I wrote about the experience of tackling this harrowing subject in a post called “Bright Wings.” I’m just going to reprint it here (it ran first in the Register on Jan. 17, 2013), because it dovetails so nicely with Thursday’s Bigger on the Inside post.
I’m writing an article for Catholic Digest about end-of-life issues. To be more precise, I’m finally writing this article. I was putting it off because (a) I’m lazy, (b) it involved conducting interviews, and I get very nervous talking on the phone, (c) it seemed like a depressing topic, (d) I was petrified of getting some detail wrong, leading readers astray, and causing the needless deaths of countless helpless grandmas, and most of all because (e) I was scared. Scared of finding out exactly what the Church actually teaches.
I knew the secular ideas of Church teaching were wrong. I knew that the Church is not cruel or heartless, and I knew that her teachings are derived from hundreds of years of rigorous scholarship, and are guided by the Holy Spirit. I knew that sometimes people suffer needlessly because people misunderstand Church teaching.
But I also knew, without even realizing I was thinking this way, that what God wanted from us was awful. Or, in the older sense, awe-ful. Scary, hard, intractable, too much to bear. Without realizing I was thinking this way, I thought I’d have to massage the facts into something more palatable for the general public, so as not to scare people away from fidelity to the Church.
Yep, I thought God would need my help.
I did five interviews in three days, I read the catechism, I looked up the relevant documents, and I got some clarification from Rich Doerflinger. I did my research with the same internal posture as I take on externally when I’m watching a horror movie that everybody says is really, really good and I shouldn’t miss: I was tense, defensive, ready to cover my eyes as the hero slo-o-o-o-owly opens the door to see what’s inside the creepy old shack in the woods.
So, I opened the door. I found out what the Church really says about end-of-life issues — how to make the decisions, how to care for people, how to do your best to strike the balance between letting technology do its job and letting nature take its course.
Guess what the Church teaches? God loves you. He loves life. He has life to share, and He shares the light of His eternal life by sending the Church as a support when we are weak. He sends the Holy Spirit into the ICU and the NICU with the respirators and dialysis machines, into the womb that holds the anencephalic child, into the hospice room with the 80-pound man who no longer wants or needs to eat.
And because He is a God who loves, He is a God who grieves — not only for the sick and the dying, but for the living, who have to carry the burden of their decisions after sitting up night after night without sleeping, without a change of clothes, without knowing clearly if they are causing pain or bringing relief to the ones they love. That every life is valuable, and that includes the lives of caregivers. He enlightens the minds of nurses. He strengthens the hearts of parents. He brings clarity to grown children. And He grieves.
What I learned is that the Church teaches, “God loves you, God loves you, God loves you.” Always and forever, in the darkness of doubt, and in the light of the truth. This is what is at the heart of all the teachings of the Church; this is what we will always see when we force ourselves to uncover our eyes and watch the story as it unfolds:
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.