Reflections on Terminal IllnessFATHER ANTONINUS WALL, O.P.
The saints teach us that should we do nothing else in life well, we must seek from Christ the grace to die well.
1. Why is dying so painful?
We experience love of life arising spontaneously from the depths of our being. It is always present to us. It is so intimately, personally, and uniquely part of our very being that it is difficult even to imagine a time when we will cease to exist. When all the tests have been completed and the doctor informs us that we have only a few more months (weeks, days) to live, the shock will be unlike anything we have ever experienced. We may have buried our parents, family members and friends. We may have attended funerals of loved ones. We may have driven daily by hospitals and cemeteries which should remind us of our mortality. But we never allow the thought to enter our minds that some day we will be that person being worked on in the emergency room of that hospital, or lying in the coffin at that funeral mass, or resting in our grave in that cemetery.
What is the origin of this intense love of life? Does it arise in us out of nowhere? Do we create our love of life? Are we the ultimate source of this love? If we look at this love through the eyes of Christian Faith and not through our natural eyes, we will recognize that this love is instilled in us by God. God is the source of all perfection. Now the greatest of perfections is love. In a very special sense, then, God is the source of our love of others and, especially, of our love of ourselves. Therefore any love we experience has God as the ultimate source offers us only a weak, pale reflection of His far greater love. Our love for ourselves is finite. God's love for us is infinite. St. John the Evangelist writes that God is love, "and the person who abides in love abides in God and God's love is alive in him." (cf. 1 John 4:18).
Since unfulfilled desire gives rise to suffering, one would not wish to awaken desires in another if he knew that these desires could not be fulfilled. That is what sadists do. Sadists get their satisfaction out of the pain they cause in others. Since God is the source of our love of life and our desire for immortality, He surely must intend to bring this desire, He created in us, to a glorious realization. The alternative to this is to see God as the ultimate sadist, – the source of the greatest of all human suffering. From this it follows that the more one suffers by dying, the greater is the certitude that death is not the end but, in God's plan, a new beginning. This is the message of Christ. "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will never die." (cf. John 11:25-26). And our Lord tells us, "Eat my flesh and drink my blood and I will come alive in you with the very life that I share with my Father." (cf. John 6:53).
We may well ask ourselves why God puts us through the suffering entailed in dying? The simple answer is "love". Love presupposes knowledge. You cannot love what you do not know. When you love someone you must first know who that person is, and you must want him to be who he is. Most important of all, you must celebrate the fact that the loved one is, in fact, who he is. The most loving words you can say to a person are, "I thank God everyday that you are who you are." This is true of our friendship with others. It is equally true of our love of God. To love God I must first know that He is God. I must want Him to be God. And, finally, I must celebrate the fact that, indeed, He is God. When you can say enthusiastically to God that you celebrate daily the fact He is Who is, this is adoration. Adoration is the expression of perfect love. And it takes perfect love to be united to Perfect Love.
What does all this have to do with dying? In order for you to love God with a perfect love, and give yourself freely and entirely to Him as God, you must first of all know who you are. Further, you must want to be who you are. Most important of all, you must rejoice in who you are. If you don't know who you are or if you cannot accept and celebrate who you are, you cannot give yourself in love to God, or to anyone else for that matter. Catholic Faith tells you who you are. You are a creature made in the image and likeness of God. Since you are created, your life does not belong to you. Your life belongs to God. Therefore, God has the right to ask you to give back your life to Him any time, anywhere, and under any circumstances He desires. This is why you must die. You must go through the experience of returning to the nothingness out of which you came, and accept the fact that you are a creature in order finally to accept God truly as your God.
All humans are called to perfect love of God. Therefore, all must undergo essentially the same purification by temporary detachment from created goods in order to allow God to take first place in our hearts. But the ways in which the purifying suffering involved in this "letting go" occurs, may differ in secondary ways. The first conversion of the soul is from a state in which one embraces a created good as having the primary place in his heart. This state is known as mortal sin. The conversion of a soul from mortal sin to grace causes its own form of suffering. When such a conversion takes place, it means that God has taken first place in one's heart. But it does not follow that this person loves God as fully as God deserves to be loved. To love God as fully as He deserves involves a lifetime of struggle and purification. This is what is involved in carrying the cross.
This struggle with earthly attachments continues to the end of our life on earth. Should a person in grace die suddenly, he would still have to undergo a further purification of his love of God to achieve perfect union with Him. Lacking a body the pain of his purification would not have the sensible component which living persons may experience, but the spiritual purification necessary to perfect love of God will remain. This purifying process after death is what Catholics understand by Purgatory. Our purgatories begin on earth in our lifelong struggle to grow in the love of God. Many persons go through relatively long periods of suffering, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, always spiritual, before death finally possesses them. Some few may achieve an extraordinary love of God while still in this life and yet continue to suffer. They are the special ones invited by Christ to share in his sufferings for others and not out of need of further personal purification. The sorrow of Mary at the foot of the cross comes to mind. One way or another all persons have to go through this "letting go" process in order to surrender first place in their hearts to God. If this does not happen in this life, it must happen in the next.
