The Grace of a Happy Death: Mary Louise Birmingham, 1921-2011

June 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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In my childhood parochial school, the Sisters taught us to pray for “the grace of a happy death,” by which they meant that we should die in the state of grace. No sins on our souls.

Like many other things, the notion of  “happy death” seems to have gotten more complicated as I get older. But I’m pretty sure I have just been part of one, so I want to tell you about it.

Last Friday (June 24th) my dear friend Mary Louise Birmingham died. In August, Mary Louise would have celebrated her 90th birthday, and she and I had been friends for 40 years, more or less. She lived in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan, with her husband Bill, and had five grown children and eight grandchildren, whom she adored. We were both members of the Grail, an international women’s movement, and had met one another at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati where we were participating in some program or other in the late 1960s or early 197os.

Now you may think that there’s nothing very remarkable about an almost ninety-year-old woman dying, but that would be to overlook the fact that Mary Louise had been in good health, and was amazingly engaged in life, until two months ago. When I fell and broke my wrists in mid-April, she came out here to Flatbush on the subway bringing me practical things like applesauce and moist-wipes, and cheering me no end with her presence. Mary Louise had in fact visited me when I was sick any number of times over the years. We were going to attend an introduction to birdwatching workshop together on May 21 in Prospect Park but she cancelled because she was “tired.”

I should have known something was up. Increasing exhaustion and some other symptoms led her to the doctor, and on June 6 Mary Louise was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The standard treatment is chemotherapy, but the majority of people over 80 who have that treatment die from it. Mary Louise had herself worked as a hospice nurse for twenty years and so knew better; she wisely chose to spend the time remaining at home with family and friends. The doctors said she might have seven or eight weeks to live, but she died much sooner than that, less than three weeks after her diagnosis.

So why do I consider this a “happy death”? I was blessed to be able to visit Mary Louise three times after her diagnosis, and her utter peace and even joy in the face of her impending death was an enormous gift to me. I might add that my own parents died over several years, never referring in my presence to the fact that their lives were ending, and making absolutely no preparations for such an eventuality. So to see someone of their generation dying without regret or denial, and without burdening her family and friends with such regrets, was an amazing gift.

I also thought that the timing of my friend’s death was almost perfect. Some people of course drop dead or die in their sleep without any warning. And others die over months or even years, as my parents did. Who’s to say if they have any say in choosing such an approach? But my friend lived long enough for her family and friends to smile at her, to kiss her, to say good-bye. When I visited her apartment in her final weeks, Mary Louise’s husband and whichever kids and grandkids were there at the time welcomed me warmly into their loving network of support.  It almost felt like a holiday, albeit one tinged with sadness. We should all be so fortunate.

This afternoon, I am off to Mary Louise’s memorial service, at Tibet House, in Manhattan. Perhaps you will join with me and her family and other friends as we hold her in the light.

The Elizabeth Johnson Affair

June 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As you may know, in April, the committee on doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a wide-ranging condemnation of the book Quest for the Living God by the highly regarded US Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson, a long-time member of Fordham University’s theology faculty, and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, was also president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1995-1996. In particular, according to the bishops, Johnson’s treatment of the Trinity in this book completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”  This is quite an accusation.

I once met with Johnson, in the early 1990s, to see if I might study with her in the Ph.D. program at Fordham. I can’t remember what I said–probably that I wanted to use feminist literary and poststructuralist theory to interpret the Catholic tradition. Johnson said to me, “You need to understand that as a Ph.D. student you will have absolutely nothing to say until you have mastered Aquinas and Rahner.” “Well,” I thought, “I’ll l be dead by then.” (I was 43 years old at the time.) Johnson’s rejoinder was not encouraging, but I was grateful for her candor; choosing the wrong advisor can be fatal in a doctoral program.

This is who the US Catholic bishops have gone after, this “Aquinas and Rahner are mandatory” professor. On June 6, Johnson issued a twenty-seven page response to the bishops’ statement. The rebuttal is based, almost without exception, in orthodox Catholic teaching. If someone else had written it, I might have (cynically) considered their doing so a strategic move– beating the bishops at their own game. With Johnson, this really is the theological world in which she moves.

In my opinion, Elizabeth Johnson is not a particularly original thinker. She is an able synthesizer, with a talent for identifying the right moment for introducing fairly recent theological ideas to the Catholic community.  In point of fact, although Catholic feminists–Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza–did ground-breaking work in the early years of feminist theology, in succeeding generations, Protestant women have done all the cutting edge work. The contributions of Catholic feminists like Johnson have been second rate at best. (I do have some hope  for younger Catholic feminists just beginning their careers, women such as  Susan Abraham, Karen Trimble Alliaume, Jeanine Hill Fletcher, and Elena Procario-Foley–but that’s a subject for another blog).

So why are the bishops beating up on this orthodox, and not terribly original, Catholic feminist theologian? One thought is that they’re mad at her precisely because her work is so accessible. Although she says that Quest for the Living God isn’t designed for college classes, I can well imagine its being used there, to introduce Catholic students to the Christian theological insights of recent decades, for example, the idea that God suffers along with human beings, or that if we’re going to save the planet from destruction (a particular concern of Benedict XVI) we need ways of understanding God’s connection with creation. Or maybe it’s just another instance of the director of the bishops’ office on doctrine, Thomas Weinandy, being a theological bully, as he was in the area of Jewish-Catholic relations last year, and the bishops lacking the courage to rein him in.

Or maybe it’s the very idea of a Catholic Sister being successful and influencing the Catholic theological conversation here in the US that infuriates the bishops. The Vatican has already investigated a number of women’s religious orders, and an investigation of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the governance organization of the vast majority of US Catholic Sisters, is underway. And we remember Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Hospital Association, who had the gall to influence the US health care debate last year. Maybe condemning Elizabeth Johnson’s book is one more way to get these women back into their convents where they belong.

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