Category Archives: Suffering

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

Death and the Three Judgments

“You are going to die.”  It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man).  Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth.  100% of the people who read the book are going to die.  We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly.  St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam.  To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point.  Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death.  Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death.  By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts.  Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men.  Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human.  Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ.  For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.

If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment.  It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny.  For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy.  For those who do not, death will be a condemnation.  This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths.  But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable.  It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.

The Third Judgment

St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time.  But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living.  In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives.  The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”

Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge.  That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living.  This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder.  But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead.  Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.

Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression.  First there is the damage caused to the order of things.  Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in.  Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good.  Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense.  Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc).  Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone.  Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.”  It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment.  Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order.  To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge.  Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.

Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins.  The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny.  It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is.  Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal.  This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own.  This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient.  We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven.  The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.

Death as the Meaning of Life

All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well.  Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life.  Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned.  It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy.  God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.

If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment?  St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment.  First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad).  Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly.  The truth will be made known.  Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known.  Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death.  The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond.  Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death.  The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.

“When I was Hungry and Thirsty You Gave Me to Eat and Drink”

In the past few months our family has been confronted with end of life medical care for two close members.  In both cases, we had to fight to continue providing nutrition and hydration.  After hitting so close to home twice, I began to wonder about other’s experiences and found that nearly everyone who has had to walk this journey with a loved one did not know what to do and eventually deferred to “the experts” in the medical profession.  Already emotionally overwhelmed and lacking confidence in their medical knowledge, they trusted that the medical professionals would guide them to do the right thing.  If our experience has taught us anything, it is two things.  First, the culture of death is so deeply imbedded that even those medical professionals who are genuinely compassionate and of good will can succumb to it and that we were glad that we did not wait until the situation came up to learn about the importance of nutrition and hydration at this most vulnerable stage of life.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of those caregivers who devote their lives to walking with families through this.  This is meant to raise awareness that the current “best practice” in dealing with those who are actively dying is morally repugnant.  By arming yourself now with a proper understanding, you can protect yourself later when your thinking may be clouded because of the stress of the situation.

Medical Treatment and Ordinary Care

First, there is an important distinction to be made between medical treatment and ordinary care.  In general treatment would include those interventions that may cure a disease or aid one in returning to health. Medical treatment would include things like antibiotics, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, and the like.  One may look at these treatments and decide that their burdens outweigh their benefits and decide to forgo them in order to live the remaining days of his life with a certain quality of life.

Medical treatment is different than ordinary care however.  Ordinary care is simply routine attention given to the patient.  This would include bathing, providing clean clothes and sheet, keeping them warm, and providing food and water.  Each of these is essential to life and to withhold any of these, especially to those who cannot provide them for themselves, and assuming you have the means to do so, is considered cruel.  No amount of misguided compassion would say that we should leave a sick person outside in December exposed to the elements.  Likewise, no amount of misguided compassion would say that we should allow someone to starve and become dehydrated.

It was this important distinction between medical treatment and care that Pope St. John Paul II brought attention to when in a papal allocution in 2004 he said,

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering” (Address of John Paul II To the Participants in the International Congress on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”).

Notice as well that John Paul II did not say nutrition and hydration must be given in all circumstances.  He said that they are only to be given for as long as they are “seen to have attained its proper finality.”  What he means is that they should be given in all circumstances until it can be definitively shown that they no longer can be processed or assimilated by the body.  It must be “seen.”  There cannot be mere medical conjecture or blanket statements like “we see that as the patient is dying their nutritional and hydrational needs are greatly diminished.”  Even if their needs are greatly diminished, this is an argument for giving less, not cutting them out altogether.  All too often this argument is put forth as a reason for omitting them altogether.  The only time they should be completely removed is when it is shown that the body no longer can make use of them.

