Friday, August 21, 2009

Reprint: Christianity vs. the Culture of Death

Current events, as well as the upcoming first anniversary of my father's death, and the fact that today would have been his 89th birthday, all make it seem appropriate to reprint this, from a year ago.

Elizabeth has a post, “How to Make Evil Sound Acceptable” about the euphemisms people who favor abortion use when discussing it. I’d like to tackle the same subject from the opposite direction: the slogans and phrases used by the culture of death concerning not the beginning, but the end of life.

First, this discussion should be prefaced by noting that for every rule, God's love can and does make exceptions, and so must ours. Every rule depends upon love (Matthew 22:38) and love trumps all.

Here, then, are some of the things urged upon us by the surrounding pagan culture; and here is how they contrast with Christian faith.

“We shouldn’t prolong a person’s life if –” wait! Stop. Halt. We’ll get to the “ifs” in a moment. But even before that, Christian teaching disagrees. You cannot “prolong” a person's life. It will never be longer than God wills it to be. You can either actively or passively shorten it, because God's will includes your freedom to do that, but it's a sin; it's playing God.

In Christianity, the right thing to do is leave it to God to end a person’s life at the time He knows is best. We do not presume to be wise enough, knowledgeable enough, or frankly, disinterested enough to know when that is. We do not take the decision out of God’s hands, for to do so would be to distrust Him. We support life to the best of our ability until God brings it to its close (recognizing that our ability may fall short of what it ought).

“We shouldn’t prolong a person’s life if he is in misery.” In Christianity, suffering has meaning. It even has deep meaning, precious meaning; yes, even salvific meaning. That is, suffering can actually be an indirect cause of our salvation. Dixie was kind enough to point out to me the story of Nun Synkletiki, who miraculously survived the collapse of that skywalk in Chicago, to illustrate the point that suffering, for us, is NOT something to be avoided at all costs. Go read it if you want to see some uses of suffering. Suffering can purify us, can provoke much growth in faith, in love, in character. I have a post on the subect here.

St. Paul writes:

We also glory in suffering, knowing that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

It’s not for nothing that the very symbol of Christianity is the Cross. "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." (Galatians 5:24) "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." (Galatians 6:14)

“We shouldn’t prolong a person’s life if he has no quality of life.” The fact is that what the culture of death calls “quality of life” is subjective. We can look at, for example, a demented person and say he or she must be miserable, because we think we would be in the same situation. But the demented person more likely doesn’t have enough awareness of his or her circumstances to lament them – or at least will not for very long. As far as we know, he has no sorrows because he can’t remember anything sorrowful; has no worries because he can’t think of anything worrisome. As far as we know, but the main point is, we don’t. According to Christian teaching, even if we can discern what’s in a person’s mind, his deeper self, his soul, remains hidden to us, visible only to God. Maybe his soul, for its education, needs to experience what we imagine is a poor quality of life. Maybe his soul is rejoicing in affliction, as St. Paul describes. Christians trust God and consider it blasphemous as well as ungrateful to reject or (with rare exceptions) to fail to support God’s gift of life. Christian life, life with, in, and as Christ, is always worth living.

“I would rather die than have to be fed and bathed and dressed by others, and carried to the bathroom and have my butt wiped by others. That’s jut too degrading.” From a Christian perspective, such things are given to us to perfect us in humility, that cardinal virtue without which love is impossible, hence salvation is impossible (for to be saved is precisely to be conformed to and perfected in the love of Christ). Such indignities are to be borne with fortitude and patience. The Christian attitude is, “This is no more than I deserve; in fact, I deserve much worse.” The Christian attitude is that the all-loving God Who let this happen for our ultimate good knows what He is doing and we therefore accept any fate gladly, gratefully, believing it was chosen for our maximum benefit; that is, for the maximum benefit of our truest selves, not necessarily our animal selves. Furthermore, Christ Himself set us the example when He hung, naked, upon the Cross for our sakes. When we suffer similar indignities, we are imitating Him, we who are unworthy to do so.

And by the way, why is any of this any more "degrading" than, say, a Pap smear, a rectal exam, a colonoscopy, or lying on your back on a guerney, spread-eagled, bottom exposed, having a baby in the hospital? Or being a baby, for that matter?

