Sunday May 19, 2019
4:44 pm
Bishop Hying

Death is our most creative act; the ultimate gift of self to God and others

       As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on February 26, 2017     

 

       I recently learned that the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have launched a laudable initiative entitled, “The Art of Dying Well,” an effort to help the elderly, sick and dying, who often face terrible loneliness and abandonment, to find the care, companionship and support they need.

       Despite many efforts to change our cultural ethos surrounding death, it remains a difficult, and even taboo, subject for many. In a society that values health, strength, beauty and productivity, an elderly, sick, lonely person appears to be of little value. Without a spiritual, or at least a humane vision of the person, physician-assisted suicide seems both logical and necessary.

       As Christians, we view death through the transforming lens of Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection. Because God personally embraced our suffering and mortality, these painful realities contain a new and transcendent meaning. Good Friday and Easter do not magically erase the fact that we all must die, but we now have a path through the dark night, a way that leads to the fullness of eternal with God and with each other.

       In facing the great unknown of this mysterious passage, we surrender our fears, anxieties, control and plans into the hands and heart of the merciful One who has traveled this way before us. In this context, death is our most creative act, the final summation of life, the ultimate gift of self to God and others.

       Gaining in popular acceptance, both in the United States and around the world, physician-assisted suicide seems inevitable and even merciful to those who have little or no vision of death as a sacred event. 

       If efficiency, independence, vitality and work are the ultimate metrics of a meaningful and successful life, then old age, chronic pain and the difficulty of death have no place. “Putting someone out of their misery” appears just, humane and merciful. 

       Even though this logic feels cold and cruel to many of us, others simply see it as helpful and good. If we are masters of our own destiny, then people should have the right to end their own lives if they conclude that going on is unbearable for themselves and a burden to others.

       As Christian disciples, we cannot simply be against physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia; we must generously and lovingly offer the love and kindness that our brothers and sisters facing death need in order to surrender well. We need formation regarding end-of-life decisions, helping people to not cling to life at all costs and through all artificial means on the one hand, and to embrace the integrity, purpose and sacredness of the dying process by allowing its natural progression, on the other. 

       How do we create communities of care for the elderly, especially those who live in isolation and have no one to help? Are some people choosing physician-assisted suicide simply because they feel no one cares whether they live or die, that nobody truly loves them? Imagine facing old age and death alone, feeling unloved and unnoticed. Is this not the deepest experience of desolation and suffering?

       I applaud all of the caregivers of every type who accompany and help others to die well, surrounded by prayer, love, support and medical assistance. Some of our parishes offer sessions on these important topics. Such efforts are an essential part of the mission of the Church as we help each other journey towards the Kingdom of God. 

       Nursing homes, hospices and private homes of the elderly and dying become sacred places where beloved brothers and sisters can make the passage from death to new life with hope, peace, acceptance, dignity and even joy. 

       As a Church, how can we do this even better? What resources are lacking? Who are the individuals in our communities who are suffering and dying, unknown and perhaps unloved?

       I remember sitting with my parents in the hospital just a few weeks before my mother’s death. In an unforgettable moment, my mother turned to my father and asked him, “Did I love you enough?” 

       Wow!

       Clearly, she was taking stock of her whole life, preparing for death, asking the right questions and wondering if she had loved, believed and served enough. Clearly, she had, because only those who truly love feel like they are never loving enough. I cherish that powerful memory, not only for its emotional intimacy, but also as a beautiful witness of the sacred nature of the dying process. 

       A time to take stock of the gift of life.  A time to speak love, forgiveness and gratitude to others.  A time to spiritually prepare for the final journey. A time to surrender the limitations, suffering, achievements, joys and sorrows of this earthly sojourn into the merciful Heart of Christ.  The art of dying well. The Church has something to offer in life’s most creatively meaningful act.

 

       Editor’s note: To learn more about “The Art of Dying Well,” go to https://cruxnow.com/commentary/2017/02/17/bishops-england-wales-refresh-art-dying-well/

 

       + Donald J. Hying

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