Thursday, April 14, 2011

Assisted Suicide: Is It the Government's Business?

This was the headline given to an online Web chat by Nicole Brochu, a columnist with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. It took place this past Tuesday (April 12, 2011) and featured Derek Humphry (Hemlock Society USA, ERGO) and Greg Swartz (director of Another Harvest Moon, a new indie movie dealing with euthanasia) as panelists. I had been notified by Alex Schadenburg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition that this was taking place, and I took the opportunity to participate.

Below is the transcript of the chat. Comments and questions from participants other than the moderator and panelists are in italics; additional information and my own thoughts are noted with square brackets. All bolded emphasis is my own.


1:56 - Health: Hi everyone. We will begin our chat momentarily. Please standby.

2:00 - Nicole Brochu [SFSS columnist, moderator]: Welcome, everyone, to today’s chat.

2:00 - Nicole Brochu: I’d like to introduce our panelists.

2:00 - Nicole Brochu: Derek Humphry, considered the father of the right-to-die movement, is the author of “Final Exit,” the groundbreaking how-to manual for terminally ill patients wishing to end their lives.

2:00 - Nicole Brochu: Also joining us is Greg Swartz, the director of the recently released film, “Another Harvest Moon,” starring Ernest Borgnine, Doris Roberts, Anne Meara and Cybill Shepherd and largely centered around one elderly character’s struggle with thoughts of suicide.

2:00 - Nicole Brochu: I am Nicole Brochu, a health columnist for the Sun Sentinel in South Florida, and I’ll be moderating today’s conversation.

2:01 - Nicole Brochu: Welcome, gentlemen.

2:01 - Nicole Brochu: I’ll begin by asking Mr. Humphry: When you wrote “Final Exit” in 1991, it had been 16 years since you helped your wife, Jean, end her suffering from inoperable, terminal cancer. Why did you feel the world needed a how-to on euthanasia?

2:02 - Greg W. Swartz: Hi. Thanks for having me.

2:02 - Derek Humphry: It was only after I wrote a book about Jean's way of death did I realize how much public interest there was, and 5 yrs later founded the Hemlock Societey USA

2:03 - Nicole Brochu: What is the Hemlock Society? What was its mission?

2:04 - Derek Humphry: The Hemlock Society (1980-2003) worked to help terminally ill people with their hastened deaths, if that's what they chose, and, secondly, worked to change the laws on assisted suicide in California and Washington.

[There's some interesting history that bears noting here. The Hemlock Society was founded by Humphry in California in 1980 and moved to Eugene, OR in 1988. Humphry and other Hemlock Society members (under various other names like Oregon Right to Die and End of Life Choices) were major players in the campaign to pass Measure 16, which became the Death With Dignity Act. However, the original draft of the Act would have legalized lethal injection - i.e., not just physician-assisted suicide, but active voluntary euthanasia as well. Since the inclusion of lethal injection was the reason a similar measure failed at the ballot in Washington in 1991, some members of the Measure 16 campaign wanted to take it out. Humphry was incensed and wouldn't let them. The conflict led to Humphry pulling out of the Oregon Right to Die campaign and forming his own organization, ERGO. The Hemlock remnant joined with Compassion in Dying (a Washington-based group) to provide the impetus to win passage of the DWDA in 1994.

I submitted this question through the website chat: "Mr. Humphry, do you support the use of lethal injection for suicides that don't go as planned, as the Dutch do?" The question was screened out by the moderator.]

2:04 - Nicole Brochu: What was the reaction you received in response to "Final Exit"? Was it positive or negative.

2:06 - Derek Humphry: To my surprise, Final Exit leaped into the NY Times bestseller lists and stayed there for 18 weeks. It surprised most people that such a book could be a bestseller. There was negative reaction from the Christian Right, but the intense argument over the book only intensified the sales!

2:06 - [Comment From Chan] - When states enact laws that legalize assisted suicide, are provisions made for adequate safeguards to ensure that the individual has not been hastened to his or her decision by unscrupulous relatives who might have an ulterior motive, say, a potential inheritance?

2:08 - Derek Humphry: The existing Oregon and Washington laws permitting physician-assisted suicide for its terminal residents have a clause in the law making it a crime to pressure or influence a person to hasten death. [I sent in a comment on the chat noting that in Oregon, this supposed safeguard has been gotten around by determined families in documented cases, mentioning Kate Cheney by name and providing a citation. The comment was screened out.]