Other Arguments against Nutrition and Hydration

The “diminished need” argument is not the only one that is commonly put forth.  There are two others.  The first is what I like to call the “argument from technology.”  This argument essentially says something like “75 years ago we didn’t have the ability to use feeding tubes or IV’s and we can now keep people alive longer because of these technologies.”

What makes the flaw in this argument hard to see initially is that it is true.  We did not have the ability to use feeding tubes and IV’s for nutrition and hydration in the past.  The problem with this argument is that we have a lot of things because of technological advances that we did not have in the past.  The refrigerator that allows us to feed sick people (even those who can still feed themselves) in a relatively recent invention.  Indoor plumbing, another technological advance, keeps the sick who can still hold their own cups (another technological advance) hydrated.  But we also did not have the pain killers we have now.  Should we remove those as well?  Certainly, we are prolonging their lives by controlling their pain.  In the past they would have gone into shock and died.

One can easily see how absurd this line of reasoning can actually become.  Where do we draw the line?  If we have the ability and the technology to provide care for someone and it is care that they have the capacity to receive, then we ought to provide it.  The fact that nutrition and hydration extends one’s life is true for all of us.  Remove those things from even the healthiest person and they will die.  More accurately, removing those things from the person would be to kill them.  Allowing someone to die is different than causing someone to die, even if you do so by an act of omission such as withholding care from them when you have the means to do so.

The second argument is that by providing nutrition and hydration, even when the patient is still able to tolerate it, we are “postponing the inevitable.”  Again the difficulty in seeing where this thinking goes wrong is that it is true.  We are postponing the inevitable.  Although again, by me eating lunch today, I also have postponed the inevitable.

What those who use this line of reasoning surely mean is that when death is imminent we should do nothing to stop it.  But doing nothing to stop it, is not the same thing as aiding it.  Why not, as my son with Autism suggested when we told him his grandmother was going to die, push them off the roof then?  The fact that death is imminent does not mean we should kill the person, even if it is by omission.

The fact is that human life, even when the person is suffering, even when the person is close to death is a good that ought to be protected.  Life is a gift, one that none of us earned.  Therefore we are never free to give the gift back or decide that we do not want it any longer.  We must wait on the decision of the One Who bestowed the gift.  Until such time, we should see the person before us and care for them.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick—all corporal works of mercy that should never cease as long as a person is present before us.  Don’t allow anyone to take those acts of charity away from you.  Provided the person can still assimilate the food and water, you should never remove a feeding tube or a hydration IV.

 

Why Christianity Cannot be Separated from the Cross

All too often in our haste to “defend” God, we fail to ask, and more importantly, answer, what are the most foundational questions of the Christian life.  Take, for example, the question of suffering.  Quick to build the bridge made by man’s free will, we cleanly unite God’s omnipotence and His omnibenevolence with suffering.  Meanwhile, we fail to ask the more personally relevant question as to why it seems that Christians suffer more than non-Christians.  Of course this is not true in every individual case, but there is a certain universality we all observe.  Not to minimize the suffering of the various groups at the hands of genocidal maniacs, but all of the totalitarian regimes of the past two and a half centuries had a common target: Christians.

For many Christians this is a sign that, very soon, a great chastisement is going to be visited upon mankind.  It is only a matter of time before God removes His hand of mercy and rains fire from heaven, wiping out our modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.  Others can only see God’s “mercy,” unable to fathom such vengeance from Heaven.  In the usual manner of finding the Catholic solution, neither is entirely true nor are they entirely false.  That the world in recent times has gone off the rails and that Heaven cannot remain silent is without question.  But what if God’s vengeance is being rained out upon the earth and is filtered through the hands of mercy?

Before you dismiss this as theological doublespeak, hear me out.  No mere theological sleight of hand, it actually answers the foundational question I opened with.  Christians are the ones who suffer more because they are the ones who actually bear the brunt of the chastisement.  In so doing they act as the hands of God’s mercy keeping the punishments from falling upon the rest of mankind.  God’s mercy and His justice, two sides of the same coin.

There is a Scriptural precedent that illuminates this idea.  When God “contemplates” destroying Sodom and Gomorrah He admits to Abraham that He will hold back its destruction if He finds righteous inhabitants within those cities.  It is only when He finds none that He allows the destruction to happen.  It wasn’t just because He refused to destroy the righteous (even they would eventually die), but because the righteous act as a shield to those around them, holding back the full consequences of sin that would lead to the destruction of the unrighteous.  In shielding those around them from the flaming arrows, the righteous still get burned (usually by the very people they are shielding).  The just debt for sin is still paid through the application by the Christian of the merits of Christ.

Justice?

All this talk of God’s justice seems absurd when Christians are “punished” for not just their own sins, but the crimes of others.  There is nothing just in this.  Except that is, if it is willingly borne and the person is rewarded accordingly.  This is why it is such an important question—it is a reminder of what it means to be a Christian.  “When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “He bids him come and die.”  In becoming a Christian through Baptism, we are brought into the very life of Christ.  Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are offered as sacrificial witnesses (i.e martyrs).  Christians recapitulate Our Lord’s life and death so as to share in the reward of His resurrection.  This is no mere theological metaphor, but an absolute truth and one that ought to inform our every action.

Christ came to make reparation and to save souls.  He did this through His suffering and death.  The Christian merely continues that mission—armed with power that He won for them as the God-Man.  The first soul that I must save is my own, but this is no mere “me and Jesus” thing.  He will use my willingness to save others (see Col 1:24).  The Church in her members too must go through His Passion and spread its power throughout the world.  Therefore you can never define a Christian without making reference to the Cross because a Christian is not a Christian without picking up the Cross.  It is not my Cross that I carry, but His.  The job of the Christian is to carry it through the streets so that others can come in contact with it.

All too often we forget that this is in fact what we signed up for when we chose the Christian life.  We volunteered to be “other Christs,” allowing His life to become incarnate once again in us.   That may sound really sweet when we are talking about being nice to other people and spreading Jesus’ love.  But that is not the only part, nor is it really the most important part.  We have accepted a life of suffering for the salvation of souls.  That can never, ever be forgotten.  The more often we recall this fundamental truth and embrace our crosses, the greater our reward.  That is why there is nothing unjust—it is only through suffering voluntarily accepted or undertaken that “an eternal weight of glory, that far outweighs our afflictions can be built up within us” (2 Cor 4:17).  Suffering can only be understood in relation to the promise of the reward.  In other words, our willingness to suffer is a measure of the depth of our faith.

Suffering and Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden

What does that actually look like?  Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I suspect this is where many of us struggle.  We don’t ask the question because we don’t like the answer.  We know everything of what has been said is objectively true.  Yet, it does not ring true within our hearts.  There are three reasons for this, each of which can be illuminated by looking closely at Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.

First, there is the natural repulsion to suffering.  As mortal creatures, there is always a physical recoil of pain and suffering.  No one will naturally “feel” like suffering.  Even Our Lord felt this pull to a certain extent in the Garden.  But, like Our Lord’s “not my will but your will be done”, one can will to suffer without actually feeling like it.

Second, and this is often the biggest obstacle, is the fact that no one can will to suffer in the abstract.  We often avoid thinking about suffering because we imagine our worst fears becoming reality.  But Christ could only say, “Your will, not mine” after the sufferings He was about to endure were brought before His mind.  We can fall into a trap by getting ahead of ourselves and letting our imagination (with the help of the Evil One) get ahead of reality.  We cannot say yes until we know what we are saying yes to.

Third, we know that we should want to suffer, but we find no strength to do so and therefore grow discouraged or forget about it altogether.  There is only one way out of this trap—admit our weakness to Our Lord.  He will only heal what we ask Him to heal.  The great sufferings of the saints are not because they were strong-willed, but because they humbly knew they were not and allowed grace to make them stronger.  There is no “fake it ‘til you make it” on this one.  Instead we can only begin by saying “I want to want to suffer for You” and allow Him to implant that desire in us.    All too often our unwillingness to tell Jesus how weak we really are is the biggest impediment to our spiritual growth.

