The archdiocese I live in is hosting an end-of-life series over the next couple of weeks. I missed the first one and will not be able to make the third one but I did attend last night’s session. The priest addressing Redemptive Suffering used Salvifici Doloris by Pope John Paul II to situate his remarks initially. He opened with the beautiful Anima Christi, a beautiful, powerful prayer attributed to St. Ignatius. He spoke of a peace that comes from suffering for those who know the Risen Christ.
I keep picking up this question of suffering and honestly do not know what to do with it. I love the familiar Anima Christi prayer that is used in the Spiritual Exercises which ends with this sentiment:
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever. Amen.
I think that is the easiest part of dying – knowing where I am going and what awaits me. I will hear my Shepherd’s voice and go to that place of endless praise. It is the preceding part that causes anxiety for many. How well do we suffer? How comfortable are we with the emotional suffering of those around us who watch us in our pain? I have heard the sentiment often over the years that, out of love, assisted physician death is the choice. I have not quite understood this sentiment. I would argue that it is out of fear.
We tend to not understand suffering or understand how Christ can be present on this side of death, as the priest said last night. The Suffering Servant has shown us that there is great pain for both the person undergoing the process of dying and for those who love that person. I am still not sure what to think about the concept of redemptive suffering but I do agree that it has something to do with love. We should not make our final decisions out of fear.
When I saw this statue of Judas kissing Jesus at the time of betrayal at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I had a reaction to it. I think I have the same reaction to families who say that the decision to have a physician-assisted death is done out of love, too. I know this sounds judgmental. I only can tell you what seems true to me at the moment as I struggle with these big questions.
Judas uses a sign of love to betray Christ. I know that some members of families may believe that ending the life of their loved one prematurely is an act of love but I wonder if this is really the case. Is it because we cannot bear the thought of someone in anguish? Is it our own discomfort with suffering? When I was in the hospital after my surgery, my central line made people uneasy. I called it my vampire jewelry. I do not think anyone but me found that funny. It did not bother me while it was in. I had several tubes in me and that one was the least of my concern or discomfort. I sensed that people wanted something different for me though and I could not understand why they wished that this life-giving line would be removed. I did not let their discomfort rule my heart or head.
As I muddle through these end of life questions for myself, I have no pat answers. For me, I believe in natural death. My faith tells me that is the right decision and I feel at peace with it. At the same time, and perhaps the confusing piece is that I believe we do not have to cling to life–but I do not mean that we should play God. I hold the length of days I am given lightly. I do not feel the need to search the universe for a cure. I want instead to enjoy the life I have left. That may dictate decisions about health care choices like forgoing further chemo treatments. I have not figured these mysteries out yet. I find myself returning again and again to long life or short, sickness or health….I will love, honour and serve God whatever comes.
I cannot say that I am fearless about the suffering that may come. After the death of a neighbour, I spoke to her widower who told me she did not experience much pain at all physically. I spoke too to an oncologist who said I might not either. One of the comments last night was that suffering is not so much a physical attribute as a spiritual one. I think of the quote I came across lately too that said attitude makes the difference between an adversity and an adventure. I want to come to my last days with an attitude that makes an adventure to be valued for myself and those around me–not an adversity to be overcome. The pacifist in me tires of the violent language of beating, fighting, battling, and kicking butt and with that comes the ultimate violence of curtailing life. What are we really asking of the doctors who care for us? Do we have this right to ask such a thing of them?
What is the loving thing to do? That is the question most on my mind in so much of my daily decisions now. Do I see that friend today? Do I tell people that I care about them? Do I speak my mind about an act of kindness that I observe? Do I express my gratitude or withhold it? When I see Judas kiss Jesus, I understand how he wept and threw the blood money away. What he once knew so clearly shatters apart when Truth stands before him. What is the Truth in these end of life situations? Believers and non-believers will have different answers but so will believers themselves, especially those who have watched their love ones endure endless hours of pain over weeks and months of being ill. My Truth is that Jesus came to bring us Life and that is our gift, right up until our last natural breath. I cannot toss that present back at the Giver. I want to believe that even though lots will change for me from now until my dying breath, that my life will still be a gift. I know that dying can be heart-wrenching. I have been at that bedside more than once in my life. I wish I could spare my people the sorrow but I cannot and will not. I am asked quite often if I am in pain and when I say no, the relief in the inquirer is evident. The intention is good yet I struggle to know how to receive the underlying message.
After all these years of doing accompaniment work with the bereaved, I know that the grief will still be harsh, whether I suffer or not. I have heard spectacular stories of healing and peace at the end of what some people call suffering. Is it possible that death can be beautiful–or that dying can hold some beauty? I think so. I treasure some of the stories that I have been told or witnessed about final hours–of arms wide open as if to welcome unseen Messengers who arrive to welcome Home those who are ready, of a peace that floods over the person and all those in the room, or simply eyes that shine with great joy. I do not for a minute want to romanticize suffering but I do think suffering does not have the last word. Something greater can. We need to pay attention to that.
I am still unpacking my thoughts about this as my country passes laws and gives the dying person options. I want to explore these big questions for my own benefit in the months ahead but I find myself returning to the Anima Christi, knowing that it will be my Beloved who bids me come and that seems worth waiting for. I do not want to be betrayed by a kiss; I want to be welcomed Home with a hug and a well-done, faithful servant. Then I want to settle in and sing praises forever.
Can dying hold some beauty?
Does suffering hold a redemptive quality?
Beloved, when the time comes, bid me come to you in peace and beauty. May I be open to Your will alone, and ever-vigilant against voices that try to convince me they know better. Amen.