2:08 - Nicole Brochu: Greg, what inspired you to take on a film whose central character grapples with thought of killing himself?

2:08 - Greg W. Swartz: The film (which was a play first) appealed to me on a practical level because I wanted to make a drama that was small in scale but universal in subject matter. Then, I went through a very difficult time involving my own father's death. And that really made it personal for me.

2:09 - Nicole Brochu: How has the film been received by audiences as you take it from city to city?

2:10 - Greg W. Swartz: We have taken the film to many films festivals... from Hollywood to Indianapolis to Providence, RI, and the one thing that happens at every single screening is the line of people that forms afterward.

2:10 - Greg W. Swartz: They line up to tell me and the producers stories of their own that are similar to the one in the story... personal tales of people facing their own end-of-life dilemmas.

2:11 - [Comment From Dennis] - Where should the line be drawn if, indeed, assisted suicide should ever prevail? Could I decide if I were blinded that I simply wanted to exit life? If I were paralyzed, should I be able to choose assisted suicide or would it be strictly TERMINAL candidates only?

2:12 - Nicole Brochu: Shouldn't you be allowed to decide when and how you die no matter what you are suffering from, Dennis? [Ah - that’s the attitude Humphry, Kevorkian, and the others want.]

2:12- Nicole Brochu: I mean, who else should decide that? The government?

2:13- Nicole Brochu: In fact, suicide is perfectly legal in America. It's getting your doctor to help with painless, peaceful options that is banned in most places.

2:13- Greg W. Swartz: We chose not to take sides with the film, but rather to show the various characters representing various viewpoints. I have my own POV on the issue, but it's not necessarily in the film.

2:13 - Nicole Brochu: What's that point of view, Greg?

2:14 - [Comment From Dennis] - The govt won't have an opportunity to influence my decision to die in any case, legislated or not!!

2:14 - Derek Humphry: Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) should only be for a competent adult who is terminally ill and near the end. Two doctors should attest to this. I don't believe P A S should be available for persons with mental health issues, or clinical depression. Also, the present OR and WA laws forbid assistance on the grounds of old age or handicap. [What?!? That’s not true. It’s all about a handicap (a physically debilitating condition) determining whether your suicide is “rational” or not.] That's wise.

2:15 - Greg W. Swartz: As I said, I watched my father die an agonizing death. It happened in a matter of weeks, so it never quite came down to assisted suicide, but it's certainly something we discussed (about him and with him). I think it's a personal choice and, had he chosen that, I would have helped him. Or supported him in doing so himself. [And this POV is not in the movie? Really?]

2:16 - [Comment From George] - Can you ,in a simple explanation ,Mr.Humphry,state how a person can commit suicide?I have your book( 2002 ),but rather complex solution!

2:17 - [Comment From Bunny] - Terminally ill patients can choose hospice.

2:18 - Derek Humphry: It is not easy to bring one's life to an end, except violently, which is terrible. The various ways of peaceful, justifiable hastened death are outlined in the book 'Final Exit'. It requires courage, planning and -- hopefully -- family support.

2:18 - [Comment From Lionel from Belgium] - Here in my small country euthanasia has been legalised for almost 10 years now and was performed on thousands of people (official statistics). 80% of them did not consent. do you really believe that you are going to be able to prevent that in the US? Many non-terminal people are being pressurized today, I personally know dozens of cases.

2:20 - Derek Humphry: As to Belgium, assisted suicide is only by doctors, according to a specific law. I don't believe that 80percent did not consent. That would be outrageous and cause an uproar in a country which is proud of its rule of law. [Oh, that’s nice – just deny it, implying that Belgium would be in chaos if it were true. Maybe they’ve been successful in Belgium where you haven’t yet been in America, Mr. Humphry – they’ve changed attitudes such that society doesn’t care anymore about sick, elderly, or disabled people who suicide.]

2:22 - [Comment From Dom] - I tried to volunteer at my local Compassion and Choices, but my offer was turned down. It bothers me that the focus of many right to die groups are just the old and the sick. I don't understand why this isn't being stressed as a human right for all people of all ages. [There it is again – “proper”, “sensible” thinking according to PAS advocates.]

2:22 - Nicole Brochu: Greg, how do feel a film of this nature would have been received 20 years ago, when polls on the public’s acceptance of the idea of assisted suicide were much lower? Would any Hollywood producer have dared to touch the subject?