Why should we look to Our Lord so closely in the Garden?  It is not just He is a model, but because every action He performed, including this one, was done to win specific graces for us.  Those moments when we struggle with this part of our Christian vocation are the moments that we need to turn to Him in the Garden and ask that He give us those graces He fought so hard to win for us.  In a certain sense, not to take hold of the graces He won is to make Him suffer in vein.

Now it becomes clear as to why the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Only by re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ to the world, can Christians win the world.  Those who were our enemies, now become our friends.  History is rife with examples of true Christian heroes—the ones who rather than defeating their enemies, win them over.  This same challenge is before us.  How much suffering is one soul worth?

Psychological or Demonic?

As followers of Christ, true God and true man, it is hard to avoid the truth that we inhabit two worlds—the seen and the unseen.  This is so basic a tenet of Christianity that we easily forget it and gravitate towards one or the other, the natural or the supernatural.  We have all met people who supernaturalize everything, referring all that happens in our world to the angelic and demonic.  On the other hand there are also those who tend to only accept natural explanations for what happens.  Our Lord however taught us to keep one foot in each of those worlds.  There were the sick whom He healed and those whom He exorcised.  There is perhaps no arena where this dichotomy is more obvious than mental illness.

On the one hand there are those who think that the remedy is simply to pray the problem away.   Prayer must always be part of anyone’s therapy (more on this in a moment) so this is a difficult point to contend.  But for most people prayer isn’t enough.  Or, more accurately, the answer to their prayer is found through the help of therapists.  God rarely acts in a vacuum.  He always uses secondary causes when they are available to carry out works of His Providence.  We may pray and pray for healing, but only receive it when we go to the doctor.  Does this mean that God did not deliver?  Of course not.  He simply wanted to share His power of healing with one of His creatures.

Removing the Stigma

Within Christian circles, mental illness is stigmatized.  Mental health problems are not just problems because someone’s faith or trust in God is not strong enough.  That can always be the case, but it need not be the direct cause.  There are people of incredible faith that nobly carry the cross of mental illness.  If anything, those who think this way are the ones who do not understand the Faith.

An authentic Catholic understanding of the human person, as both body and soul, leads to the recognition that because of our fallen nature, defects in our bodies can spill over into the way we see reality.  Think about the person who is drunk—their judgment is impaired.  Did the alcohol somehow drip into the seat of judgment, the intellect?  No, but when our senses are impaired we cannot judge correctly.  That which is in the intellect, was first in the senses as the Scholastics were fond of saying.

So too with the person with mental illness.  They may have a bodily defect which causes them to judge reality incorrectly.  Or, their early experience or exposure to a trauma may have hindered their ability to judge reality properly.  Perhaps they need a medication to restore the body back to its proper function so that it can send clean data to the intellect.  They may additionally need counseling on how to judge reality correctly.

As an aside, many Catholics fear receiving counseling because the counselor may not be Catholic.  This is a reasonable fear, but just because they are Catholic doesn’t make them good therapists.  What one should look for is someone who has a correct definition of mental health.  Mental health consists in the ability to judge reality correctly.  This means they have an understanding of man as a body/soul composite with a purpose outside of himself.  Only once this is established would you assess their clinical capabilities.  In this regard, it is no different than choosing any other kind of health care provider.  If a cardiologist thinks that a healthy heart is one in which only one ventricle is functioning, you would not choose him, even if he was the most clinically gifted doctor in the world.  Simply asking the therapist what his or her definition of mental health is, can often protect you from wasted time and doing more harm.

Psychology and Catholicism have been in conflict since the advent of modern methods, but this need not be the case.  Anyone who reads St. Thomas’ Summa on human nature and the virtues realizes he would have made an excellent psychologist.  This is because of his correct anthropology.  There has been a rediscovery of sorts of St. Thomas’ works and many schools are teaching them to those training in psychology.

