Death, be not proud

Friday, May 27, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
By David Mills

Catholic Sense

My friend is younger than me, but lying in his hospital bed he looks a lot older. He’s 30 or 40 pounds lighter than he used to be, and his arms and hands sticking out of the hospital gown are starting to look skeletal.

He’s filled out the forms and covered all the possibilities, but the doctors still keep asking. One of the younger ones came in yesterday and said, “I need to know what you want us to do if you code.”

I thought for a second, “They think he’s going to start writing computer code?” before I remembered the doctor shows I’ve seen and realized she meant “if your heart stops beating.” My friend looked blank. The doctor explained, “Do you want us to restart your heart?” My friend still looked blank and I started to say that this had been covered already when she said, “We’ll take that as a yes.”

A few days ago the English newspaper The Guardian ran a reflection by a woman close to dying of cancer, whose only hope was in a euthanasia drug she had ordered online from China and hidden in her house in case she wanted to use it. It was an article completely void of any hope of eternal life. The writer, Cory Taylor, didn’t mention even that vague “better world” many people without religious faith claim to believe in.

“I have heard it said,” she wrote, “that modern dying means dying more, dying over longer periods, enduring more uncertainty, subjecting ourselves and our families to more disappointments and despair. As we are enabled to live longer, we are also condemned to die longer.”

I have seen that, as my friend slides into that ambiguous time when he might die while he wants to live or live when he wants to let go. Ten or 20 years ago he might have died already. Now medicine can extend his life and keep him feeling OK much of the time.

Much of the time, but not all the time. He has collapsed in pain a few times now, and I don’t underestimate the appeal of making sure you die when you want to. Still, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” forbids it (2276-2283). Helping someone die “in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.” Even if someone means well, it “must always be forbidden and excluded.”

That seems the harsh view, compared to the apparently compassionate idea of dying when you want to. The Guardian’s writer described it in attractive terms: “A sorrowful goodbye, a chance to see each beloved face for the last time before sleep descends, pain retreats, dread dissolves and death is defeated by death itself.” She asks: “Where is the crime in that?”

When you kill yourself, death doesn’t defeat death. Death just wins sooner than it was going to. I understand why Taylor would want to think that she’s using death to defeat death, but she’s not. She’s surrendering to death.

Only something or someone greater than death can defeat it. The English poet John Donne described this in the famous sonnet that begins “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Those that death thinks it can kill don’t really die, he continues. Then he likens death to sleep and finishes with the great line: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

From the human perspective, Pope Francis said in one of his Sunday Angelus meditations, “we tend to say that man’s journey moves from life to death.” We tend, I would add, to think with Cory Taylor that death decides everything. We fool ourselves into thinking we can use death to defeat death.

The reality, the pope explains, is that because on the cross Jesus defeated death, “our pilgrimage goes from death to life. ... Death stands behind us, not before us. ... Before us stands the final defeat of sin and death, the beginning of a new time of joy and of endless light.”

I pray that Cory Taylor learns this before she surrenders her life to death.

Mills is editorial director of Ethika Politika (www.ethikapolitika.org) and attends St. Joseph’s Church in Coraopolis. Access Taylor’s article at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/17/we-are-all-just-a-millimetre-away-from-death-all-the-time-if-only-we-knew-it.

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