2:23 - Greg W. Swartz: i think that the conversation has certainly changed. Dr. Kevorkian really brought it to the national table and that has really shifted public opinion... or at least opened up a dialogue. I think that 20 years ago, it would have been more controversial for sure. I'm just not sure that the film would have been made... at least in a serious way. It would likely have been some sort of melodrama back then.

2:23 - [Comment From Linda] Mr Humphry, How profitable $$ is your assisted death business?

2:28 - Nicole Brochu: Stand by. Mr. Humphry is preparing his answer now...

2:29 - Derek Humphry: My organization, ERGO, is a nonprofit group incorporated in Oregon since l993. It makes a tiny profit. As to my receiving royalties from the 15 books I've written, they put food on my table. I've been a full time writer for 60 years.

2:29 - [Comment From Kathleen] [Well, what do you know? They took one of mine!]

I have a family member who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia – I mean, really suffers. I know you said that assisted suicide should not be available for people with mental illness - but what about a past history of mental illness? A dual diagnosis of mental illness and some other chronic (painful, but not terminal) disease? Is there a difference in your mind between the suffering that would allow a terminally ill person to end their life and the suffering endured by the chronically mentally ill? What if the mentally ill person is suffering more than the terminally ill person? Haven’t the Dutch and the Swiss allowed mentally distressed people to die?

2:32 - [Comment From Diane] - Why is it that we can help our pets die peacefully,but not our loved ones or ourselves? Doesn"t make sense.

2:32 - Derek Humphry: I am not an expert in mental health issues. I leave that to persons more experienced. Yes, the Dutch and Swiss laws do permit assisted suicide for long-term, seriously ill mental patients who have not responded to treatment. But very few are actually helped [nice word choice!] because it is so difficult to assess the nature of the suffering. [Really? There are ‘natures’ or ‘degrees’ of suffering? I thought you thought suffering was simply evil in all its forms…] This is a real problem. [Ah, thanks for that. The problem is that too few mentally ill people are encouraged to die. I get it now.]

2:32 - Nicole Brochu: I like that point, Diane. I ask that all the time.

2:33 - [Comment From Lionel from Belgium] - The Belgian law allows mentally depressed people to have euthanasia after one month. A few years ago a 16 year old having attempted suicide was brought to an emergency room. The doctor did not want to resuscitate her because, he said, she had wanted to die. [This is horrifying. Do the panelists or the moderator follow up on it? No.]

2:34 - Greg W. Swartz: I am a filmmaker, not an expert on any of these issues, but i did my homework in preparation for this film and I really came to feel that every single case is unique and needs to be dealt with as such. I personally feel that we can build a system that, while not fool-proof, can certainly have a lot of protections built in to it. [That’s what the Oregonians and the Belgians thought they were creating – and that’s why we keep pointing out the gaping holes in the “safeguards”.]

2:34 - [Comment From Tom] - This is really sad that people are so unintelligent to think that it's okay to make someone else suffer through living when they simply don't want to. This is so sad and outrageous and please how do we change it?

2:35 - [Comment From Bill] - I saw Harvest Moon Saturday in Boca Raton with an all senior crowd. Over half of them, about 25 walked out when they saw the gun in the movie. They couldn't deal with the subject matter, even though I feel you had toned it down quite a bit so as not to offend anybody. Anyways, thank you, I enjoyed the movie.

2:35 - Derek Humphry: As to pets suffering, the tough answer is that there are very few laws regarding pet euthanasia -- as long as it is done painlessly and justifiably. Whereas we humans have erected a huge amount of laws -- and taboos [Ha! Knew he’d use that word!] -- protecting human life.

2:36 - Greg W. Swartz: Thanks. I'm glad that you enjoyed the movie. I have seen the film with more crowds than I can count and I haven't seen anyone walk out, but I do know that it's pretty intense subject matter (and the films certainly doesn't hide from that). It's not always an "easy" film to watch, but the performances are, in my opinion, very strong and I hope that most people find it a worthwhile experience.

2:36 - [Comment From Sherman] - What can people do to advance the legalization of suicide?

2:37 - Nicole Brochu: Greg, did you feel like you were taking a risk with the subject matter, given that assisted suicide, and suicide in general, is still a controversial topic?

