My wife sent me a link from the Washington Post early on Sunday morning. I read the story and thought of what I had just written about the things happening with the old and the young and the in between people in Great Britain. Then we went to Mass where I ran into Father Pierre who asked me a question, and made a comment. Finally I listened to his homily, and things started to fall into place for me.
I am not a very smart fellow, and I need a lot of help figuring my way through things which puzzle me, which might appear as simple as a walk to the mailbox for anyone else. It is a good thing there are people who pity me every once in a while and shed a little light on my darkness.
The story in the Washington Post says that in England “doctors who are atheist or agnostic are twice as likely to make decisions that could end the lives of their terminally ill patients, compared to doctors who are very religious.” It is a short article with a link at the bottom to the Journal of Medical Ethics. The article gives no indication why atheist or agnostic doctors make the decisions they do, and I was unable to read the JME article. So, I have no idea what the researchers found.
I have my suspicions, though, and they all point toward the fruit of a certain mythical tree. I wondered upon what or whom would such a doctor rely for decisions like this but the wishes of his patient or his own judgments about the usefulness of life? I can think of no way that one can arrive at this position other than from eating that fruit and deciding it is good.
I had read the article when I met Father Pierre in church before Mass. He asked me how I was, wondering about my mental health I suppose because of the “darkness” of a couple of the things I’ve written lately. I had Julian of Norwich’s words on my mind just then and paraphrased them in my answer, adding that it is sometimes hard to keep one’s mind focused on that.
You may remember the Gospel passage from Mass yesterday about taking the last seat at the banquet, about humility in all things. Mariellen, God love her, pointed out something to me as Father Pierre was talking after he’d read that passage to us. Mariellen patted me on the shoulder and whispered, “You can use this!” Father had mentioned August Renoir. He said that as an old man the painter was so crippled with arthritis his brushes had to be wrapped into his twisted hands. His friend, Henri Matisse, once asked him why he painted still. Renoir replied, “The beauty remains. The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Immediately several thoughts occurred to me. I thought first of Samuel Johnson who was so crippled and deformed all of his life that he could not dress himself. Yet what had he done with his life, and how well had he lived it, despite great pain and discomfort?
Here is something Johnson wrote in a letter to a friend which I think is marvelous:
“ Let us endeavor to see things as they are, and then enquire whether we ought to complain. Whether to see life as it is, will give us much consolation, I know not; but the consolation which is drawn from truth if any there be, is solid and durable: that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.” Letter to John Bennet Langton
I thought of the poet Milton and his blindness. I thought of Beethoven and his deafness. I thought of the scientist Stephen Hawking with his crippling disease, becoming the father of two children long after many thought he would have been dead from ALS.
I thought also of two small people in the eyes of the world who were close to me. A little more than ten years ago Sheila, may she rest in peace, was near death from her cancer. She was having great difficulty breathing and needed to go into the hospital. Her doctor had told me I could expect this, but added that he would do anything I wanted. I remember answering him that “I only want her helped.” I knew what was being offered me. The ambulance took her and I followed, staying with her until late that night. I remember sitting, holding her hand, she mostly unresponsive, and thinking, “Even like this she is precious to me, her life is worth something.”
The next morning I returned early to find her dead when I entered the room, or so I thought. She had been placed on a morphine drip and was deeply sedated. I called the nurse and asked what was wrong. She told me that the doctor had ordered this for her comfort. I asked that it be removed. Fully five hours later she was alert and speaking with me. We went home and three weeks later she died in my arms — too soon of course.
And, I thought of Mariellen’s father, may he rest in peace, who died in almost the same place as did Sheila under quite different conditions. He was restive, what they term an “escape risk”, yet terminally ill with cancer. On his last night, we were given a choice to keep him at home by sedating him (since he wouldn’t stay otherwise), or allow him to be hospitalized where he would be even more heavily sedated. We chose the former option, and he died that night.
We have never been able to escape the knowledge that our sedative treatments hastened his death. Of course, we are sure that he would have died fairly soon in any case; but thinking that we had made it soonER is a disturbing thought, even though we know it would have been even worse at a hospital.
Can there be something in building the equations, constructing the calculus of decisions about the end a life, that they overlook: these atheist and agnostic doctors, secular ethicists and ordinary people who believe a life whose end they control is the only way to live? Would they ever think so? Or has the fruit of that tree, call it a dietary supplement for self-esteem, conferred on them the bliss of ignorance about such things? This is what nags at me, this thought about willful blindness to the truth being at the root of all of these vexing and dangerous ideas and policies. That and the increasingly evident spirit of what I am coming to think of as sloth creeping over us, a kind of draining of energy. But that’s a matter for another day.
As we drove home after Mass, I thought about the rest of my recent message — the young people who are infecting themselves at alarming rates with venereal diseases, and the only solution being suggested, more sex education. In considering the absurdity of the situation, suddenly I thought of “bungee jumping”. I do have a crazy mind. It seemed to me that our current sexual culture is morally equivalent to that “extreme sport”. Here, the responsible adults are telling the children, “We understand that you will want to see if you can leap from a height and feel the thrill of flying. We sometimes feel the same way. That will kill you, or maim you of course. But, we have developed this to minimize the risk, since we know you will do it anyway. Of course, we also know that sometimes a catch fails, a cord breaks. But, there is such a thing as acceptable risk.”
Statistics, you see.
No one thinks of telling them to avoid cliffs. Rather they simply think of allowing, providing equipment and training and (of course) making money from it all.
As we got nearer home yesterday morning I thought about Mary the young girl in Nazareth, and Joseph, her chaste spouse: one whose purity of heart and life merited her the honor (and the sorrow) of being the mother of Truth incarnate, and the other who was a witness to and guardian of that Truth.
In a recent address he gave to a group in Slovakia, Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke about “truth”, and quoted Cardinal Henri de Lubac, who once wrote that “It is not true … that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true, is that without God, [man] can ultimately only organize it against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”