The following is Part 5 of a 6-part article originally published in The Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart, Toronto, in 1980; reprinted here with permission.
It has been said that death is the last taboo to come out of the closet. Why choose life over death? If people can persuade themselves that there is nothing beyond the grave, why fear death? For those who promote this thinking, I would suggest that it is not only death, but life and suffering which they have failed to come to terms with.
How often we hear people say they would rather die than suffer! The unwillingness to suffer is reflected, in nearly all age groups, in the excessive use of alcohol and drugs and in escalating suicide rates to block out the reality of life. Not only are many unwilling to suffer themselves, they are unwilling to see others suffer. This would be natural if their response was to help the sufferer. Unfortunately their distorted response is to choose death for others, not only to relieve the presumed suffering of the patient, but more importantly, to relieve their own misery as bystanders. Their fear of suffering leads them to believe that the handicapped, the sick and even the unwanted are better off dead.
Pain and suffering are an integral part of living, touching every age group in society, yet much energy is used to try to avoid them. It is not difficult to see that one’s growth would be stunted without some suffering and sacrifice. Like metal which goes through the refiner’s fire, suffering should make us stronger, mature us, and build character. But does it? The important question is: How does one handle life’s unavoidable suffering? Perhaps it would help to understand voluntary suffering first.
Voluntary suffering, even on a natural level, can have real meaning, if there is a goal. The Olympic contestant, the ballet dancer, among others, can attest to the need, and to their willingness, to accept physical pain, suffering and sacrifice (restricted diets and social activities) for a goal – whether it be a gold medal or a starring role. Medical or surgical treatment involves pain and suffering – for better health. The dieter, in an effort to rid his body of the results of excess food and drink, sacrifices when he fasts to get back in shape, on a natural level we can see the link between pain and suffering and sacrifice, which all have meaning if there is a goal. Attaining the goal involves “love” of the sport, the dance, or good health.
Bishop Fulton Sheen has said, “Pain without love is suffering or hell. Suffering with love is sacrifice.” For the Christian, life’s suffering should take on new meaning. Voluntary fasting, self-denial, mortification, and self-discipline are needed for self-mastery and moral strength. These prepare us to handle the involuntary unavoidable pain and suffering which life brings. They also teach us to know the value of suffering, to recognize the suffering of others, and to unite our suffering with it and with Christ for the good of the Church. In the encyclical Mistici Corporis, Pope Pius XII observed, “deep mystery this, subject to inexhaustible meditation: that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body offer for this intention.”
In the summer of 1976, Robert V. Froehlick wrote an article for an organization called The Apostolate of the Suffering entitled Firm Roots in Christ. In it he states: “In the Apostolate of the Suffering we have a symbol which shows a flame coming from the earth. Its significance is a most important one in relation to sickness, suffering, and the handicapped. As we know, a flame, fire. has various qualities both constructive and destructive. A flame can give light, heat, direction, joy and happiness – or it can burn, destroy, and reduce to nothing everything around it, or in its path… When it shines through with the glow of Christ it radiates from the person a strength which not only sustains the one who suffers but gives peace and encouragement to those who care and associate with such a person… In contrast… this fire has the capacity to burn, destroy, and reduce to bitter anger the sufferer and those who care for them or have any association with them.” The author goes on to note how our hedonistic society seeks to avoid suffering through the escape hatch of violence – abortion and euthanasia – rather than understand and deal with it.
The Price of Ransom
In 1972 Pope Paul VI reminded us: “Christ transformed suffering into a positive thing, into the price of ransom, into a pledge of resurrection and of life. He conferred a secret sense and a powerful virtue on human suffering provided it is associated with His passion.”
Vatican II tells us, “By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 1:22).
Christ Himself issued the following invitation, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…For my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matt: 11.29-30). Many of us have witnessed the power of love to lighten a burden.
In Romans 8:18, St. Paul tells us, “I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us.” This is the goal to which mankind can look forward.
There are many other directions for the Christian to help him make the important and sometimes difficult decisions throughout his life. From Scripture we are told: “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him” (Deut. 30:19-20) “A curse on him who strikes down his neighbour in secret…a curse on him who accepts a bribe to take an innocent life…” (Deut. 27:24-5) “There are six things that Yahweh hates, seven that his soul abhors; a haughty look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood…” (Proverbs 6:16-17. “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full”(John 10:10)
Vatican II states: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person…whatever insults human dignity…all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practise them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).
There are many resources, secular and religious, which are tackling the problem of pain and suffering, pleading the cause of the (suffering) unwanted in society and responding to the real needs of the dying and their families, among them.
Caring for the Needs of the Suffering
The Apostolate of the Suffering is an organization which began in Italy in 1947 and in Albany, N.Y. in 1975. This group recognizes that suffering is an “unchosen vocation.” They acknowledge that “Christ transformed suffering into a positive thing.”
The Brothers and Sisters of the Suffering are those members of the Apostolate who care for the needs of the suffering members of this organization. (Apostolate of the Suffering. C/o Mrs. Ann Spuck, 2 Forest Ave., Cohoes, N.Y., 12047, USA).
The Catholic Union of the Sick in America (CUSA) is an organization for the physically handicapped, chronically ill, and other sick people. It was founded in France in 1914 and in America in 1947. The object of their work is to help members to better understand their special vocation as a suffering member of the Mystical Body of Christ. (CUSA, 176 8th St., Bayonne, N.Y. 07002, USA).
The Christian Fraternity of the Sick was founded in France in 1942 and introduced into Peru in 1967. Their activities include visits to the sick in hospitals or homes, meetings, retreats, studies and workshops as well as recreational activities for the handicapped. Reflection on Gospel values and the contribution of the sick to society is the basis of all their meetings. They believe that the most valuable contribution of the suffering is often “to be” rather than “to do.”
The Catholic Hospital Association, St. Louis, Missouri, 63104, has issued a document entitled Christian Affirmation of Life (CAL). It is the Christian answer to the Living Will. It is a statement of belief in the Christian teaching on death and resurrection. It is also helpful for meditating on, and preparing for, our own death.
Make Today Count was founded in Iowa, USA, by a terminally ill cancer patient while in remission. This is a self-help group of patients and their families.
Hospices or Palliative Care Units help the patient to live fully to the end of life; they concentrate on relieving anxiety, controlling pain, and providing companionship and spiritual comfort (if desired).
Human Rights Society is a non-denominational, non-partisan group in England, which was established “to plead the cause of unwanted and those who through old age, disablement, or handicap are threatened with deprivation.” (Human Rights Society, 27 Walpole Street, London, S.W.3, England).
The Options are Clear
Will we choose life with its sufferings, or death for ourselves and others? Will life’s sufferings mature us or destroy us and the innocent life around us? The answer is crucial in these days of the promotion of abortion and euthanasia (compassionate killing) and of rising suicide rates in all age groups. Our response will depend on whether we have a goal in life. It will also depend on the love, courage, and help we reserve to pursue that goal.
The options are clear: a caring, loving, compassionate, sympathetic society, or a society of violence, where death is the solution to suffering and social problems. In such a society, the violence not only kills the victim, it destroys the perpetrator.
Learning how to handle suffering – how to carry our cross – is surely one of life’s most important lessons.
Every great human achievement has involved suffering and sacrifice. William Penn reminds us of the importance of suffering. No pain, no palm;/No thorns, no throne;/No gall, no glory;/No cross, no crown.