2:38 - Greg W. Swartz: Yes. we knew it was a risk. That was part of the appeal to the artist in me. But we approached some truly legendary actors and they responded so strongly that we knew that there was an audience (because those actors are not only great, they ARE the audience).

2:40 - Derek Humphry: Sherman: Suicide is NOT a crime, anywhere. It used to be in Europe. It's the careful advancement of physician-assisted suicide for the dying which I am fighting for. [Pants! On! Fire! You advocated for lethal injection. You think the chronically mentally ill should be allowed to suicide. You admit to an economic/cost-saving argument in favor of legalizing PAS. “Careful”, my arse!] Assisted suicide is state, not Federal law, so the law should be reformed either by legislators or by citizen vote, such as we have done in Oregon and Washington states.

2:41 - [Comment From Bob] - Isn't it difficult to have each state reaching a different decision on assisted suicide? Is there any movement for some sort of federal law to make it legal?

2:42 - [Comment From Guest] - I read that assisted suicide is also legal in Montana. Is this so?

2:42 - Derek Humphry: Bob: Assisted suicide is STATE law. Nothing to do with Federal law. I think we'd have to change the Constitution to alter this!! [ “’…Man is endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them the right to death’… uh… hey, Tom, what should we put next?”]

2:43 - Nicole Brochu: Yes, Guest, Montana became the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide at the end of 2009 -- by a state Supreme Court decision. [Not quite – the court said there’s no constitutional right to it, but there’s no law against it as of yet.]

2:44 - [Comment From Rene Barrett] - Are there lobbiest & others in the medical arena opposed to assisted suicide because of the trememdous revenue generated by end of life care?

2:45 - [Comment From Eunice] - How about Florida?

2:45 - Nicole Brochu: No, Eunice. Assisted suicide is not legal in Florida.

2:46 - [Comment From Anne] - What is behind the fear in resisting this idea? My sense is that many people shut off the notion, refuse to think about or discuss it. Is religion the main culprit? What is the root of the fear, do you think?

2:46 - Derek Humphry: Rene: Yes, There are divergent views on assisted suicide, but mostly those opposing do so on ethical and/or religious grounds. I have heard that some groups -- on both sides -- employ lobbyists.

2:48 - Greg W. Swartz: One of the characters in the film (Ella, as played by Anne Meara) has a very intense scene where she is praying about the fate of her friend, Frank (Ernest Borgnine). It was an interesting part of the film for me because Anne and I both felt like the character was not religious, so she's not very "good" at praying. It is yet another impossible-to-answer part of this that is definitely very personal.

2:49 - [Comment From Jack] - What are the plans for releasing this movie on dvd or blu-ray?

2:50 - [Comment From Rene Barrett] - Of course they have to use "ethical and/or religious grounds". They can't admit to wanting to make money from a drawn out anguished death. [Would you rather the government or insurers make (e.g. save) money from ill people suiciding?]

2:51 - Greg W. Swartz: The movie is going to be released on DVD and on Blu-Ray, but we don't yet have dates because it's still showing in theaters (and we're hoping that it continues to show to wider and wider audiences. It has been showing in Florida for two weeks now. If you belong to Netflix, you can put it in your queue, but it doesn't have a date. It will also be on iTunes and the trailer is showing there already.

2:52 - [Comment From Guest] - Isn't part of the problem, too, because of life insurance? That insurers don't want to make payments in cases where people have ended their own lives?

2:55 - Derek Humphry: Life insurance is really not an issue here. The law throughout the USA is that if a person commits suicide (for whatever reasons) and the policy is two years old, then the money must be paid. (One year in Colorado.) So check the date on insurance policies.

2:55 - [Comment From Gary Stein] - Did the Kevorkian movie, You Don't Know Jack, help bring a greater understanding of assisted suicide? Do you think it helped change attitudes?

2:56 - Greg W. Swartz: I don't know that my film or the Kevorkian will directly change minds, but they get people thinking and they can, if we're lucky, help people make up their minds. I'm not a moralistic artist, so I'm just trying to get people talking.... thinking... whatever it takes. [Sure you are. Everyone’s got a moral point of view. And yours will be reflected in your movie. Guaranteed.]

2:58 - [Comment From Fred] - There's no excuse not to be informed. Greg, will you please make a documentary about inmendham so that people can figure out that suffering is additive?

