on weakness

These days are dark days, the days when Job’s lament (which I read out, in part, to a class on Monday) seems to voice the despair of my own soul–I, who have lost nothing and have healthy children. My darkness is of a different kind, and is heedless of all the good (and lack of it) in the world. So I have little to say. Luckily teaching means reading and re-reading, and today I find comfort and inspiration in the words of an encyclical more than six decades old.

For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: “Those that seem the more feeble members of the body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honourable members of the body, we surround with more abundant honour.” Conscious of the obligations of our high office, we deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to our profound grief we see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as thought they were a useless burden to society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgement does not recognize that this not only violates the nature and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? the blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemed because thy are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth.”*

In all those who suffer or are in need, in all those who are small and weak, we ought to see Christ. Why is this so hard? We long to see Jesus–and here he is, right here. If only we had eyes to see him, we would find our heart’s desire.

 

*Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943), 94

Advertisements

a natural death?

Pro-life, a label I wear with some hesitation sometimes, means treating human beings as sacred from conception to ‘natural death’. Conception is pretty straightforward. But ‘natural death’? What, in a world in which our lives can be prolonged by a host of machines, counts as ‘natural’ with regard to our death? This is not a post in which I am going to say what I know. I don’t know very much. Once again, I have been reading the account of someone who has been there: Dr Louis Profeta. He questions the methods and machines employed to keep someone alive merely to push death back a bit: ‘while we are developing more and more ways to extend life, we are also providing water and nutrients to a forest of unrealistic expectations that have real-time consequences for those whose frail bodies have been entrusted to us,’ he writes.

My hunch is that partly this phenomenon arises from the same set of circumstances that inspires and sustains the movement to fight death, to keep death as far away from ourselves as possible, for as long as possible. Death has become to us anything but natural. We have forgotten death’s intrinsic place in human life. It is the end, and absolutely belongs together with the beginning in our imaginations: life has both, and we should work to understand and embrace the end as much as we have considered how to identify and protect the beginning.

Human beings may have figured out ways to prevent life’s beginning (whether we use them or not). But we are not going to prevent its end. We may as well make friends with death, and so recognize it as a familiar face when it comes to claim us for its own–whether we think of it as the end or as a new beginning.

 

Thursday of the 23rd week in ordinary time

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:9-12 NASB)
 
For a long time I have wanted to add to the preferential option for the poor a similar divine concern for the broken-hearted. “The Lord is near to the broken hearted, and saves all those who are crushed in spirit,” writes the psalmist. And likewise also the weary (Isaiah 40:31 and Matthew 11:28, for example), and children, and outcasts… So in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, I was drawn to the emphasis on the weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. These are (like us) those for whom Christ died. Not only that, but these brothers and sisters are “the least” to which Christ refers and with whom he identifies: whatever we do them, we do to Christ himself.
Passages like this always call to my mind people with intellectual disabilities. This is in part because I have a daughter with Down Syndrome, and I realized long ago that I was no closer to God because I knew some theology that she doesn’t. And it is in part because of the general disregard for people with such disabilities in contemporary culture. Last month, Richard Dawkins suggested that it is immoral to allow a baby with Down Syndrome to be born. (This infuriates and saddens me, but I won’t dwell on it here.) What we do to those with intellectual disabilities–who might very well fall into the category of “lacking knowledge” in Paul’s letter–we do to Christ himself.
The whole orientation of our Christian practice ought to favor the weak, the downtrodden, the poor, the refugee, the mentally disabled–those for who Christ died. I know I often forget that–I think about writing my books and get caught up in the stresses and strains of my daily life. I forget that in my daughter, in my children, in all those around me who most need Christ’s care, strength, and protection, I have not just those for whom Christ died, but Christ himself.
Deo gratias.