No human loved his human existence more than Christ loved his. But his human life was a created one, lovingly bestowed on him by his Father. By accepting his death in obedience to his Father, Christ both accepted the fact that his human life was a gift and that it belonged to the Father. Now, sacrifice is the language and measure of love. "No greater love can anyone show for a friend than to be willing to die for him." Christ teaches us that the most perfect act of love we can exercise toward God, involves surrendering our precious life back to Him freely and trustfully when He asks for its return. Christ's last words to the Father were, "Into your hands I surrender my spirit." (cf. Luke 23:46). By this act of perfect love, Christ in his human nature gave his life as freely and lovingly back to God the Father as God gave him his human life in the first place. Christ's human act of love gave birth to a radical new presence of Divine Love in this world. Christ describes this process when he tells us, "The kingdom of heaven is like a woman giving birth to a baby. (cf. John 16:21).
This birthing process, indeed, involves violence and suffering. It is only, as Christ informs us, when the process is over and the mother sees the miracle of the child to whom she has given life that her suffering is forgotten in her joy. Christ teaches us that the suffering involved in our voluntary acceptance of death in loving obedience to the Father, is birthing pain. Through this suffering God's love comes fully alive in the soul of the one who surrenders to Him. Such suffering involves the invitation from Christ to unite with his suffering as he gives birth to God's love in us and in those for whom we are willing to suffer. The suffering coming out our love of life when joined to the suffering of Christ, becomes birthing pain. A baby, Divine Love, is taking shape and emerging out of that pain.
Our acceptance of death in union with Christ does not eliminate the suffering which accompanies this experience. Christ sweated blood in Gethsamine as he begged his Father to take away the chalice He offered him. It was because Christ's love of life was so intense that his voluntary surrender of this life made his submission all the more perfect. The more intensely you love life and the more sorrow you experience in surrendering it to God, the more perfect is the love of God expressed in your surrender.
We can and should pray for the restoration of our health and continue to use all medical means that Providence makes available to us as an aid to healing. But, as in all prayers of petition exemplified by Christ's prayer in Gethsamine, our prayer should be preceded by an "if it is possible." It is only when all means to restore health have been exhausted and all signs point to the fact that God is asking for our surrender, we should recognize the invitation of Christ to unite with him on the cross and offer our life back to God. Should we do this stoically or fatalistically? On the contrary, Christ teaches us that we should do this with faith and absolute trust in God's providential love. We should recognize that in dying in Christ, God's love has brought us to the very threshold of heaven. The saints teach us that should we do nothing else in life well, we must seek from Christ the grace to die well. We should look for inspiration in the example of the Good Thief on the cross whose lifetime of sin was erased in an instant when he heard Our Lord say, "This very day you will be with me in paradise." (cf. Luke 23:43).
By his death on the cross Christ opens to us the Gates of Heaven. Beyond those Gates lies the ultimate resurrection of our bodies and our entrance into the Communion of Saints. There we will join our parents and all those we love, fully reconstituted in body and soul. We will see God "face to face" and experience all reality as seen through His eyes. We shall witness the love by which He holds all things in existence. We shall share with those we love the infinite joy which is the very essence of the Godhead. We shall participate in that community of love which unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul, speaking of the death and resurrection of Christ, can cry out, "Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, where is your victory, where is your sting?" (cf. I Corinthians 15:54-55).
Reprinted by permission of Father Wall.
Additional copies of this reflection in pamphlet form may be obtained by contacting: Western Dominican Preaching or calling 510-658-8722.
Father Antoninus Wall, O.P. a native of San Francisco, is the son of Irish-born parents, and the brother of the late Fr. Kevin Wall, O.P. Fr. Wall attended St. Ignatius prep in the Bay City and St. Mary's College of California. Entering the Dominican Order, he pursued his sacred studies at St. Albert's College in Oakland and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1950.
Fr. Wall has had a career rich in pastoral and academic experiences. He has served as associate pastor in Seattle and as Professor of Theology at Immaculate Heart and Dominican College. He negotiated the entry of the Dominicans into the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served two terms there as President of the Dominican School. He currently resides at St. Albert's Priory in Oakland, California. Father Wall is the author of The Journey to God. Father Wall may be reached by phone at 510-596-1800 or by email at email@example.com
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