2:58 - Greg W. Swartz: I'm not really a documentarian and I'm not familiar with him, but I'll certainly look into it. Today.

2:58 - Derek Humphry: Gary: I credit Dr Kevorkian with bringing huge attention to the whole euthanasia issue. Last year's film and documentary were very impressive. My reservation with Kevorkian is that he has left nothing behind for other dying people to take advantage of -- no legal reform, no medical advancement. [Really? Is that all? No concern about his desire to vivisect people as they die? No concern that he killed people without terminal or even chronic diseases? No other reservations? Really?]

2:59 - [Comment From Eunice] - Thank you for addressing this problem.

2:59 - Greg W. Swartz: thank you.

2:59 - [Comment From Noreen] - Thanks for this chat. I can see that there are no clear solutions and each candidate must do her/his own search of what is possible....before it's too late. Thanks for raising the issue and inviting people to consider end-of-life issues.

2:59 - [Comment From Fred] - thank you.

2:59 - Derek Humphry: It was a good debate. [Debate? Not so much. There were some comments and questions sent in that would have made it something less than the lovefest this was, but they were screened out by your sympathetic moderator – see her comment at 2:12.] Thanks. Derek H

3:00 - Nicole Brochu: Thank you all for participating in today's discussion. It's a very complex issue. Any final thoughts from our panelists?

3:00 - Derek Humphry: Perhaps pay a visit to my web site

3:00 - Greg W. Swartz: please feel free to keep asking questions about this at our film's site or on our facebook page. I hope that you'll check out the film. It's been a pleasure.

3:00 - Health: Thanks to our panelists for joining us today and participating is this discussion. And thanks to everyone who sent questions and linked to our health chat today.

3:01 - Health: Check out Nicole Brochu’s column from April 11, "Assisted suicide: Uncle Sam should just butt out."

3:01 - Health: Finally, a transcript of this chat will be available shortly at


This was a very interesting experience. Felt like a good workout... I have the feeling I'll have to keep myself "in shape". I don't think this issue is going away anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On The Reasonability of Faith

Yesterday I found myself surfing blogs and landed at one of my favorites, Secondhand Smoke. The author (Wesley J. Smith) writes on life issues, bioethics, and human exceptionalism, and as a member of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, he occasionally takes up the issue.

I noticed this post having to do with Oregon's DWDA and commented on it; visit the thread to see the conversation. Another commenter asked me a question, and it sparked a couple of pages in response. ("Poke the amateur philosopher/theologian with a stick, and see if she moves!") I decided to post the full text here for any interested readers.

The question:

@Kathleen Lundquist,

What you seem to be saying is that something that’s not in the scientific literature can’t exist — which seems to be placing an awful lot of trust in “soft” sciences like psychology and psychiatry. Do you believe that if enough people label a thought irrational then that’s conclusive evidence of irrationality; that rationality is something that requires a majority vote? Just asking.


My response:

To clarify: I don’t regard psychiatric/psychological theory as supremely authoritative in all situations; I’m not a psychologist or Jung devotee or something like that. My familiarity with the field and its guiding principles comes from: 1) several stints throughout my life of working in my parents’ office (Dad practiced clinical psychiatry for 35 years, Mom was a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner) and my relationships with them; 2) my 15-year career as a medical transcriptionist in other contexts, including reading and editing thousands of psychiatric medical records; and 3) my relationship with my older brother, who was diagnosed at age 14 with paranoid schizophrenia (he’s now 51) and our family’s experience as consumers of mental health care. As I mentioned before, I’m just trying to find and express logical arguments against PAS that might carry weight with some readers, and since most folks agree that any wish to die has at least some psychological component, I’m trying to cite facts that are relevant to the discussion – and at least let people know that, contra Mr. Eighmey, there’s no consensus in psychiatry that PAS is now a neutral or acceptable act.

Here’s a G.K. Chesterton quote that perfectly illustrates my point of view on rationality; I hope you and Wesley won’t mind if I post the whole long thing:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. [from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy]

As you might guess from this, I make a distinction between the concepts of “rationality” and “healthy, integrated human consciousness”. Rationality (i.e. facility with logic) is a component of a healthy mind; some are born adept at it, most others can be taught to reason ‘if A=B and B=C, then A=C’ and construct an argument, etc. But it’s not everything; a person can be impeccably logical and quite insane. To put GKC’s point another way, the madman isn’t the one who’s lost his reason; the madman is the one who has lost his perspective, i.e. his ability to perceive and process information that threatens to reconfigure his tightly closed mental circle.