It used to be that anyone who was mentally ill was thought to be possessed.  In this regard the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme where everyone assumes that the problem is clinical.  However, just because there were cases in the past where a supernatural explanation was sought when there was a natural one, doesn’t mean that they weren’t right some of the time.  Supernatural explanations still remain valid.  While not everyone who is mentally ill is demonically tormented, this does not mean nobody is.  In short, sometimes when someone claims to be hearing voices, they actually are.

A Third Way?

This opens up a third possibility—one in which we acknowledge that we are standing in two different worlds.  This is the one that most people overlook because they fall into an either/or mentality, when in many cases it is both/and.   The person can be suffering from some natural mental illness which is only exacerbated by the presence of the demonic.  The devil is a bully and loves to kick people when they are down, especially when he can hide within some natural illness.

One of my boys suffers from Autism and this has made him a target of the diabolical bully.  It was his condition that attracted the evil one and made it easy for him to hide while he tormented my son.  The demonic oppression got so severe that we had to seek the prayers of an Exorcist.  Through the prayers of Exorcism, he was freed from the oppression.  But, and this is a very important but, he was not healed of his Autism.  His symptoms were greatly reduced and his response to therapy since then has been overwhelmingly positive.  But the clinical condition remained—for that God is using natural means.  For the supernatural problem, He used the supernatural solution of the Rites and Authority of the Church (as a side not, for those of you interested in hearing about my son’s story, I did an interview with my friend Pete for his podcast in which this among other topics related to Spiritual Warfare).

The point is that there are many cases where the problem is really both natural and supernatural.  For the good of the person we need to recognize this as real and likely option.  In the majority of cases it will not be necessary to seek out an Exorcist, but still spiritual remedies will need to be applied.

This is where the “just pray and it will go away” folks have a point.  There is almost always a mixture of the natural and supernatural causes involved and it is always good advice to apply spiritual medicine to all mental health problems.  Prayer alone may not be sufficient, but it is always necessary.  Psychotherapy should always be accompanied by an intense prayer life and an active Sacramental life, including regular Confession and Communion, along with a healthy dose of Eucharistic Adoration.  When someone has been in therapy for a long time, making minimal progress adds these practices to their regular therapy they usually begin running towards mental health.

A Right to Die

Ambiguity is the mother of all social ill.  The less clear we are in our social discourse, the easier it is to pull a fast one on society at large.  Many states across the country have fallen victim to this through the “Death with Dignity” movement.  “Right to die” legislation has been either been accepted or introduced into legislation in 28 states in our country.  With this issue being raised with such regularity, it is worth investigating the merit of a so-called “right to die.”

Before we can even approach the question of whether there is a “right to die”, we need to examine what a right is.  Despite all of the talk we hear about rights in our country, few can actually define what a right is.  It is the steady refusal to examine rights philosophically that leads to all the muddle-headed discussion surrounding rights.  A right is the moral power to possess, do, or exact something that is due to the person.  Within this definition we find that there are three components.  First, there is the person who owns the right.  Second, there is the person who has the duty to respect the right.  This can be either passive, as in a duty of non-interference, or active, as in the duty to satisfy the right, or both.  These two are bound together morally by the final component, the thing in question.

One of the great dangers that our culture’s obsession with rights poses is that there are always those who will use the language of rights to mask something far more nefarious than it appears to be.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “right to die” or “death with dignity” movement.  This is why having clarity about rights in general can protect many innocent people from suffering at the hands of those who are fighting for our “right to die.”  It will remove any doubt that there is such thing as a “right to die.”

