Friday, March 25, 2005

Wine as Strong as Fire

Good Friday, Suffering, and Terri Schaivo For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. St. Paul, Corinthians 1:18 It is Good Friday today, the day that Christians remember the crucifixion. In the Catholic Church today's mass is called "the way of the cross" and we are encouraged to think hard about suffering and sacrifice. It is a long, almost exhausting service, during which the everyone present touches or even kisses the cross. For someone looking on from the outside, it must be a strange spectacle. In fact, it is not easy for the faithful either. The "Problem of Pain" is said to be one of the most difficult challenges that a Christian faces. If God is good, then why is there suffering in the world? Or sin? Why do we die? Why did Christ, innocent and blameless, have to die? Teri Schaivo, does she deserve to be in the helpless state that she is in?
Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
That passage is from Psalm 31, which was a part of today's readings. I think it captures well how we feel when our suffering weighs on us like an anchor, when we fear being a burden on others and we cannot see why we should bear it. Anyone in Terri Schaivo's situation could easily find themselves thinking along these lines, as could Christ himself, wondering why he should lay himself down for us, when even his chosen apostles could not stay awake and pray with him. In fact, our suffering need not be on a grand scale in order for us to question it. Why should we suffer anything at all? What is the point of it? In the Schaivo case, I think this is exactly what those in favour of her euthanasia see, and this is why they think letting her die is a mercy- even if she is not in much if any physical pain. They see her deprivation and cannot see the point of enduring it. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis distinguishes between suffering that is a consequence of the material reality of the world we live in. Its regularity creates a space in which we can work and act, manipulating it as we can, and growing both physically and spiritually as a result. The world's regularity also causes pain, as when a radio falls into the bathtub or we touch a hotplate unawares. These sorts of accidents can't be fairly blamed on God because, as Lewis tells us:
fixed laws, consequences unfolding by necessity, the whole, natural order, are at once limits in which... common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the extistence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.
The important thing to note here is that the regularity infused into the world by God has positive implications. Through it, we have freedom to act, to learn, and to choose. The freedom to choose is rightly seen as an extremely valuable property of life. For Christians, however, for reasons I can't go into here, not all choices are equally valid. For a Christian, some choices are not just unprofitable, they are wrong, and their wrongness springs from how they undermine and eat away at our relationship with God. Sin is like a cancer, in which some real pleasures grow unnaturally and press upon others until we are out of balance. We often sense this when we contradict the Natural Law. There is a sense of having crossed a line that it is better not to cross. Sometimes we call this feeling guilt. If we are attentive to it, and seek the Grace to accentuate our sensitivity, we can improve our ability to perceive where these lines are. This guilt is no more "repressive" than our reflex to pull a hand away from a hot flame. Writes Lewis, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Pain, then, can be seen as a feedback mechanism, prompting us to reconsider our choices. There is a serious problem, however, in that this description of pain, while accurate, is incomplete. It does not account for random and senseless events in which the victim has had no input into the result. Think of the victim of a stray bullet or of Mrs. Schaivo, who was unlucky enough to have had a heart attack that killed off most of her brain but not her body. What are we to make of acts like these? In the case of the stray bullet we see how we can be maimed by the sins of others as well as our own. We can, if we are able to see a bit beyond ourselves, how such an event can be a help to the person who caused it. It can be an opportunity "to plant the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul." What we can't allow is that God would use another person so cruelly, as a mere object used to teach another. What is the good pulled from this? Lewis writes:
If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us.
This is a difficult lesson, there is no way around it, because it strikes very deeply at our sense of pride. We do not at all like to be reminded that we are not responsible for our own existence. We are not in control. For the most part, we tend to bury that information and when it presents itself we can be hard pressed to deal with it. Thomas Merton wrote very well about this in No Man is an Island:
