Last Words

Goethe’s last words were “Mehr Licht” (more light). Mortally wounded, John Wilkes Booth muttered, “Useless. Useless.” John Belushi begged, “Just don’t leave me alone.”

History is full of famous last words, but today they’re falling silent for two, very practical, reasons: dementia and morphine. As medicine advances, particularly in prosperous regions, we’re living longer. Many of us will die demented, simply because we’ve survived heart attacks, strokes or cancer. And those who die earlier typically don’t die in great pain because of morphine, a plant alkaloid, first isolated in 1804, and now dispensed under nearly a hundred trade names. As a Carmelite, who desired to offer the suffering caused by her tuberculosis to God, Thérèse of Lisieux refused the drug, but most people, and their families, are willing to trade clarity of thought and expression for the relief of suffering. Often, at bedside, they reaffirm that decision at almost hourly intervals. 

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In consequence, life and the way it ends for us have both changed. Our final clear thoughts and expressions will precede our last breaths by weeks, perhaps even years. Soon, teachers will need to explain to students, reading a novel or a history book, how deathbed confessions and testaments were once possible.

How priests attend the dying has also changed. We celebrate sacraments—offer communion, anointing and absolution—to souls separated from us by clouds in consciousness. Not long ago, I gave communion to two women dying of cancer. I knew what to expect in the first room. She gratefully recognized the sacrament she received, but her pain medication permitted little more than this. It was to be expected.

I wasn’t prepared for the room down the hall, where Holy Communion was gratefully received but pursued by tears. “Father, why is God allowing me to suffer so?”

“I don’t know. I only know that God loves you and that God is with you.” 

“Yes, but why can’t I die? I pray and I pray. I only want the suffering to end.”

“It won’t last forever. It will come to an end.” As I said this, I caressed the back of her head and felt a large bump. I didn’t recoil, but she knew what I had felt.

“That’s my cancer, Father. God has abandoned me. He doesn’t hear my prayers.”

“The Father allowed the Son to die on the cross, but he didn’t abandon him. God was there. You must pray to remain open, to keep your faith and your hope in God alive.”

That’s what we said, more or less. Even had I been prepared for the exchange and had summoned some eloquence, there was scant more truth to be totaled. Suffering is the great enigma of human life. We can’t accept the notion that it is meaningless, yet its darkness devours our explanations for it.

Some would insist that suffering precludes the very possibility of God, though, in my experience, it’s generally quite comfortable folk who make that claim. I come at it crossways. Evil doesn’t challenge my belief in God. My own small-mindedness and sloth do that. In fact, I think evil is the strongest argument for God’s existence.

I can accept the philosophical stalemate that either God or the world is self-evident. I can understand nature refashioning the land through earthquakes, ignoring our entreaties for rain or to stop the rain. I can even accept nature telling us that it’s time to go. What I can’t fathom is the existence of moral evil. I can’t comprehend a mindless universe producing the sort of evil that we humans inflict upon each other. A person who truly pondered that would go mad. Fortunately our minds are too small and too easily distracted to do it. 

The evil we that humans fashion is too transcendent—too purposeful and too creative—to be an evolutionary fluke. Many contemporary theologians dismiss Satan as an anthropological relic. (Hollywood’s version certainly is, buffoonish as well.) But the malignancy that emerges from our hearts and then spreads throughout the world, consuming our very selves, requires more explanation that random mutation.

The Gospel comes down to Christ, and Christ means nothing if he is not savior. If you don’t know what he saves you from, you either can’t, or won’t, see the suffering that suffuses our world. Christ came among us “to suffer greatly…be killed, and on the third day be raised” because Christ came to be our savior (Mt 16: 21). In Christ and his cross God enters an utterly malign matrix, one that transcends both evolution and humanity. 

Yes, it’s a mercy that most of us will die either demented or drugged, because to face death straight on, alienated from God, is to know the terror of a maleficent darkness. In the face of it, everything within us rebels, cries out to the cosmos. I don’t think a mindless universe could produce the evil of the human heart. And if evil is the absence of good, its twisted shadow, then there must be a source of goodness still the greater, one which hears our cries.

Jeremiah 20: 7-9    Romans 12: 1-2    Matthew 16: 21-27

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Bruce Snowden
3 years 11 months ago
It's certainly a very satisfying notion to be able to consciously utter "near" last words as "Sister Death" visits. Francis of Assisi did so as he lay dying, naked on the bare earth at his request, to his gathered Brothers, saying, I "I have done my part, may Christ teach you yours!" Pretty good advice of a father to his children, but come to think of it I believe the actual final words of this Patron Saint of Ecology was a hymn of praise and thanks to God. I would like to be so blessed, but would also be very pleased to express loving affection especially to my wife and children, concluding with "Jesus, I love you!" As I get to the Land of the Living, I hope the Lord says to me what Archbishop Sheen says he hopes the Lord says to him, "Hi! My Mother told me about you!" Along with what the dying says to the living, equally important I believe is what the living says to the dying. When death came to my Mother, it fell to me to be at her side, but as she was unable to speak, I bent over and whispered in her ear, "Thanks for being a good Mom!" She nodded in a yes motion so I know she understood, a great feeling for her no doubt and certainly for me too. About pain, a reality that can be both good and bad, protective and killing, for us humans it worsens into suffering, engendered by the imagination which allows a look not only at the present, but also into the future, into unnumbered tomorrows, and all may seem so bleak. Because they lack imagination. brute animals cannot suffer, but they do experience a different kind of pain, but pain nonetheless without anticipation or expectation. We humans do that and suffer. Belief in the value of Salvific Suffering puts some sense into the ordeal. So let's pray for that grace. A simple answer to a complex reality, but for Believers workable. By the way, far from being an "anthropological relic" from the past. look at Satan spell that ISIS, here and now, on the move!

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