The Wisdom of the Grave
The effects of the mass-communication of ideas often emerge in the comments of an ordinary conversation reflecting the extent to which people accept the predominant outlook of the Age. Today’s culture is preoccupied with prosperity, security, and the tangible pleasures of life and is unwilling to find valid answers to the problem of suffering and death. Developments in medicine, particularly in transplant surgery, have encouraged the idea that we should be able to prevent or cure all illness. Suffering is seen as a meaningless burden both to the patient and those around him, so that comments are often made that it is far better to die suddenly and swiftly, and without warning. A particular viewpoint is, that the only right and proper solution in such circumstances is to make death as swift and easy as possible, leaving the responsibility of choosing such a release with the individual. This is Euthanasia. It is the consequence of a materialistic outlook that finds it hard to contemplate suffering and death except in a sensational or sentimental way.
Denying God’s Presence
This logical conclusion of the culture’s outlook is a denial of God’s power and wisdom and, above all, of His love. A cry just to be rid of pain is not worthy of man. It is natural to question pain and seek meaning in it. Suffering leads to recollection, and approaching death can break materialistic values and bring out the best in people, showing them the things that are for their peace. Real truths about man and his dependence on God’s mercy are brought to light along with patient love and kindness. This is where we can see victory replacing defeat.
When Jesus was facing death he said to his disciples ‘Watch with me’. This attitude of heart and mind is a positive approach to those in the extremities of suffering and death, for there is much to be received from the situation and the person dealing with it. Their experience has a meaning that is not a long defeat of living but a positive achievement in dying, that is an incident in life. In so many ways we are conscious of God’s hand on all that is happening, and it would not be wrong to expect to see this with unusual clarity in a situation which is nothing less than the meeting place between this world and the next. This will dispel the fear that can fill the minds of those who surround a person in such suffering and which is so often transferred to the sufferer without explanation or help. Negative thoughts linked with the attitude that he ‘must not know, whatever happens’, only reduces all those involved to helplessness.
A Way of Union
Where there is a willingness to watch closely and share deeply, such anxieties and fears are dispelled, and though we may not find all the answers to the questions which suffering and death pose, we find instead a Person, God in Christ, and our questioning is turned into wonder. When suffering and the diminishments of death are turned into an offering of love then it becomes a way of union. Union, first with God who comes to take a soul to Himself and also a new coming together with those whom we love, and so separation can be transformed. Many, who are finally stripped of all they counted as theirs, seem to be nothing more than a light in which God shines. At this extremity of life they are not less themselves but more, and have an intensity of love and a capacity for union that we can admire but cannot yet fully share. As we watch we glimpse a way in which darkness is comprehended by light and death is swallowed up in victory.
A culture that shuns the dying has an incomplete philosophy. For the dying remind us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, and encourage us to ask the most important questions of life. If the dying can be helped to find God, not as a mere escape from fear, but as the One who has been seeking them in different ways all their lives, then any suffering is used and transformed, and, like Job, those who question find their questions die away in the presence of God.
Remember too, that your priest can bring to those who are suffering and dying what none of the support agencies can give, a ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham and Tutor at St. Chad’s College.