Flatlines

First we can look at the holder of supposed right.  Is death something that is due to a person?  In the strictest sense, no, it is not something that is owed to someone.  Rights flow either directly or indirectly from human nature itself.  Ultimately any rights claim is based upon the assumption that the thing being claimed is a good.  As John Paul II said many times the right to life is the “fundamental right and source of all other rights” (EV, 72).  Even if you look to the foundations of modern liberalism rooted in the works of Hobbes and Locke, you will find that because all rights are given by nature, they assume that we all by nature have a self-interested attachment to our own lives.  In other words, the right to life is inalienable in that it flows from the fact that life is a good by nature.  This becomes clearer when we look at the person whose duty it is to respect the right.  If life is an “inalienable” right then this means that there is a corresponding duty to protect life.  Practically speaking, there is an obligation to protect another’s life when it is in jeopardy.

While this may appear to be quite cut and dry, reality is more complicated than that.  The question of a “right to die” arises not just because autonomy has run amok in the West.  Medical technology has made it so that we now have more control than ever over when and how we die.  Thanks to some medical interventions, patients can be kept alive long after nature would have taken its course.  From within this setting, we have to ask whether a person has a “right to be let to die.”

In essence the “right to be let to die” means that a person has the right to choose not to receive life-sustaining medical treatment.  In order not to interfere with the obligation of others to protect life, the treatment must be excessively burdensome in that its benefits are outweighed by its burdens.  Those responsible for taking care of the person still have the obligation to provide routine attention to the patient by bathing them, keeping them warm, controlling pain and providing food and water.

So while this means no one has the “right to die” per se, it is reasonable to assert that they do have a “right to be let to die.”  The problem at this point is that people who label themselves as “Death with Dignity” advocates have piggybacked onto this legitimate right and wedded it to something else, namely a “right to be made dead.”  By hiding behind a sweet sounding name, Euthanasia (which literally means “good death”), what is being claimed is a right to positive assistance in bringing about death.  This means that what appears on the surface to be a mere personal freedom is really about placing an obligation to kill on another person.  This obviously contradicts one’s obligation to protect life.  This self-contradictory aspect of the “right to be made dead” shows why it is not a true right.  It also helps to reveal what this is really about.

This movement has very little to do with medical technology or terminal illnesses.  What is really being sought is acknowledgment of a right to commit suicide.  Given the will, there are very few people who could stop someone that wanted to kill themselves, so why would we need legislation for a right to commit suicide?  The answer is all about money and power.  First, in the states where it is legal, insurance companies must pay out when someone commits suicide.  This means that previously what was a deterrent, namely the financial well-being of a family, is taken out of the equation.  In fact the family may end up better off financially when their loved one is dead.  One can easily see that there could be familial encouragement to end it all based on a monetary windfall.

Second, this is ultimately about some people having the power to determine who lives and who dies.  If we recognize a “right to be dead” then there is a corresponding “duty to make dead.”  Who is the one who must exercise this duty and when should it be exercised?  Already we can see how the person and the proxies could be compromised, but what if they are not coming around to what is obvious to doctors and other “experts”?  While no one likes slippery slope arguments, this is precisely what has happened in places where a “right to die” has been recognized like the Netherlands.  The emphasis is no longer on the right to die, but the obligation to take the life that has been deemed unworthy of life.

What makes this particularly evil is that it plays into people’s emotions.  No one wants to be a burden to their loved ones, especially when there seems to be a painless way to avoid that.  As usual though, it is not enough to have our hearts in the right place; we must get our heads their too.  Demanding clarity when it comes to rights, especially the “right to die,” is a good place to start the journey from our hearts to our heads.

Know Suffering, Know Love

Sacred tradition tells us very little about a key actor in the Passion of Our Lord, Simon of Cyrene.  We know that he was very likely a part of a large Jewish colony in the North African city of Cyrenaica (see Acts 2:10, 6:9) and that he was likely a black man.  In fact he is probably the same Symeon called Niger (meaning “black”) referenced in Acts 13:1.  We also know that he became a Christian because the evangelists mention him by name, which means the Christian communities would have known who he was.  He is also mentioned as the father of two prominent Christians, namely Alexander and Rufus (see Mark 15:21).  While he may have been a “passer-by” and “pressed into service” to carry the Cross, by the time he reached Golgotha with Jesus, he was obviously a willing participant.  What is also abundantly clear is that at some point in his history, he too had suffered greatly.  With very few exceptions it seems that only those who have mounted their own crosses are truly capable of helping others carry their crosses all the way to Golgotha.