There might be said to be concentric circles of rationality, wider and wider webs of theory and belief systems that explain more and more of the humanly perceptible phenomena in our universe (including experiences that seem to go beyond the five senses). My own construct would place the, as you say, soft science of psychiatry/psychology with its rational, codified methods of observation and study within the wider circle of American medical practice as I’ve experienced it (which contradicts some of those theories), placing that within the general knowledge of history and culture I’ve absorbed as an American citizen, placing that within my Judeo-Christian worldview, which is the lens through which I observe, interpret, and integrate as much of my knowledge and experience as I can to perceive meaning and purpose in my life. In the types of discussions we have here at ShS, I do my best to locate common assumptions or axioms from whatever circle I can find, and construct a logical edifice from there. Whether my efforts change any minds is another question entirely.

I have this to say (again, best expressed by Chesterton) regarding faith, evidence, and dogma that may help you understand how I and many other religious people perceive the relationship between faith and reason:

Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.

If it comes to human testimony, there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence, being constrained to do so by your creed. [GKC, Orthodoxy]

For another picture of the relationship between faith and reason, feel free to peruse an essay I wrote several years ago for Catholic Exchange:

This is probably much more than you expected, but as I said, I found your question interesting. Thanks for reading.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Further clarity on CL Vacation 2009

After a few more days of mulling over my experience at Vacation this year, and after talking with my friend Tami, I've moved further ahead in my understanding of what happened to me there.  I want to offer just a bit more clarity for anyone concerned about my sense of "what I deserve" from God (as I mentioned below), or from my friends in particular or Communion & Liberation in general.

I wish to be clear that this moment of seeing my heart as "black" and perceiving a chasm between myself and what I desired was not a psychological 'low self-esteem' thing, nor were my fears due to any perceived slights or rejection on the part of anyone at the Vacation.  I knew that, on the basis of my experience of the several days before, anything I chose to share would be given room and appreciated by the group.  In the same moment that I felt this deep unworthiness, I did not doubt that I was loved.  This produced a new thought; it challenged me to entertain the possibility that I could be accepted and loved even more deeply, beyond what I thought I could earn by being entertaining or being nice to people.

I believe that this opening up of my heart to a new sort of hope allowed me to see further into the great depths of my need for the Infinite Mystery – to really feel its force in my soul.  If I had sung my song during the assembly reflection time and brought the house down, brought grown men to tears, even had everyone on the carpet prostrate and worshipping me – this would not have satisfied my desire.  What I saw so starkly in that moment was that the answer to the needs of my heart was beyond my grasp – beyond any human grasp.  The source of the beauty, love, and grace that I saw in the people around me wasn’t in them; as they spoke, their hearts became windows into the Beyond, where all those good things live in their fullness.  The only way I could possibly come to possess that goodness and love in its fullness was to beg God to give it to me, somehow.  He would have to give; I could only receive.

Because we are finite beings, I think we often engage in a mental reduction of our relationship with God to the sort of social reciprocity we expect with one another.  When we go to Mass, and Christ miraculously shows up in the appearances of bread and wine – he doesn’t have to do that every time.  He chooses to do that, every time, for us.  He doesn’t owe it to us – not for any moral or theological reason.  He gives Himself in response to our prayer, asking for Him.  His love for us is active and intentional – never grudging, never assumed – always simply a gift.

(H/T: Photo by Joe Soprani)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A reflection on CL Vacation, 2009

I had an extraordinary time on Vacation with the Northwest CL groups in Bellingham, WA over the Fourth of July weekend. 

Some background on me:  I’m a convert to Catholicism from evangelicalism.  I lived and worked in the Christian contemporary music subculture (both in church settings and in Christian retail) for several decades and was approaching a nadir of total despair at the propagandist nature of it when I discovered the Catholic Church’s artistic tradition and their strong theology of art, and I followed my attraction to the Mystery (which Beauty conveyed to me) into the Church in 1999.  Due to my upbringing, I have a strong sense of the secular nature of my vocation as an artist and, to be perfectly frank, “church music” is now a cross that I reluctantly carry when I’m forced to do so by peer pressure or a sense of duty.  So, when my friends told me that I would not need to sign up to help with anything (registration, ushering, music, etc.) since it was my first time at a CL Vacation, I was grateful – happy at the prospect that they would allow me just to go and participate in the activities.

