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.
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