As most of you know, the Washington, D.C. City Council recently took a step toward legalizing physician-assisted suicide for those with less than six months to live.
Although I have written elsewhere about the dangerous implications of this legislation, in today’s post I want to stand up for the dying, at home and in nursing homes, the fully lucid and those with advanced Alzheimer’s, those who are moving toward death relatively painlessly and those who are suffering.
As a priest, it has been my privilege to accompany many people as they prepare for death. Some have gone quickly; others have lingered for years. From a pure worldly perspective, death seems little more than a calamity and a cause for great sadness. But from the perspective of faith, there is something beautiful going on.
I know you may think it bold that I describe it this way, but in the dying process something necessary and quite beautiful is taking place. It is born in pain, but if we are faithful it brings forth gifts and glory.
I have seen these gifts unfold for the many I have accompanied in death, both parishioners and members of my own family. They forgave people, said and heard important things like “I love you” for the first time in years, let go of stubborn attachments, began (perhaps for the first time) to long for God and Heaven, and experienced many other healing and powerful things. Death focuses gives perspective like nothing else. In all this there is beauty as well as needed healing before judgment day.
I shudder to think that so many today fail to recognize these necessary fruits of dying and would so easily jettison its critical gifts, which come in an admittedly strange package.
In addition, in many who are dying I see two Scriptures essentially fulfilled.
I. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). When I walk the halls of nursing homes I behold a rather astonishing thing: Many men and women who raised families, ran businesses, protested bravely in the Civil Rights Movement, fought wars, gave sage advice to their children, and commanded respect in their communities have become like small children.
Some can no longer walk. Some need to be fed. Some cry and need consolation. Some clutch dolls. Some wear diapers, Some can no longer talk. Many need constant care. “How tragic,” the world says. But I see a beauty, for they are changing and becoming like children again. A kind of innocence is being restored, a complete dependence, without which they might never make it to Heaven. Their status as children is fully evident and they become humble enough for Heaven.
It’s painful but beautiful—very beautiful.
Some years ago, a very dear friend of mine died. Catherine had been the pastoral assistant and business manager of the parish of my first pastorate. She had been at the parish for more than 50 years and seemed to know just about everything, and I depended on her for practically everything. Rather suddenly, she came down with a rare and aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease. Within six months of the diagnosis she no longer recognized anyone. And yet there was a childlike joy that came over her. She had a favorite doll she hugged closely and when I would walk into the room she would light up. She did not seem to recognize me but she loved company. She would sing, and although I couldn’t make out the words, it seemed to be some sort of nursery song.
It was a remarkable thing to witness. Here was a woman on whom I had so thoroughly depended, now in such a dependent state. And yet she was happier than I had ever seen her. She had become like a little child, and it was clear that God was preparing her for Heaven. That was a gift, though a painful one.
Another great gift was this: Almost to her last day, she never failed to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. Long after she had stopped recognizing anyone else, she still received Holy Communion with great devotion. She might be humming or looking around, but as soon as I reached in my pocket for the pyx, she stopped, looked, made the sign of the cross, and folded her hands. That was the result of years of training and faithfulness. It was a beautiful testimony to her undying faith in the Eucharist and it was her last lesson to all of us.
II. There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple (Psalm 27:4).
Most of us who are still healthy and reasonably active would have a hard time praying this prayer absolutely. The fact is, we want a lot of things: good health, creature comforts, a pay raise, and for our pet project to go well. And oh yes, somewhere in all that, God and Heaven, but later; Heaven can wait.
How obtuse we can be in our desires! It’s really quite strange to want anything more than God and Heaven. And yet many struggle to want God more than the things of this world. Somehow God has to purge us of earthly desires gradually until all we want is Him.
And here, too, the dying process is so important and so beautiful. Little by little in life we give back to God our abilities, our health, and many of our loved ones. Finally, we are led to the point during our dying days when we are given the grace to give everything back.
I remember my father saying to me in his final weeks, “I just want to be with God.” I heard my grandmother say that too. Many others I have accompanied on their final journey have said the same thing: “I just want to be with God.” And they meant it, too; it wasn’t just a slogan. They had given everything back; their treasure was now in Heaven. They had sold all they had for the “pearl of great price.” Now they could sing the words of the old spiritual, “You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.” They had given away everything they had and were now ready to follow Jesus.
For most of us it, will take the dying process to get us to the point when we can say, “There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple.”
And so there it is, the “beauty” of dying. It is a strange and painful beauty to be sure, but a beauty nonetheless. In this age of increasing acceptance of suicide, that sees no value or purpose or value in the dying process, we do well to behold and proclaim its strange but true beauty. We must recognize the dignity of the dying, who fulfill Scripture as they make their final passage.
Surely we grieve, but through faith we also recognize this strange and wonderful beauty.
One of the finest hymns about dying, “Abide with Me,” was written by Henry F. Lyte in 1847, as he lay dying from tuberculosis.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.