This principle has a biblical foundation.  In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul blesses God as the “Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2Cor 1:3).  What St. Paul is suggesting is that God strengthens us in our sufferings so that we then will be able to strengthen others in theirs.  Once our hearts have been exposed on the Cross in the way that Our Lord’s was exposed, we are capable of a deeper love.  It is our own passion which fills us with compassion.  As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us during a Wednesday Audience in Lourdes, “[T]he cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift of life without pain”

simon-of-cyrene

What this reveals is yet another reason why suffering is necessary to live a truly Christian life.  Not only does it conform us to Christ, the Sufferer but also to Christ the co-Sufferer.  St. John Paul II, describes this necessity of suffering “in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.”

While suffering opens up our hearts to a new love, it also opens our minds to new way of thinking.  It is as if the raised view from the Cross changes your entire paradigm.  Those who refuse to come down off the cross that God has given them, eat of the fruit of the new tree of life.  It is the fruit that keeps them there and it is the fruit that they want others to share in.  They are willing to go all the way to Golgotha with others in their suffering because they too want them to share in their fruit.  They will not try to assign their own meaning to the other’s Cross but instead will stay with them while they find it on their own.  They will not offer advice, but instead encouragement and solidarity.

Because Pope St. John Paul II had suffered greatly, he wrote beautifully about this solidarity in Salvifici Doloris—“The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering.”

But can’t we still be compassionate even if we have not suffered?  To a certain extent yes, but there is a certain gravity that is difficult not to succumb to unless you have experience suffering yourself.  Without suffering on our own we will almost always be like Job’s friends.  We will tend towards judgmentalism.  As our endurance for “helping” them is tested, we will start to ask how much of this suffering they have brought upon themselves.  We will rate their response to how we would respond in their situation and evaluate how well they are handling it compared to well we would do.  We will be tempted to think it is time for them to come down off their cross and get on with life.

But for the one who has suffered he knows that it is the Divine Surgeon at work.  Because he has been under His surgical knife and experienced His healing touch it would be unthinkable to stop Him mid-surgery.  He wounds only to heal.  We are like those who work in Post-Op helping the patient recover.

One of the dangers that Simon the “passer-by” must have wrestled with was, whether in their cruelty, the Romans would crucify him with Jesus.  This fear must have grown with each step as they approached Golgotha and yet he remained steadfastly with Christ to the end.  Only someone who has had great suffering has the courage to go all the way to Golgotha because ultimately they do not let the fear of getting caught in someone else’s mess stop them.  They no longer have a fear of suffering themselves because they know God sends it for good.  They stay near to the person because they are convicted that “God is close to the brokenhearted” (Ps 34:18).

They probably recall in their own lives the feeling of having been abandoned by someone who they thought would be their own Simon of Cyrene and would never abandon their own post for that reason.  For most people who are suffering, it is the loneliness of the Cross that is the most difficult.  They already have a sense of abandonment by God and so they need their Marys and St. Johns at the foot of the Cross.

With Thanksgiving this week and Christmas around the corner, ministries to help the poor and needy all receive an influx of volunteers.  What if instead of this (or even better in addition to) we all reconnected with the people we know personally are suffering?  What if we didn’t necessarily try to fix their situation, but instead found ways to carry some of the emotional burden they are carrying?  Because this compassionate paradigm shift can also come as a singular grace and at a moment we least expect it.  In closing I quote author Steven Covey’s own grace filled moment he describes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway.  The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”