A Goodness I Cannot Explain: A Medical-Spiritual Memoir
By Catherine Stewart
Wipf & Stock, 2015
At 50, Catherine Stewart was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour and had to decide between surgery and radiation, each of which carried risks. In her medical-spiritual memoir, A Goodness I Cannot Explain, she invites readers along on the ensuing deeply personal journey. She consults professionals, navigates the health-care system, weighs pros and cons, confides in family and friends, and gets their opinions, suggestions, support—and questions. Sometimes the questions are the most helpful.
A Presbyterian minister, she also prays with her church community and her spiritual director, probes her own heart and spirit through visual arts and poetry, and confronts her fears.
The medical and the spiritual elements are inextricably mixed, but it is the spiritual that is the heart of the story. The experience is one that, in Stewart’s words, “broke through all my learning and preconceptions about fear and God and myself.”
Stewart grew up with a view of God familiar to many Christians across denominations. (I grew up Catholic, and it’s familiar to me.) In this view, God is remote—out there, up there, far away. Human beings are sinners from birth and always unworthy. God is judge, and while God is also love, that love is inseparable from judgment, and unfortunately, judgment often dominates.
In that context, prayer means talking to God, always with the proper self-abasement. We can never forget the chasm between human imperfection and divine perfection.
By the end of Stewart’s journey, all this has changed. She knows God as present in all creation, including herself. God is within us, as we are within God. Prayer becomes far more than talking. It is a profoundly intimate encounter.
Stewart credits her use of lectio divina (which she explains very clearly) with guiding—and indeed, giving shape to—her journey, which she likens to a lived lectio divina.
The most compelling aspect of Stewart’s book is an honesty so relentless it sometimes feels brutal. She doesn’t let herself get away with anything. She acknowledges and confronts her own weaknesses, fears, doubts, biases and limitations, and she cross-examines them mercilessly before us. The effect is that of an intimate conversation in which the reader becomes a close friend and confidante.
She shares the quiet miracle of the changes in herself because of her experience, but she makes no claims to have answers for anyone else. She explicitly states that her story is not about a “quick fix” or about miracles as we normally understand them. (Don’t skip her “Notes to Reader”—they provide an essential focus for her story.)
Nor does she present herself as an authority. Her conclusions are often in the form of questions imbued with the wonder of the “extravagant goodness” she has experienced and to which the title refers.
She credits many people with providing support and insight: her family and friends, her church community, her spiritual director, her medical team and various writers. She never minimizes the contributions of these helpers. This is not a journey she made on her own.
The book is engaging and clearly organized. Stewart includes some of her own poems, all of which contribute to our understanding of her journey and of what she learned through it. Her epigraphs are well chosen, providing an excellent lead-in to each chapter, as well as hints for further reading. The book title comes from what Stewart once replied to the question of why she believes in God. Her answer: because of the goodness. Her journey through fear only reinforces that view.
There is much more to Stewart’s book than I can cover here. Her story is inspiring and also strangely humbling. It is a privilege to accompany her on this very intimate journey.
Anne Le Dressay is a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Ottawa.