Most of the time we don’t think about eternal life, just about the problems of this life. There is a story about a man who wanders the world asking, “What is life?” Finally he hears about a wise holy man high up on a holy mountain, and he climbs over glaciers, to be in the sage’s presence. “You disturb my silence,” says the sage. “Ask three questions and go!”
“What is life?” shouts the seeker through the howling wind. “Problems and suffering,” moaned the sage. “And beyond those?” “More problems, more suffering. Your third question please.”
“Is there another mystic higher up?” hissed the seeker.
But the sage was right, and second opinions don’t help. As a child I used to think that after exams, life would be problem-free – just as after a recession, life would be lovely. But when we solve one problem, another takes its place. It’s not so much that life is problems but they certainly do stand out. And we are driven to ask “why?”
Rev. Bede Jarret, O.P. opines poetically: “Life is eternal and love immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
My first encounter as a priest with death occurred shortly after my ordination in 1968. I had just finished celebrating the 5:15 p.m. mass, and Msgr. Mugan asked me if I would go over to the Rossi’s as Mr. Rossi had just dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. I jumped in the car, raced over, and found Mr. Rossi already cold to the touch, lying on the garage floor. I conditionally anointed him. Upon entering the house, I found Mrs. Rossi was sitting at the kitchen table in a state of shock, very subdued, downcast, absorbed in her own thoughts and sense of loss. When she saw me, she began to come out of her deep solitude and pounded the table repeatedly asking “why?”
I didn’t know what to do. Obviously, this was not the time to try and give a long catechesis on the mystery of suffering and death, so I simply sat down beside her, held her hands and said: “I don’t know – all I can tell you is that God loves you, He loves your husband, and we pray that Mr. Rossi is now with Him in heaven.” Then, uncharacteristically, I shut up. After few minutes, many neighbours and friends began to assemble, bringing support but adding to the chaos. I made a quiet exit telling Mrs. Rossi that we would sort things out with the funeral home.
Following the funeral, word got back to me that Mrs. Rossi was telling everyone that the new young priest was very kind, “he spent two hours with me the day my husband died.” It was really only ten minutes. The whole experience taught me a great deal about words not always being that important compared to presence, solidarity and faith in the midst of suffering, pain, and death. To be with another can be a timeless experience.
People of faith “live to die.” For the believer, the moment of death is the most important moment of “earthly” life. However, many people fear and wish to avoid death. There are also many families who do not want their loved ones to be told that death is near.
It should be understood that the one who is dying has the right and a need to know that death is imminent. A person in danger of death should be provided with opportunities to prepare for death. This entails being provided with information to help them understand their condition, as well as the opportunity to receive the sacraments.
When faced with a terminal illness, questions arise concerning the meaning of suffering. In addition to all the questions about pain management, other questions tend to surface in three domains:
1. Spiritual suffering: What do I really believe? Am I ready to meet my God? What is my unfinished business? What can I do to make peace with my God? Will God be merciful?
2. Emotional suffering: What bothers me the most? What relationships are unreconciled? Whom do I need to see and talk to before I die? How have I loved? How could I have been a better mother or father?
3. Psychological suffering: Who am I? Who have I become? Have I used the talents God gave me? Did I share them with others?
John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Salvifici doloris, states that Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Christ is the center of Sacred Scripture—this tells us that suffering is a key theme in his life. In the New Testament, Christ shows his concern consistently to those who suffer. He heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, feeds the hungry, frees people from deafness, from blindness, from leprosy, and from the devil. He is very sensitive to human suffering. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. It is precisely through suffering, through his own suffering, that Christ saves us and opens the way to eternal life.
This is the catechesis to offer especially for persons facing terminal illness—to assure them that they are loved and their suffering has meaning. Pastorally, I have found that, in addition to words, giving someone the rosary or a crucifix to hang onto, brings great consolation. Christ suffers voluntarily and suffers innocently. Suffering is the way to “mount the Cross,” the way to unite with the love of Christ.
The powerful mandate to co-suffer, to be a companion to another, is the opportunity that palliative and hospice care offer. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter on hope, Spe salvi, offers a deep understanding of co-suffering and compassion:
“The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “compassion” is a cruel and inhuman society” .
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary