Many years ago I was asked to give a workshop at a U.S. Catholic conference dealing with assisted suicide. I was at a particularly harrowing point in my own journey with multiple sclerosis so thought I shouldn't go. On the other hand, I felt that was possibly the best time to speak to why disabled and incurably ill people consider suicide (assisted or otherwise). As I had done on other occasions, I thought that if I went, it was the for the Lord's business so He would take care of me and get me back to my home in Canada, just as He had done so many other times. At the same time, my wife's mother was in a nursing home and she was afraid to leave her mother for fear she would die while we were away. We didn't go. I did not give my presentation. What would I have said? Below is part of what I wanted to say.
For people with degenerative disabilities or terminal conditions, life can be filled with terrifying twists and turns. We need to know that we are part of a community that places God’s unconditional love at its center. We need to know the touch of love (both human and divine).
I remember in the Spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II made his last public appearance on the balcony of the Papal apartment above St. Peter’s Square. He tried but could not speak. For a few agonizing moments the Pope struggled to say something to the expectant and adoring crowd ― but he could not. The Pontiff was wheeled back into his apartment. It was evident that he was near death. To me, it was his most eloquent moment, yet he did not say a word I could understand.
But even though he was clearly dying, Pope John Paul showed, by his example that Christ is always near, especially in what may seem like hopeless circumstances. I believe the chronically ill, disabled and dying of the world took notice. I know I sure did.
Pope John Paul proclaimed, through his faithful witness, Christ’s solidarity with the world’s suffering people. His final witness was for a culture of life and inclusion ― and that blessed witness continued to the end of his life. It still resonates with me. To know that Christ stands in union with the world’s disabled, chronically and terminally ill, is of profound importance to us.
Pope John Paul told us that Jesus Christ is the path to authentic personal freedom, the source of love and joy, despite our physical circumstances, and no matter how desperate life’s circumstances may become or how close we may be to death’s door. Christ and his Mother wait for his followers at the end of our last hour as we step across the threshold from this life to the next. And I remember my rosary: “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
Many of my observations and conclusions about suffering are rooted in the wisdom and truth of Pope John Paul II as he his 1984 Apostolic Letter Salfivici Doloris on the Meaning of Christian Suffering.
At Pope John Paul’s funeral, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict V1, said that John Paul showed us that by “abiding in the love of Christ, we learn at the school of Christ, the art of true love.”
The true love of Christ and His Mother, is there anything so sweet to the human soul? Their love has existed beside a crimson thread of human suffering that can be traced throughout the course of human history for the last 2,000 years. Suffering seems to be inextricably linked with the essence of the nature of humanity. We are ultimately drawn to ask a fundamental question: What is the meaning of suffering?
If there is no God, then there is no purpose to suffering. The logical response to suffering is suicide. If there is bad or sadistic God, then the response of Job’s wife is reasonable: “Curse God and die.” If, however, there is a good God then there must be some redeeming value to suffering. For nearly 30 years I have contemplated and meditated upon the meaning of suffering, from a Christian perspective.
People suffer in different ways. Suffering encompasses more than physical sickness. This because there physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects to human beings. It is imperative that a distinction to be made between physical suffering and emotional, moral and spiritual suffering. I have experienced all of these forms of suffering. It is my opinion spiritual suffering is the most excruciating.
Physical pain is easiest to treat with modern pain medications and techniques. Emotional, psychological or moral suffering cut to the soul. They are more excruciating and harder to reach and treat.
Psychological, emotional or spiritual suffering often show up in sadness, disappointment, or despair. Psychological or spiritual can develop physical manifestations such as elevated blood pressure, heart attack, ulcers and digestive disorders, insomnia, weight gain or loss.
Chronic suffering creates its own world for the individual. It is like an internal exile in which the sufferer of disease or sickness feels cut-off from his community, friends and even those he loves most. This suffering is highly personal, and his deepest agony is inexpressible which intensifies his sense of isolation. It is a dangerous state because it can spawn despair of life.
It is even possible to find a perverse solace with despair of life. Despair can masquerade as destiny. It is twisted and distorted perception whereby death is preferable to life. Fait accompli. Suicide is seen as deliverance from physical torment or a way of stopping psychological or emotion agony.
