My French uncle, whom I always knew as “l’oncle Jean,” recently died. I was struck once again by the dignity and mercy of a Christian death, despite the accompanying pain and anguish. Unlike Brittany Maynard from Oregon who, suffering from terminal brain-cancer, euthanized herself, and unlike “Laura” from Belgium who, though physically healthy, intends to end her life this summer, he did not choose death on his own terms. This meant that he had to experience the difficult descent into second childhood, loss of memory of those closest and dearest due to Alzheimers, and the forfeiture of most of his capacities. His wife could be there for him, but not (or hardly) vice versa. For he could no longer tend to his wife’s or his children’s needs for protection, advice and verbal exchange. It was extremely painful for them, threw them sometimes into utter darkness, verging on despair. Towards the end, he had a stroke.
Sitting next to him, praying with him, talking into his ear as he was descending into coma, as his breathing became more labored, and he was gasping for air like a drowning man, was a Golgatha to his wife and children. Only under such circumstances can one experience what it means to have one’s heart wrenched and broken, and how nothing but pain seems to exist, defining oneself and the world, inescapable, harrowing, crushing. Death is cruel and brutal. To some it comes kindly and softly, and offers a peaceful passing. But often it is not so, and it does no good to deny this, hide it under a veneer of sentimentalism or anaesthetize it by locking the dying away. Those who do give aid and comfort to promoters of euthanasia.
Yet at his funeral, the crushing weight of pain was transformed into a joy that tasted of Heaven. Yes, the mourning was real, and the necessity to say the final good-by to Jean this side of eternity carried a painful weight. And yet, it was as if the different threads that had appeared meaningless and chaotic on a piece of cloth composed a beautiful tapestry on the opposite side. Nothing had changed the fact that Jean had suffered and died—and yet everything had. Evidence of the supernatural is like a mustard-seed that starts off small but grows into a big tree. It is the yeast that leavens through reality; when it seems that nothing will ever change, we discover an unexpected transformation that makes our heart overflow with happiness.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This joy was caused by the realization that though Jean experienced suffering in his life (as well as an abundance of blessings), all those hurts had born fruit since love and faith—though often sinned against—had never been abandoned. This faithfulness was rewarded when the floodgates of God’s mercy opened. Christ’s words “see, I make all things new” from the Apocalypse, had come true. Through suffering and death, through the stripping of ourselves and of those we love, we are able to love radically, completely and with every fiber of our being. It leads to a resurrection we cannot imagine while in the midst of our suffering. And when we see how healing and transformation is possible through the mercy of God when we embrace our cross, our hearts may well burst with joy. This is how we will carry our wounds in Heaven: as signs of the victory of love that makes everything new.
But woe to us if we try to escape suffering through improper means. Suffering will still crush us no matter what we do. Illicit means will merely shift the pain, while attempting to create an artificial manmade happiness. Attempts to completely eliminate inevitable pain by terminating life cut us off from the fruits of human suffering since this approach assumes that nothing good can arise out of this natural process. The agony of death may have been curtailed, but the hopelessness taking its place is much worse and different in kind from the darkness experienced as one approaches eternity.
With hindsight, what had seemed like unmitigated suffering for Jean and his family already carried in it the promise of something else. Though Jean in his dementia might have appeared to some like the shell of a man, he was still there, underneath it all. His capacity to love and appreciate others shone through (though he could also get angry). He was concerned for the personnel treating him as for the other patients in the nursing-home where he spent the last three years of his life. When shown photos of masterpieces or given an opportunity to hear great music, he would react with much admiration and satisfaction. In a way, that’s what really matters, the unum necessarium, our capacity to love often comes truly to the fore when our defenses have been hollowed out and collapsed under a suffering we have accepted. In it, we become Christ-like. Jean certainly did.
Mother Teresa spoke of herself as a saint of darkness, for God seemed absent to her during the last 50 years of her life. She realized that she was participating in Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Olives and in the darkness experienced by the poor and dying. Yet this inner night merely hid God’s presence to her, while shining through her to others. Mother Teresa encouraged people to let Christ enter into their inner Calcutta, for he alone can bring light into the abyss that looms large as we approach death. Only God is capable of entering this pit and God alone can fill it. But if we run away from death, we are cutting ourselves off from the realization that it does not have the last word, that it can become redeemed by love. When we euthanize someone it means we believe this abyss is the ultimate reality, that suffering is meaningless and hopeless. But if we enter this darkness, we will come to see that Love itself dwells there, though it speaks softly and treads lightly.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Death of St. Margaret” was painted by Jozsef Molnar in 1857.