Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Death


Raissa Maritain, the philosopher and spiritual writer, died some months after suffering a stroke. During those months she lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. After her death, her husband, the renowned philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in preparing her journals for publication, wrote these words:

“At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which as followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. And subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words. In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humor, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvelous smile and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes. To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with what astonishing silent generosity during her last two days, when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed.”  

The emphasis on the last sentence is my own and I highlight it because, I believe, it has something important to say in an age where, more and more, we are coming to believe that euthanasia and various forms of physician-assisted suicide are the humane and compassionate answer to terminal illness.

The case for euthanasia generally revolves around these premises: Suffering devalues human life and euthanasia alleviates that suffering and the ravages of the body and mind that come with that suffering so as to provide a terminally ill person “death with dignity” and death with less suffering. As well, it is argued, that once an illness has so debilitated a person so as to leave him or her in a virtual vegetative state, what is the logic for keeping such a person alive? Once dignity and usefulness are gone, why continue to live?

What’s to be said in response to this? The logic for euthanasia, compassionate in so far as it goes, doesn’t go far enough to consider a number of deeper issues. Dignity and usefulness are huge terms with more dimensions than first meet the eye. In a recent article in AMERICA magazine, Jessica Keating highlights some of those deeper issues as she argues against the logic of those who have lauded Brittany Maynard’s (the young woman who captured national attention last year by choosing assisted suicide in the face of a terminal illness) decision to take her own life as “courageous”, “sensible”, and “admirable”. Keating concedes that, had she not made that decision, Maynard would no doubt have suffered greatly and would in all likelihood eventually been rendered unproductive and unattractive.  But, Keating argues, “she would have been present in a web of relationships. Even if she had fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end.”

That’s half the argument against euthanasia. The other half reads this way: Not only would she have been loved to the end, but, perhaps more importantly, she would have been actively emitting love until the end. From her ravaged, silent, mostly-unconscious body would have emanated an intangible, but particularly powerful, nurture and love, akin to the powerful life-giving grace that emanated from Jesus broken, naked body on the cross.

We too seldom make this important distinction: We believe that Jesus saved us through his life and through his death, as if these were the same thing. But they are very different: Jesus gave his life for us through his activity, his usefulness, through what he could actively do for us. But he gave his death for us through his passivity, through his helplessness, through the humiliation of his body in death. Jesus gave us his greatest gift precisely during those hours when he couldn’t do anything active for us.

And this isn’t something simply metaphorical and intangible.  Anyone of us who have sat at the bedside of a dying loved one have experienced that in that person’s helplessness and pain he or she is giving us something that he or she couldn’t give us during his or her active life. From that person’s helplessness and pain emanates a power to draw us together as family, a power to intuit and understand deeper things, a deeper appreciation of life, and especially a much deeper recognition of that person’s life and spirit. And this, impalpable gift, as Maritain says, emanates from the mystery of pain, non-utility, and dying in which he or she is enclosed.

In our dying bodies we can give our loved ones something we cannot fully give them when we are healthy and active. Euthanasia is partially blind to the mystery of how love is given. 








Seeing in a Deeper Way


Sometimes you can see a whole lot of things just by looking. That’s one of Yogi Berra’s infamous aphorisms. It’s a clever expression of course, but, sadly, perhaps mostly, the opposite is truer. Mostly we do a whole lot of looking without really seeing much. Seeing implies more than having good eyesight. Our eyes can be wide open and we can be seeing very little. 

I’ve always been intrigued by how scripture describes Paul immediately after his conversion. We always assume that it tells us that Paul was struck blind by his vision, but, I think, the text implies more. It tells us that Paul got up off the ground with his eyes wide open, seeing nothing.  That doesn’t necessarily equate with physical blindness. He may well have been seeing physically, but he wasn’t seeing the meaning of what he was getting himself into. Someone had to come and open his eyes, not just so that he could see again physically but especially that he could see more deeply into the mystery of Christ. Seeing, truly seeing, implies more than having eyes that are physically healthy and open. We all see the outer surface of things, but what’s beneath isn’t as automatically seen.

We see this, for instance, in what’s contained inside the healing miracles of Jesus. In the Gospels, we see Jesus perform a number of healings. He heals lame people, deaf people, mute people, people with leprosy, and two women who for different reasons are unable to become pregnant. What’s important to see in these various miracles is that, almost always, there’s more at issue than mere physical healing. Jesus is healing people in a deeper way, that is, he is healing the lame so that they can walk in freedom and in service of God. He is healing the deaf so that they can hear the Good News. He is healing the mute so that they can open their mouths in praise. And he is healing those who are hemorrhaging interiorly so that they can bring new life to birth.

We see this most clearly at those times when Jesus heals people who are blind.  He’s giving them more than just physical sight; he’s opening their eyes so that that can see more deeply. But that’s only an image. How might it be unpackaged? How can the grace and teachings of Jesus help us to see in a deeper way? Here are some suggestions:

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through familiarity to seeing through wonder.

G.K. Chesterton once affirmed that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions and that the secret to life is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again. We open our eyes to depth when we open ourselves to wonder.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through paranoia and self-protection to seeing through metanoia and nurture.

