Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
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A testimony of transformation
Account of murdered teen's life a treasure house of meaning
She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martrydom of Cassie Bernall., by Misty Bernall. Farmington, Pa: The Plough Publishing House. Distributed in Canada by HarperCollins, 1999, 140 pp., hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Cassie Bernall, a typical suburban 17-year-old with interests in photography, Shakespeare and helping the poor had a dream of studying obstetrics at Cambridge.
Along with these vocational interests and after a period of rebellion and instability, she grew obsessed with a desire to "live completely for God."
On April 20, 1999, the unthinkable happened. She and 12 others were randomly shot and killed by two rampaging classmates at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Several months after the calamity Misty Bernall, Cassie's mother, has published She Said Yes a moving account of their sometimes chaotic family relationship and Cassie's remarkable adolescent struggles of the spirit.
Like the arbitrary discharge of the assassin's weapon, her life catapulted from obscurity to international notoriety when a schoolmate reported that one of the gunmen, holding the barrel to her head, asked if she believed in God. "She said yes." Then "they just blew her away."
This story holds the possibility of good modern hagiography, the stuff of which saints and martyrs are made.
Two years earlier, after destructive encounters with violent friends who dabbled in the occult she attended a retreat with her Church youth group. Abruptly and amazingly, she decided to break away from the dysfunctional paths she had been following to claim Christian faith and seek reconciliation with parents from whom she had become alienated.
"Mom, I've changed. I've totally changed," she said. The family was hopeful but uncertain; watching for signs that would confirm her conversion.
She Said Yes is not a polished memoir of religious heroics. It is, rather, a remarkable testimony to how an ordinary life can begin the marvellous but extremely difficult process of spiritual transformation.
"Before (Cassie) was a martyr, she was a teen," says her mother. "To make her into a saint would be all too easy, especially now that she isn't here to make any more mistakes."
After her death, Misty found evidence that a profound spiritual struggle, much of it beyond her awareness, had been taking place in the young woman. For example, a copy of Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey (1997) was discovered among her daughter's belongings. Cassie had been studying and making notes in the margins of this book.
"Often we want to be somewhere other than where we are or even to be someone other than who we are," the prolific and popular priest and spiritual guide had written, "(but) we are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself."
"Without the love of our parents, sisters, brothers, etc., we cannot live. Without love we die," Nouwen wrote. "Still, for many people, this love comes in a very broken and limited way. No human love is the perfect love our hearts desire."
Beside these words Cassie noted, "Don't look for human love for comfort, but seek God's love instead."
Misty admits that just as there were times when Cassie reverted to childishness and self-defeating behaviour there were other occasions when her thinking was so mature and her questions so searching that it put her parents to shame.
Only in retrospect - after listening to anecdotes from her friends and reading posthumously her notes and letters - did they begin to realize the depth of her innermost thoughts.
Some of the early secular press reaction in Canada has been cynical. For example, Leah McLaren in the Globe and Mail (Sept. 27) ponders: "What recently bereaved mother writes and publishes a book about her late daughter's troubled adolescence and brutal murder fewer than six months after the event itself?"
McLaren believes that there will be two distinct takes on the matter of Cassie's martrydom. The first is the institutional religious view - that Cassie is a martyr who sacrificed her life for her beliefs. The second is that Cassie's martyrdom reflects a sickening case of American spiritual hucksterism promoting a "bad girl turned good girl" story replete with Yes I Believe T-shirts, jewelry and videos.
An experienced Church advises its faithful to be wary of popular waves of piety following alleged apparitions and unusual events. It suggests caution over statements that may be perverted into noble but questionable professions of faith. It warns against financial windfalls from the misuse of sacred signs and wonders.
This book has not been authored or produced by entrepreneurial opportunists but rather by persons of spiritual discernment and venturesomeness.
A vital treasure house of meaning and value is contained here - a snapshot of tragic yet inspirational history. It has a message which many young Catholics, their parents, teachers and pastoral leaders will find helpful.
Misty says, "In an age when image is everything, Cassie stood for what she believed." The real issue is not what she said to her killers but what it was that enabled her to face them as she did.
We can't undo what happened but we can prevent similar tragedies from happening again. Parents may cry out for stronger gun control laws or other disciplines but our young people are crying out for relationships.
There must be a way to reach even the most alienated teen, for no adolescent, however rebellious, is doomed by fate.
(Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary.)