The effect of suffering upon us is dependent on what we love. If we love ourselves selfishly, suffering is merely hateful. It has to be avoided at all costs. It brings out all the evil that is in us, so that the man who loves only himself will commit any sin and inflict any evil on others merely in order to avoid suffering himself. ... In any case, if we love ourselves, suffering inexorably brings out selfishness, and then, after making known what we are, drives us to make ourselves even worse than we are. If we love others and suffer for them, even without a supernatural love for other men in God, suffering can give us a certain nobility and goodness. It brings out something fine in the nature of man, and gives glory to God Who made man greater than suffering. But in the end a natural unselfishness cannot prevent suffering from destroying us along with all we love. If we love God and love others in Him, we will be glad to let suffering destroy anything in us that God is pleased to let it destroy, because we know that what it destroys is unimportant. We will prefer to let the accidental trash of life be consumed by suffering in order that His glory may come out clean in all that we do.
This is why bearing pains and injustices has value, because it is a chisel scraping away parts of us that hide from us the true nature of our existence. In the movie Shadowlands, which was based on Lewis' short marriage, Lewis is often seen using that analogy to explain the existence of suffering in the world. It takes a whole new meaning, however, when his wife develops cancer and he is forced to confront the reality of what he has been teaching. It shakes him to the core and his faith is in real peril. Thankfully, in the end Lewis pulls through and is stronger and humbler for the experience. He becomes something more than he was before. Turning again to Terri Schaivo, it may very well be true, as Tech Central Station reports, that:
She has been in what is medically referred to as a "permanent vegetative state" for the past 15 years, ever since her heart temporarily stopped (probably due to the severe effects of an eating disorder), depriving her brain of oxygen. Brain scans indicate that her cerebral cortex ceased functioning -- probably just after she experienced cardiac arrest in 1990. Ms. Schiavo's CAT scan shows massive shrinking of the brain, and her EEG is flat. Physicians confirm that there is no electrical activity coming from her brain.
None of that tells us if and when she has made her peace with God on the very basic count of her very being being dependent on him. We don't know, and probably can't know, where and how that relationship has been resolved. Turning back to Psalm 31, we have an example:
In you, LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your justice deliver me; incline your ear to me; make haste to rescue me! Be my rock of refuge, a stronghold to save me. You are my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake lead and guide me. Free me from the net they have set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, LORD, faithful God. You hate those who serve worthless idols, but I trust in the LORD. I will rejoice and be glad in your love, once you have seen my misery, observed my distress. You will not abandon me into enemy hands, but will set my feet in a free and open space
If it is incomplete, we could be doing eternal damage to her by shortening her time on earth, as another TCS contributor notes. In Terri's case I think that our discomfort with her arises from the fact that her existence reminds us of something we'd rather not deal with. She is not in terrible pain, but there are many who are in distress when they look at her or think about her plight and I suspect that is the motive behind those who would suggest "pulling the plug" is an act of mercy. The pain is in the observers more than it is in the observed, and the observers, rather than seeing "the flag of truth" Lewis refers to, seek to press on with their confused rebellion (recall the quote from St. Paul above). One need not be a Christian or even a religious person to object to Terri's court sanctioned starvation. All you need is to recognize that we do not know what her status is. We don't know that the flat EEG is the final word. All other minds are a philosophical mystery that we accept on faith. Terri's mind may be physically different from ours as a result of her heart attack but that has no impact on our ability to know it. It's just as mysterious now as it was before that tragedy occurred. I do think that a religious faith is very helpful in recognizing this. Through religion, we do our homework and we come to situations like this better prepared to deal with our limitations. If we are very fortunate, we can see a great deal in even the seemingly senseless, as Thomas Merton does in this passage:
When I see my trials not as the collision of my life with a blind machine called fate, but as the sacramental gift of Christ's love, given to me by God the Father along with my very identity and my very name, then I can consecrate them and myself with them to God. For then I realize that my suffering is not my own. It is the passion of the Christ, stretching out its tendrils into my life in order to bear rich clusters of grapes, making my soul dizzy with the wine of Christ's love, and pouring that wine as strong as fire upon the whole world.

1 comment:

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