“I wouldn’t want to be that kind of a burden on others.” The Christian experience – not just teaching, mind you, but experience – is that the more one loves, the less burdensome the burden is of caring for one another. At least, the less burdensome it seems. It may be physically and emotionally burdensome, but love lends it a unique delight, a piercing sweetness not to be had in any other way. To care for others, even when that requires much of us, isn’t some grim duty; it is true joy. It is the discovery of our best personhood. We are never nearer heaven than when we carry such burdens. We find self-sacrifice liberating and healing for ourselves.

Furthermore, to the extent we love, the person for whom we are caring will feel and know it. He will not be made to feel he is a burden. He will instead be someone with whom we share all our sorrow and joy, and all his. He will be an extension of ourselves, and we will be extensions of him, because we will all be cells in the same Body, the Body of Christ. We will all be partakers of the same Life, Christ’s life, the life of the Holy Spirit animating His Body. He and we will cherish every moment together, through every hardship and every merriment. My sister Barbara, as she lay in pain, didn't want to take much morphine, for fear it would deprive her of the joy she took in our company. In the end, she didn't even want to close her eyes even for a moment, "Because then you will all be gone." Love makes all suffering well worth it!

“There comes a time when we have to make decisions for the living instead of for the dying.” Note that as soon as we say this, we are giving up the pretense of acting in the best interests of the "dying" person. Can't have it both ways. Can't use both excuses.

The grain of truth here is that sometimes there is nothing we can do for the one seemingly nearest death, and must concentrate instead upon those around him. But we are all of us living until the moment of our death. We are all of us dying, too. And the person who never learns self-sacrifice will die without ever having fulfilled his own humanity. To be an authentic human person is to be a lover. To choose in favor of someone else, even at our material, physical, or emotional expense, is ultimately to choose in favor of ourselves, because our true, inner man grows and is made manifest to us only by being exercised.

“S/he isn’t going to get any better.” Of course, we do not actually know that for sure. But even if we did, it’s beside the point, for Christians.

“So are we doing her a favor by prolonging her life?” Yes! Not by “prolonging” it, but by supporting it and allowing it to be lived until its God-given end. Who knows what good, what precious moments, may also occur during those remaining days, weeks, or months; or whether the remaining time might make all the difference in a person’s eternal destiny?

In sum, all these pat slogans of the pagan culture of death, although they may sound pious on the surface, are actually expressions of distrust of God, rejection of His gift of life, rejection of His providence, pride, unwillingness to sacrifice for another or endure suffering for ones own growth. They promote an agenda that is thoroughly self-serving, yet for that very reason ultimately self-destructive. That is why they can’t help also sounding so smug.

Again, there are always exceptions. There are times when, due to human weakness and/or the imperfections of this fallen world, the most compassionate thing to do is indeed to let nature take her course. But such times are exceptions. When these exceptions become necessary, one should confess the human weaknesses that make them so. As in, "We simply cannot care for him any more. It is wrecking our marriage, our family, our finances, our sanity" or whatever. We should then go and do what is necessary, and best in the circumstances, but be honest about it, not using such slogans as I've noted here as excuses. If you consider yourself a Christian, take heed not to fall for them.


Chris said...

Eternal Memory to your father, Anastasia. My grandmother just died the other day at 87. I understand where you are coming from with this article and it really took me aback about how many members of my own family were speaking in this same way with regards to her.

The thing that shocks me is how many Christians talk like this. And I suppose that is the ineveitable conclusion when repentance ceases to be central in the Christian life. There is a story that when Bernard of Clairvaux was about to die, he shouted that he could not because he still had so much more repenting to do! But he died, nonetheless. Sir Winston Churchill said that if one was given the choice of life imprisonment or execution, the person should choose life imprisonment? Why? For repentance.

Bishop BASIL (if you go to the St. George Cathedral in Wichita website) has a wonderful sermon on the Gift of life. Too many have seen life as disposable. This is an excellent corrective.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thanks, Chris, for the kind comments. I'm sorry for your fresh loss. May your grandmother's memory be eternal!

Okay, I'm going to read the Bishop's sermon right now!