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Theological Notebook: Bob Krieg Writing on Catherine LaCugna's Death in America

I found myself breaking from my lesson plan on Wednesday while discussing Augustine's Confessions with the students (Book VIII – the build-up to the conversion scene). We had been discussing the role that other people have in conversion stories or in our spirituality/spiritual formation in general. Augustine's enthusiasm for the example of Marius Victorinus in the previous generation, or for his then-current discovery of Antony of Egypt, much less the significance of Ambrose of Milan and his preaching for Augustine's circle in Milan, highlights this role others take. I recalled a lesson with the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna in her Introduction to Systematic Theology course my first year at Notre Dame, where on or around the Feast of All Saints she asked us about "personal saints" in our own lives: what made them saints for us, what made them significant. I asked the students the same question, thinking to approach the previous question from this slightly different angle, which we did to the benefit of the classroom conversation.

A little later, on the bus heading to the East Side, I opened the issue of the Jesuits' journal of opinion, America, which I've repeatedly endorsed here. Much to my surprise, there was Catherine looking back at me, in an article on the upcoming 10th anniversary of her death from cancer written by Bob Krieg, my professor of Christology during my Master's, and the director of my Master's board of examiners. The article, "A Perfect End," isn't something – alas! – I am allowed to re-post here, given America's nature as a subscription magazine, and even my link will only work for subscribers, I believe. But I was much struck by Bob's description of her attitude toward these last days and last trials of hers. Our relationship was very much student/teacher and what friendship I came to enjoy with her was always very much of that formal sort: it was new to hear her in the kind of frankness she shared here with a real friend.
Although Catherine possessed a speculative mind, she knew its limits. As she struggled with cancer, she did not ask, “Why does God allow senseless suffering?” or “Why did this illness befall me?” Rather she observed, “I feel that a struggle between cancer and health, between evil and good, is taking place within me.” And she sought only to answer the question, “How can I cope with this illness so that I remain faithful to God, myself and others?”

My friend’s recognition that some questions cannot be satisfactorily answered in this life has a solid basis in the Bible. According to the Gospels, Jesus never explained why God allows evil. As Job had done, Jesus rejected the notion of divine retribution, for example, when he gave sight to the man who was blind from birth (John 9:3). Although Jesus was deeply saddened by suffering and death, as was evident when he wept at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35), he proposed no theory of evil. Rather Jesus taught by his example and his words how to live amid absurdity: have faith in “abba” (Mark 14:36), who will “rescue us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13); do not allow hardship and injustice to harden our hearts and dull our minds (Matt 5:1-10); do not return evil for evil (Matt 5:39); care for our neighbor in need, especially the poor (Matt 25:31-46); trust that our suffering in union with his is redemptive for all people (1 Cor 11:24; Mark 14:24).

The first lesson: The most fruitful question is, “How can I cope with this tragedy so that I remain faithful to God, myself and others?”
The article was preceded with another Easter-related meditation on what that article called that doctrine of Christianity most rejected by observant Christians: the resurrection of the body. It's certainly true that most people think Christianity as teaching the Greek philosophical idea of the Immortality of the Soul and not the Jewish revelation of the resurrection, and I hadn't really thought of that tendency in terms of a modern Gnostic tendency in people, though that seems fairly obvious once I thought about it. The resurrection of the body is actually a point I stress with my students for precisely that reason: the utter affirmation of matter that one finds in the Jewish-Christian tradition unlike almost all other human spirituality, and which has paid off in such diverse ways as even the rise of the modern physical sciences and their associated technologies. That article seemed a worthy prelude to the article on Catherine to me – an overture of the hope I have to hear my teacher again, speaking in healed voice from immortal body, a physical glory hinted at even in the words everyone cites, as Bob does in his article, of the words on Catherine's tombstone from her book God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life “We were created for the purpose of glorifying God by living in right relationship as Jesus Christ did, by becoming holy through the power of the Spirit of God, by existing as persons in communion with God and every other creature.”
Tags: augustine, books, class-intro to theology, friends-notre dame era, gnosticism, gospels, incarnation, jesuits, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame, obituary, patristics, personal, quotations, resurrection, systematic theology, teachers, theological notebook, trinity
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