Alas, it was not to be.  Shortly after we arrived at The Firs in Bellingham on Wednesday evening, before I even checked into my room, my friend Rose (from the Portland SoC) asked if I would be willing to help with music for the weekend.  I remember mumbling something ambivalent and noncommittal, and she told me to look for one Richard From Singapore, who was in charge of the music.  She then sped off to tend to her four younger siblings (their mom Catherine was due to arrive Thursday night).

I paused and asked myself what I should do – whether I should take my guitar out of the car and find this Richard From Singapore and find out what was going on, or just leave it in the trunk and pretend I knew nothing about leading groups in singing – keep my head down and voice low, and not do anything which might cause someone to expect something from me.

I looked around the parking lot and saw several of my friends from Portland, with whom I’d had significant and grace-filled conversations over the past three years in SoC.  In that moment, I noticed that the resentment I’d expected to feel at the mere mention of helping with music was… absent.

So, I went to the building where we were to gather that evening and found the tall, handsome Caucasian man whom the other responsibles identified as Richard From Singapore.  Rose had already told him that I might be coming, and when I walked in, he said, “Ah, you must be Kathleen!  Are you here to help with the music?”  I looked at him, trying to take him in, and paused again before answering.  I looked down at the guitar case in my right hand and said, half-surprised, “Well, Rose told me you needed help, and since I’m here, and I’ve brought my guitar, I – I guess I’m here to help you.”

From that moment on and throughout the weekend, my expectations and assumptions were exploded one right after another.  Richard was very well versed in CL’s repertoire and very organized, which made it easy for Joe Amsberry (from the Salem SoC) and I to help Richard choose and rehearse enough songs for the gatherings each day as well as for daily Mass.  Our planning/rehearsal times were chinked into the cracks between meals and assemblies and reflections, and though we were responsible for a lot, it never felt burdensome – I never felt like I was missing something going on somewhere else while we were rehearsing.  Richard is also an extremely talented singer with highly-polished performance skills, and working with him was wonderful fun for me for the following strange reason:  He was so high-energy, so crazy, and so good at what he was doing that I felt free to be as high-energy, crazy, and good as I could be.  The vibrant energy with which Richard strove to live out his bright, shiny Richardness enabled me to find the place in myself where I can be bright and shiny, in the moment, no matter who’s listening or what purpose it may serve.  In the midst of the fortuitous mix of sacred and secular music we played and sang together over that series of days, I sensed friendly spaces where my own Kathleenness could come out and play.

At the same time something else was happening in my soul at a deeper level.  While doing music with Richard and Joe was a joy, it also seemed to touch a deep wound in my heart – something I couldn’t quite articulate.  At times, I remembered that I had brought my guitar on the Vacation in order to sing some of my original songs for my friends, and I kept trying to figure out a time and place when it would be appropriate to do so.  I thought at first that Saturday’s Talent Show would be the proper venue, but most of the other performers’ acts were light-hearted and comedic – and my songs tend to have a darker melancholic tinge to them.  I decided to stay on the light side with my offerings, but my original goal of singing my own songs for everyone started to flare up and singe the edges of my thinking – it began to distract me from what was happening in front of and around me. 

By Sunday morning, the last day, we were beginning to consider and make judgments about everything we’d experienced together.  We began to sense the weight and significance of the revelation of truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ we had experienced in our friendships with one another.  As various people went to the microphone and shared reflections and questions at our last assembly, the seriousness of our conversation made me think that this might be the time for me to share one of my own songs.  However, as I listened to my friends tell their stories and insights, the Holy Spirit led me in a different direction. 

Tami (from the Portland SoC) was one of the first to speak, and she related how she was struck by the presence of Bishop Joseph Tyson (of the Archdiocese of Western Washington, who was with us on Friday and said Mass for us that evening).  She talked about our use of the word ‘witness’ in CL – that is, we speak as witnesses to our experience with Christ, but she added another meaning to the word – that of being witnessed, of being seen.  She was impressed not so much by the fact that we had the opportunity to see and meet the bishop, but that he had seen and met us.  We were witnessed, we were seen by him.

I continued to listen as Catherine, Steve, Keith, and others shared their experiences, but this insight from Tami began to soak through my distracted mind, steeping in the waves of my thoughts like leaves of a strong black tea. 

