Catherine Mowry LaCugna was the author of God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991) as well as numerous theological essays. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Seattle University and a Ph.D. at Fordham University, she joined the University of Notre Dame’s theology faculty in 1981. Catherine was first diagnosed with cancer in 1993; she was 40 years old. Over the next four years, she underwent painful medical procedures.
As the 10th anniversary of Catherine’s death nears, I reflect on her dying in relation to the paschal mysterythat is, in relation to the life, death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus Christ. Catherine LaCugna imparted some rich lessons and insights about how to die well, inspiring Kathleen Norris to write of her in Amazing Grace: Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the church’s liturgical day, May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,’ it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others.
Although Ms. Norris’s quotation from the Benedictine Daily Prayer is inexact (the text reads: and a perfect end), it is a felicitious error that has led me to reflect upon what made Catherine’s death a perfect end.
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?
De-centering and Re-centering
A tenacious fighter, Catherine did her utmost to win her battle against cancer. Yet she knew that if she could not change reality, she could at least change the way she related to it. After she learned that the doctors could do nothing more, she told her family and close friends, I must accept what is and This is what I am given.
These words did not come easily or quickly. Throughout her struggle, she argued with God about her illness. Each day she prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and expressed her anguish through the sacred verses, for example: Hear my prayer, O Lord.... For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in the darkness like those long dead (Ps 143:1, 3). She also voiced her frustration and disappointment as she spoke with her closest friends and two or three older women whom she respected for their Christian faith and wisdom. Catherine grieved as she received the anointing of the sick on three occasions over the four years. To be sure, she did not readily accept her fate. Yet by the time that she heard her death sentence, she was already moving toward an acceptance of what lay ahead.
Here is where Jesus’ message, Repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:14-15) is especially pertinent. Repentance or change of heart (metanoia) involves much more than the renunciation of specific failings. It requires setting aside the instinctual, erroneous claim that I alone know what is best for me, and that I should be able to control all aspects of my life. Speaking of the transformation that God calls us to undergo, the late Monika Hellwig once wrote that repentance requires the de-centering of self. Metanoia demands that we relinquish our efforts to invent ourselves and instead discover our true selves as we respond to God’s grace in the actual events, circumstances and relationships of our lives.
Jesus taught that our lives involve the paradox of loss and discovery. He said, those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matt 16:25). And he compared this personal process to what a seed must undergo to become fruitful. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24). Jesus proclaimed the paradox of loss and discovery also in his actions, especially in his crucifixion and resurrection.
The second lesson: Our acceptance of a tragic reality involves a radical de-centering of self and a re-centering in God.
Through the Lens of the Bible
Catherine gained courage and strength by reflecting on the Gospels. Adopting the technique of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, she often imagined herself in biblical scenes. One account that seized her was the story of Jesus and his disciples in a boat during a squall on the Sea of Galilee. Catherine pictured herself in the storm-tossed bark with Christ beside her. When she felt terror before the dark clouds blowing rapidly toward her, she imagined Christ saying to her, Why are you frightened? How is it that you have no faith? (Mark 4:40).
Catherine’s imaginative prayer reminds us that to be Christian is to see one’s life through the lens of biblical images, sayings and stories. The reading of the Old and New Testaments at Mass occurs not primarily to pass on sacred information but to focus our perceptions of what is transpiring in our lives and what is at stake in them. When we listen to the Exodus account of God leading Moses and the Hebrew slaves across the Red Sea, we are invited to perceive how God calls us to freedom, that is, to deeper union with God, greater personal wholeness and fuller communion with others. When we listen to the account of Elijah going into the desert and meeting God in a sound of sheer silence (1 Kgs 19:12), we can enter into our solitary, inner space and hear the divine whisper in our consciences. As we hear the story about Jesus asking his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, Who do people say that I am? we sense that the Lord is asking us, But who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:27, 29).
The third lesson: We should see our lives through the lens of biblical images, sayings and stories, especially as known in the liturgy.
The Final Journey
Four days after Catherine’s death, her family, friends, students and colleagues filled the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the university campus to celebrate the funeral Mass. They assembled in silence and sadness, with a sense that they were tied to Catherine and to one another by invisible but unbreakable threads. In word and Eucharist, they shared the hope that God would reunite them with Catherine at the eschatological feast in the new Jerusalem.
The congregation then brought Catherine to the university’s cemetery, Cedar Grove, where her maple coffin was lowered into the earth, as friends blessed it with holy water, wept and sang: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Today, the marble memorial stone marking her grave bears a sentence from Catherine’s book God For Us: 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.
These words express a wealth of meaning, a key to which is the idea of interpersonal relationships. In Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we can become united with God, self and others during our earthly lives and into eternal life. In this life we can begin to share in God’s giving, receiving and rejoicing in selfless love; we can increasingly live as persons in communion with God and every other creature. Such turning in love or personal transformation comes about not through our own efforts, but through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit. It is possible only because of Jesus Christ, who lived out his earthly life in right relationship with his Father, remaining faithful to abba even through his crucifixion.
The fourth lesson: As we participate in the paschal mystery in this life, we embark on the journey that continues into the next life.
A Perfect End
In her reflection on Catherine’s death, Kathleen Norris reminds us that the church’s Night Prayer directs us to pray for a perfect end. But isn’t the phrase an oxymoron? According to Christian faith, the word perfect here is similar to the designation Good Friday. When they are used in the context of our belief in the paschal mystery, they express not a contradiction but a paradox.
In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council observed that each follower of Jesus Christ is certainly bound both by need and by duty to struggle with evil through many afflictions and to suffer death. In other words, for reasons still unknown to us, evil is part of life. Vatican II also reiterated Christ’s promise that when we face a dead end, an apparent absurdity in life, God will open a way forward; it remains for us to discern this opening. In the council’s words, as one who has been made a partner in the paschal mystery, and as one who has been configured to the death of Christ, every Christian will go forward, strengthened by hope to the resurrection (No. 22).
This hopeful vision of life gains credibility as it is faithfully lived out by the exemplary women and men who go before us in life and in death. When we recall their living and dying and see their lives in relation to the story of Jesus Christ, we can be inspired by the Holy Spirit to pray: May the Lord grant us...a perfect end.