There is a 3rd lower level of despair which the medical and psychiatric professions have referred to as chronic melancholia. People in this horrible form of mental illness cease to take an interest in their own existence, the existence in the rest of humanity, or anything in the world. They cannot be roused or moved to care. For these people suicide is a very real possibility.
The brilliant Catholic apologist and author, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said that suicide is not a sin, rather the sin, precisely for the reasons I have just mentioned. He felt that suicide was an affront and defilement of all creation by the person’s sheer disinterest. Chesterton said that suicide insults everything on earth. Chesterton said this about the suicidal man: “There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.” I am a huge fan of G,K, Chesterton, but on this point I think he was uncharitable and quite possibly erred in his harshness. He presumed there is no despondency below a final sneer at existence. In fact, there is and it is that dreaded state of chronic melancholia. The individual is utterly defeated; he cannot muster even a passing sigh at existence let alone a sneer. His despondency permeates every corner of his mind, every cell of his being. Regarding such cases we must reserve comment and trust those people to the tender care of the Almighty.
However, to assist in their suicide (or any suicide) is to endorse the abyss with a cruel bon voyage. People who advocate or participate in assisted suicide act with the logic of darkness. They are brutes sniffing over the waiting graves of the defeated. Any civilized society must always condemn assisted suicide in the strongest terms and never legalize or permit it.
The isolation of the sufferer is observable by others, especially his family. This creates an isolation for them too. They feel cut-off from their loved-one’s suffering. It can be excruciating for them to helplessly watch the sufferer.
Loved-ones of the sick can confuse their sorrow and pain with their loved-one’s pin. The family of the sick or dying person can perceive agony where none exists or is much less than they perceive.
Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life. My mother was dying of bone cancer. Her physical pain was well controlled. Her suffering was of an emotional and spiritual nature – but overall her symptoms were well controlled. Yet I heard family and friends talking about her terrible pain. When I roused her and asked if she was in pain, she consistently said, “No.” Friends and loved-ones observed my mother’s dying through the lens of their own sorrow. Sorrow and grief can distort reality. My mother passed away without the agony in intractable physical pain, thanks to a skilled doctor who knew modern pain control techniques.
With my own disease, gradual paralysis has been the main issue. Earlier LaRee said she believes that her pain of observing my situation and struggles, unable to alleviate them is as excruciating as my pain. I think she is probably right. To imagine things the other way round is too unbearable for me to contemplate.
Reflected or observed pain contributes to families considering euthanasia or assisted suicide. I cannot state this too emphatically. Reflected pain can create a vicious cycle of torment for observer of degenerative disease or disability; on the other hand, fear of being a burden for the actual victim of the debilitating condition.
Throughout my decades with MS there have been times when it was only Christ who kept me from sinking beneath the waves of my circumstances. In moments of my deepest fear it has been the real presence of Jesus Christ that has consoled me.
An atheist told me that Christianity is a crutch for weak people. He sneered and referred to Jesus as my imaginary friend. Having aggressive MS, I think I know a thing or two about weakness, crutches … and wheelchairs too. Jesus is not my imaginary friend – his presence has come into clearer focus the sicker I become. He is truer and more faithful to me than I have been to Him. He continually advocates to the Father on my behalf.
I have always slept well, But a few years after being diagnosed with MS, the attacks were so erratic and vicious, I found myself being awakened in the middle of the night by a presence. It was Him. His message was unstated but clear: “It is I, be not afraid,” or more precisely, “I am. Be not afraid.”
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Apostle tells us that Christ has always been with God and that all things came to be through him. He wrote, “Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness – and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.4-5.)
The triune God is the Creator of all reality, life, understanding, and the source of all authentic illumination. I had to trust that Christ would somehow light the darkness of my fears and outright terror. That marked the beginning of my search for meaning in my suffering.
Again, I got a hint for my search from Pope John Paul who once said, “[I]n order to perceive the true answer to the ‘why’ of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of meaning of everything that exists.” He told us that love is the richest source of meaning of suffering and that it remains a mystery.
If God is love then I must turn to Him for illumination in the midst of my slow destruction. The answer to the “why” of suffering ultimately depends on our ability to comprehend the perfection of divine love, beginning at the cross.
