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Winter Books

God’s presence manifest in the light of death

by Barbara Fiand
Crossroad Publishing Company, 175 pages, $16.95


Barbara Fiand invites her readers into “the stillness” where we might encounter life in the light of death. Here our individual existence, she says, is intertwined with the cosmic. God’s redemptive presence is both manifest in sacrament, word, suffering, life itself and hidden in ineffable mystery.

Barbara Fiand’s reflections are an extraordinary experience. She accompanied her closest friend, Clare Gebhardt, as Clare entered fully into her death from cancer. In expressing what Clare’s dying inspired, the author draws upon a wide range of resources including scripture, sacramental practices, contemporary poetry, literature, philosophy and theology, the mystics’ writings, and, most notably, current scientific insights. Fiand explicitly mentions in her introduction her desire “to help acquaint the reader with the interface of religion and science.”

Each of the six chapters considers profound and challenging dimensions of “the deepest aspects of the human faith experience.” The first intertwines Clare’s last weeks with meditations on our bodies as light, emitted physically and spiritually; the “silence of love,” palpable in her friend’s approaching death; and how one might understand sacramental presence in the “light” of such love.

The second chapter considers the possibilities presented in quantum-based cosmology for understanding the deep interconnections between matter and antimatter, between the realities of creation and Jesus’ death and resurrection, love truly poured out into all of creation. Here the best insights of modern science meet the deepest truths of our religion.

The next chapter considers our work as ministers in light of this cosmic interrelatedness. Fiand, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, asks her readers to consider the transformative possibilities of our lives, our “ministry of being,” as understood within the contemporary scientific discussions of field theory. In the fourth chapter, Fiand calls her readers to move beyond the familiar in considering the reality of God.

She explores the necessary dynamics between apophatic and cataphatic encounters with God, those two ways of meeting the divine described in the Catholic mystical tradition. Such encounters emerge from silence as symbol and metaphor and dissolve into silence before the Holy Mystery. The subsequent chapter considers the reality of God revealed in the eucharistic celebration informed by foot washing, “the primary symbol ... of the essential equality of the Christian covenant community.” The final consideration is of the holiness that emerges from “going into the pain.” Fiand discovers this truth in Clare’s embrace of death, in her own dealing with pain, and, of course, in God’s willingness to suffer. Distinguishing this embrace from masochism, the author remains resolute in acknowledging pain’s integral role in “the hard-earned transcendence that is maturation.”

Barbara Fiand makes clear that her work is “not intended for a simple ‘read.’ ” Rather she envisions “it be slowly meditated, that it be allowed to sink into the soul, live there gently, and eventually make a home there.” It is after all an expression of love for her friend, Clare, whose loss she grieves. Yet, Fiand makes clear that Clare’s death prompted her to explore more deeply our interconnectedness in and through and with God and in all that God brought into existence, including those who pass from this form of existence into another.

I will not speculate about scientists’ views of Fiand’s attempts to demonstrate “the interface of religion and science.” Her cosmic speculations, even at their boldest, are offered with a genuine recognition of her own limits as well as the limits of all human knowledge. Barbara Fiand communicates this humility by inviting her readers to consider with her the wondrous possibilities rather than insisting upon her positions as true. This reader especially appreciated Fiand’s ability to make the familiar new, and the new familiar by juxtaposing the theological and scientific.

The book does have a critical edge especially in discussions of the institutional church and the limited vision of the hierarchy, but that remains only a minor theme.

To facilitate that in-depth reading, Fiand closes each chapter with eight to 11 direct quotes highlighting key points in her discussion. This list of quotes certainly invites written responses in a journal or lengthy discussions with a friend or spiritual director. I could well imagine this book offering comfort to the grieving, though the incredible beauty of Clare’s death might prove difficult for those whose loved ones struggled mightily against death. Grief support groups might find the text a rich resource.

Its six-chapter organization and the content make the text suitable for personal or communal Lenten reflection. This reader recognizes that Fiand’s exploration of spirituality will not appeal to everyone, but for those who enjoy wonderings and wanderings about the cosmos, God, and us, her book offers much to be savored in quiet reflection and much to be discussed with our own beloved companions on the journey of faith.

Sandra Yocum Mize is assistant professor of theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002