I rehearsed in my mind the words of the song I intended to sing and, though I had consciously written it with some CL vocabulary in mind, I realized that the people in this room, much more than anyone at the coffeehouses I frequented, would understand exactly what I was saying.  In singing this song, I would quite possibly be revealed for who I really am.  I might actually - be seen.

And suddenly I was filled with terror, and sadness, and – shame, I think.  The thought of doing the song, the thing I’d so wanted to do all weekend that had put such a torque on my attention, now made me recoil in fear.  I began to cry and couldn’t stop, not even during the Mass that followed the assembly.  My heart seemed so black and ugly, and I felt so ashamed of myself – for wanting more of these beautiful people than I deserved.

Over the past week since arriving home from Vacation, I’ve been trying to process my experience and make some sort of judgment about it.  I found it difficult at first to find words and images to frame my thoughts, but these words, by my favorite songwriter Sam Phillips, have been a help:

I, I love you

when you don’t – when you don’t do anything

When you’re useless, I love you more

When you don’t do anything


When you don’t know, when you don’t try

When you don’t say anything

When you don’t move, when you don’t win

When you don’t make anything work 

 - Sam Phillips, Don’t Do Anything, Nonesuch © 2008

The judgment that's formed so far in my mind is this:  I believe that God granted me a glimpse into the great depths of my heart’s need for Him and the reality of His love for me.  I really felt the force of my heart’s attraction to the Infinite Holiness, the Perfect Love and Beauty toward which all earthly loves point. 

The quote below also reminds me of the source of my truest desire, my real destiny:

"It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choice that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society." 

- Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day 2000

*Photo by Greg Wolfe - that's me in the blue hat, singing atop snowy Mt. Baker with Richard From Singapore (center) and Joe Amsberry (on the right)

Monday, January 05, 2009

This really struck me

Here's a quote by Caryll Houselander I ran across on Mark Shea's blog this morning:

I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners who souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, no one of us who has fallen into mortal sin himself must ever lose hope.

Beautiful.  Sobering.

Needs more meditation/rumination.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The bomb under your chair

Found this on a blog I follow - it's not to everyone's taste from either a cultural or religious point of view, but I found the author's take on Radiohead's House of Cards insightful. Here's a link to the video.

When I first heard this song on the radio a few months ago, I turned it off immediately after I heard the opening line: "I don't wanna be your friend - I just wanna be your lover."  I thought, Well, then, screw you, sir.  Next!  Hierothee's commentary is more charitable than my gut reaction was, and I begin to see what he sees in the song.

The interview with Thom Yorke from 2005 is fascinating as well.  Worth a read by any and all Radiohead fans as well as those interested in the intersections of Christianity and art.  This is one of those things that art critic H.R. Rookmaker called "the bomb under your chair", placed there by artists who are desperate to communicate their search for meaning in a fallen world.

Things that we should sit up and notice, and consider.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year

I've been tagged by Allen Lewis!

So, here's the rules of our game:

1. Link to the person who tagged you (see above).
2. Post the rules on your blog.  (Look at me, Ma - I'm postin'!)
3. Write six random thing about yourself. (Hm...)
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

OK - my six random things:

1. I met my husband Gary when we were in college in the '80s.  We went on one date; I graduated and moved away, we completely lost touch for 10 years, and then we ran into each other in 1996 at a Christian music/arts festival attended by 25,000 people.  Ah, Providence.
2. I once saw and said hello to Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad in person at the tiny Christian record label I worked for in California in the '90s.  He was going out the door as I was coming in.  (You said random...)
3. I love to disentangle things - strings, chains, yarn, Christmas lights, etc.  It creates a state of deep meditation for me.  If I could get paid for disentangling string/untying knots, I'd be filthy rich.
4. I dyed my hair blonde for the first time in my life back in August.  I did it for a show I was in; I've gotten lots of compliments on it and Gary likes it, so I think I'll keep it this way.
5. My sister Susan is a science teacher for accelerated/gifted students.  She's my biggest fan and most faithful friend in the world.
6. My father-in-law is a rocket scientist.  (No, really - scroll down for a picture of Charles Lundquist giving a lecture on orbital mechanics to W. Von Braun et al. in 1958.)

Tag - you're it!  And here's hoping your New Year is a Happy one!