The reason for Christ’s Passion, and death on the cross was to settle with God the problem of human sin and evil. People suffer whenever they experience evil. The ultimate suffering is the loss of eternal life. Christ’s atoning sacrifice, his suffering and crucifixion, offering himself in our place to pay the penalty for our sins – liberating from evil all who believe this. Notice how closely evil is bound to suffering – specifically the suffering of Jesus Christ at Calvary. How we respond to His sacrifice for our sakes, can open the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the life of the person who suffers. This is the beginning of discerning the idea of divine mercy. In my case the idea of divine mercy broke my heart because I was/am so undeserving of it. It called me anew to repentance and keeping short accounts with God. It introduced me to the blessing of being “poor in spirit”. This state of spirit poverty is the forerunner of internal transformation and transcendence.
It was important for me to resist the temptation to become bitter, not to focus on my predicament, and simply surrender to the perfect and divine love of Christ. Through my Redeemer’s outstretched arms on the cross, He invited me to unite my suffering with his suffering.
Imagine that! I was invited into Christ’s redemptive suffering. This marked a critical transition point in my acceptance of suffering and stop resisting what I could not control. It required me to relinquish to Him ownership of my pain. It required that a shift take place in my spiritual mindset in order to realize that it is more important to understand than be understood.
I was being called to set aside self-interest and ego and follow Christ with complete abandon. This is in complete antithesis to my egotistical and self-absorbed nature. Christ was calling me, in my sorrow and pain, to transcend beyond myself and unite my suffering with his at the Cross (just as he calls you to transcend yourself).
Jesus told us that we must be willing to take up our cross daily and follow Him. It is not easy for us to take up our cross but it is necessary, if truth means anything. It requires us to daily recommit ourselves to bear up under the weight of our cross and follow him. But follow Him where?
I my own weakness I have been so irrationally afraid to take up my cross and follow Christ because I feared it might lead to a Golgotha. Yet divine logic assureds me I can rest in Christ’s embrace as a child of God. I remember those words: “Be not afraid. I am with you.”
If I carry my cross of suffering in union with Christ’s redemptive suffering, it does not lead to the understanding that Christ raised human suffering to the level Redemption in him – if we will accept it – a sharer in Christ’s redemptive suffering.
This is what Pope John Paul called the eloquence of the cross. Death for the believer completes the eloquence of the Resurrection.
Suffering in unison with Christ has helped me to see Resurrection in a whole new light. My hope in, and anticipation of the Resurrection helps me to go through my darkest days of humiliations, my agonies, my doubts and my fears.
The Apostle Paul said, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We can, through faith, discover that Christ’s redemptive suffering gives us insights into our own suffering. I am convinced this is what St, Paul meant when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I love, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself for me.”
A suffering heart can rest in the hope of God and comfort of the Holy Spirit. The sufferer begins to realize they are mysteriously being transformed and made fit for heaven. If we open our sufferings to Christ’s love it will inevitably begin a spiritual transformation.
Throughout the ages it has been observed that suffering has the concealed power to draw the sufferer toward Christ, if the sufferer allows it. I have discovered that Christ grants a special grace that transcends my suffering. As I said before, suffering has the capacity to strip away all things extraneous to life leaving only that which is essential.
Suffering has taught me that at the center of existence lies a beautiful mystery. Once that mystery has been glimpsed everything else becomes an irrelevance, a diversion. That mystery is the light of Christ which creates a renewed quality of Christian conversion. Many people throughout history have discovered this truth including, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Milton, John Donne, and millions of ordinary people.
The 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne wrote his immortal 17th Meditation while convalescing from an illness that nearly killed him. Most people are aware of that’s Meditation’s passage: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Later in that same Meditation he speaks about the refining effect that suffering can have on one person but wasted on another. He wrote, “No man and hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.” Is this the case for all people who suffer? No, and Donne acknowledged this a few lines later when he wrote, “Another man may be sick too, and sick to the death, and his affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him.”
John Donne’s believed that suffering could be a blessing to the individual or others, if allowed to ripen a person’s spiritual character. These were insights from a man who defended suicide 15 years earlier in a scurrilous book Biathanatos. Why the change of heart ? Could it be that his suffering, an interior throes of his soul, had a purifying effect on his spiritual character?
Suffering is not what defeats people, suffering without meaning is what does that. All humanity longs for belonging. Our true belonging lies in surrender and resting in in the light of Christ. That is all I really know. In my suffering I have received a glimpse of the truth and the truth is setting me free. Not even crippled legs and wheelchair can take that from me.