, a process of dying, an opportunity to address a family conflict--a sign that points to God?

This is a joyful and practical book, written with conviction and deep knowledge of the Theology of the Body literature and its possibilities in helping people live in a way more open to God’s work within their selves and the world.  I hope this publication marks the beginning of a sustained turn to the spiritual anthropology of the audiences, which not only grounds the audiences' latter section on the sacrament of marriage, but also provides a rich and deep way to see what it means to be created human, in relationship with the world, and destined for union with God. 

--Susan Windley-Daoust
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
July 16, 2013