It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word “metanoia”, a word that opposes itself to “paranoia”. We open our eyes to depth with we shift from a posture of self-protection to a posture of nurture.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through jealousy to seeing through admiration.

Our perception becomes distorted whenever we move from the happy state of admiration to the unhappy state of envy. Our eyesight is clear when we delight in admiration.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through bitterness to seeing through eyes purified and softened by grief.

The root of bitterness is wound and the way out of bitterness is grieving. Tears clear our eyesight because they soften a heart hardened by wound.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through fantasy and auto-eroticism to seeing through appreciation and prayer.

One of the key movements within our spiritual lives is the movement from fantasy to prayer, a movement that ultimately frees us from wanting to press to ourselves all that’s beautiful to appreciating beauty for its own sake. We can only really see and appreciate beauty when we stop lusting for it.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through relevance to seeing through contemplation.

Our longing for relevance makes us look out at the world with restless, dissatisfied eyes. We practice mindfulness and see the richness of the present moment only when our disquiet is stilled by solitude.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through anger to seeing through forgiveness.

Nothing taints our eyesight as much as anger. It’s the most debilitating of all cataracts. And nothing cleanses our vision as much as forgiveness. Nobody holding a grudge sees straight.

·        By shifting our eyes from seeing through longing and hunger to seeing through gratitude.

Longing and hunger distort our vision. Gratitude restores it. It enables insight. The most grateful person you know has the best eyesight of all the people you know.

Love is the eye! So say the medieval mystics, in wisdom that needs to be added to the medical vocabulary of contemporary optometry. Seeing straight has more dimensions than we normally imagine.


Going to Heaven – By Good Luck or by God’s Grace?


Eternity has more kinds of rooms than this world does.

This is a thought inside the head of Marilynne Robinson’s fictional character, Lila, in Robinson’s recent novel. Lila has reason to think that way, that is, to think outside the box of conventional religious piety because her story is not one that fits piety of any kind.

Lila had been an unwanted orphan, dying from malnutrition and neglect, when at a young age she was taken up by a woman named Dolly, herself a social outcast. Lila spends all the years of her youth with Dolly, traveling with her as the two of them live on the edges of society and hunger, working as agricultural laborers with others like themselves, more slaves than paid workers.  Living this way, Lila never learns the social skills needed to function normally in society. Everything in her background, from her abandonment as a child to her life-long marginalization, sets her up to be a loner, someone condemned by circumstance to never find normal companionship, family, intimacy, or grace.

Moreover, Dolly, her surrogate mother, has her own problems, beyond her struggles to feed Lila and herself. When she took up Lila and fled from their hometown, she was fleeing domestic violence. Eventually, years later, the man from whom she was fleeing finds her; but Dolly is no passive victim. She knifes the man to death. Sometime later, she dies, orphaning Lila a second time.

But, by now, Lila is old enough to take care of herself, except, lacking social skills, she still finds herself at the margins of society, ever the loner. Luck, though, is on her side and she is eventually befriended by a Christian minister who takes care of her and eventually marries her. This new world of acceptance, love, family, and religion is radically new to Lila and she struggles mightily to sort it out, especially regarding how love and grace work. One of the problems that bother her, as she listens to her husband’s Christian sermons, is what happens to someone like Dolly, who did so much for her, and yet was a murderer. Is she forgiven? Could she have gone to heaven, even after committing murder? Lila struggles to believe in faith, love, family life, forgiveness, and heaven.

Her thoughts on this, especially on how Dolly might have met her Maker, contain their own important insights into love and grace: “In eternity, people’s lives could be altogether what they were and had been, not just the worst things they ever did, or the best things either. So she decided that she should believe in it, or that she believed in it already.  How else could she imagine seeing Dolly again? Never once had she taken her to be dead, plain and simple. If any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy, it couldn’t be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn’t even like them, and who would probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good. … Eternity had more of every kind of room in it than this world did.”

As Christians, we believe that, as part of the Body of Christ, we have been given the power to forgive each other’s sins and that, because of that, indeed a mother’s love can pull her child into heaven. Our love for each other is a powerful vehicle of grace, powerful enough to actually open the gates of heaven. As Gabriel Marcel once put it: To love someone is to, in effect, say: You at least will never die! Human love, even this side of eternity, has that kind of power. That’s also why we pray for loved ones who have died. Our love has the power to reach them, even there.

But, and this was Lila’s quandary: What about those who, like Dolly and herself, are outsiders in this life and who die without anyone much caring about the fact that they’ve gone or where they’ve gone? How do grace and forgiveness work then? Is human love then purely out of the picture and we are left only with the hope that God’s love can fill in where human love is absent?

Yes, God’s love can and does fill in where human love is absent. In fact, scripture assures us that God has a special love, and tenderness, for those who find themselves outside of the circle of human love. So we need not worry about the salvation of those who, like Dolly, died in less-than-ideal circumstances, even as they “took all the courage they had to be good.” Human love, while generally directed towards very specific persons, is also a symphony whose music circles wide and ultimately embraces everyone.