Imagine: You start having odd symptoms. Your doctor does a scan of your head. There is a tumor. Two treatments are possible: each has very serious risks. How do you decide?
That is the situation Rev. Catherine Stewart faced a few years back. The journey that follows is the subject of her new book, A Goodness I Cannot Explain: A Medical-Spiritual Memoir.
Now since she actually wrote the book some years after the events, I won’t need to shout out “SPOILER ALERT” when I tell you that she lives.
But knowing that she lives to, as it were, tell the tale, there is much good to be found here. The book will be a particularly good fit for two groups of readers.
For people facing medical crises
First, this is a book for people facing difficult diagnoses or complicated medical decisions–as well as those who love someone in such a situation. Cathy lays bare her inner world in the midst of struggles many of us will someday deal with.
The author is a Presbyterian minister who has delved deeply in to Catholic spiritual practices, particularly through association with Benedictine communities. She writes openly of her long experience with lectio divina and spiritual direction.
She lets us know from the beginning that her practice of lectio divina was the key to making her difficult medical decision, but we also see here held up through relationships with her family and her congregation, all of whom offered a variety of spiritual insights.
The process and the decision ultimately depended on these pillars of her spiritual life. This was not an abdication of the intellectual, but an embrace of the whole and the human.
That is, she did copious amounts of research into the science of her ailment and its treatments. But science, rather than giving clear objective answers, left her with risks and questions that could only be answered on internal criteria.
Her process was not simplistic. She did not simply hear a voice making the decision for her. And she did not measure the rightness of the choice she made on the medical success of the outcome.
She found a path that allowed her to know that God remained with her in the midst of her crisis, and God gave her permission to make a wise choice that fit.
So, if you need good company through your own health crisis, here’s a book for you.
For those who love spiritual memoir
The other audience for this book is those who love spiritual memoir.
There are different kinds of memoir, of course: Some tell a classic story with cliff-hangers, and a final crisis. Others chronicle gentler journeys and learnings during a particular season of life.
This is of the latter variety. The tone is measured, the pace is leisurely, and for the most part we know the outcome when we start. It is the inner journey that matters.
Cathy has cultivated a remarkable openness with us, her readers. As well as the primary medical decision we get to see her struggle with troubling symptoms, difficulties in recovery, and deep emotions.
The great thing, though, is that we see her face it all in the context of a very prayerful life. And in an era where many faithful Christians are longing for a richer, more engaged spiritual life she can be a role model.
Especially useful is her example of a modern variation on lectio divina. I’ve written on classic lectio, which is a prayerful engagement with a passage of Holy Scripture. Cathy, like a number of other passionate Christians I know, applies the framework of lectio to all kinds of things, including life situations like medical crises.
I think this modern variation works best if there is a foundation of the classic version of the practice, filling heart and mind with biblical insights. But taking lectio divina as a stance toward life can, as Cathy shows in her book, nurture a deep mindfulness and provide a way of listening to God.
The Benedictine tradition has clearly been fruitful for her. I was struck, though, by the thought that teachers of the Ignition tradition have a very great deal to offer in this regard, and a more direct path to the kind of spiritual life exemplified here. I wondered if Stewart might find herself drawn (and if readers who like her work might find themselves drawn) to writers like Margaret Silf.
You can pick up Cathy’s book on Amazon:
I’m giving a free copy of the book to a randomly selected reader of this post. Just leave a comment below to be eligible. (I’ll select the winner after the post is up for one week.) If you have a question for the author, maybe Cathy will stop by and answer..
Disclosures: Cathy is a friend, and I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. There are affiliate links in this post.