"By coincidence, this Good Friday is the 10th anniversary date of Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae'' ("The Gospel of Life''), which called euthanasia `a grave violation of the law of God' and also decried abortion and most applications of the death penalty." -- Richard N. Ostling, AP Religion Writer, 3/25/05.
A woman in Florida named Terri Schiavo is dying. Some would deny the right to call her a woman, and would prefer to think of her as a vegetable. She lives, they insist, in a "vegetative state," kind of like broccoli on the supermarket shelf. If so, she/it is a vegetable who laughs at jokes, says words like "Hi" and "Pain," and recognizes family members. Fifteen years ago she suffered a heart attack, and since then she's been like old, rotting broccoli -- inconvenient, good for nothing, just lying there on the shelf. She won't go away. She just keeps on breathing and breathing. But not for long now. Terri Schiavo is being starved to death.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
To get at the root of the cancer you have to dig deep. We worship at the altar of selfhood, the church of convenience. We like the idea of sacrifice as long as we don't actually have to engage in it ourselves. We honor those noble men and women over in Iraq. We build memorials to all the soldiers in all the great wars who have protected freedom, the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.
But crucifixion is not convenient. The great physician has bleeding hands. They are not protected by rubber gloves. They are dirty, messy, covered with the filth of our denials and rationalizations, our excuses and refusals to engage. That's too bad about that woman in Florida, honey. Pass the popcorn.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored
Our sickness must grow worse.
We are terminal cases and we don't even know it. We think we will live forever. We think we can play the Lifeboat game and never end up outside the lifeboat ourselves. Sometimes we have to make hard moral choices, we tell ourselves. These things are complex. We speak of the quality of life as if it were the stock market report, something we could read off a ticker tape.
But we are terminal cases, every one of us, deathly ill, rotting away from the inside, painting our fingernails from our hospice beds.
God, help us to know our sickness.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
God, forgive us. God, forgive me. Burn up all that is worthless. Have mercy on who we are -- the damned, God-redeemed human race, men and women and vegetables with souls, searching for streams of living water and digging with all our might, digging furiously in the desert, hollowing out empty well after empty well, escape tunnels that only circle back on ourselves, always ourselves, broken and heartsick and desperately in need of what only God can offer. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we do.
I am the bread of life, the wounded surgeon said. But yesterday the law of the United States denied the right of a Catholic priest to administer communion to Terri Schiavo. It's bread. It might help to keep her alive. It's wine. It might help to alleviate her thirst.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
-- T.S. Eliot, from "Four Quartets"