We may have said it ourselves, but we often hear this being said of a person who has passed: “Thank God the person did not have to suffer. It was a good, peaceful, and dignified death.” Statements like these reflect our own real natural fears of these often dark, unpleasant, and seemingly undignified experiences. We fear losing our dignity and control in the process.
If given a choice, we would rather prefer not to suffer and to die with dignity and some control. This is certainly our instinctual and natural preference. However, unhealthy preoccupations with these also expose the depth and maturity of our belief in Jesus.
Let us revisit the events of Good Friday. What emerged in the story of Jesus’ passion, crucifixion, and death was a picture of shocking indignity. He was absolutely stripped off any semblance of human dignity, contemptuously spat upon, an innocent victim of injustice, unspeakable torture, and human cruelty. His face was nothing to behold. It is no wonder that the disciples were totally disillusioned with Him when all hopes and aspirations they had pinned on Him died that day.
In taking this most undignified path, God in Jesus reveals where He stands. He is in communion with those who suffer all forms of human indignity.
There are millions of people over the ages who suffer quietly in anonymity, whose lives are gradually being ravaged by sickness, incapacitation, and diseases; or whose human dignity are contemptuously trampled away through torture, unjust imprisonment, or other forms of human cruelty. His own life and chosen path cast light on the very difficult question and experience of evil and human suffering.
The answer of Jesus in the dialogue with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus was telling. “Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?” In other words, the experience of the fullness of the resurrection cannot take place without going through suffering and the cross.
Paradoxically the best work Jesus did for us was when He was handed over to suffer and to be crucified. Only a God who loves intensely is also the God who is capable of suffering intensely – with us. The whole Jesus event tells us that whenever there are suffering people God stands with them and suffers with them. The pastoral compassion of God is revealed here. It is this teaching that will continually challenge our assumptions about dying with dignity or without suffering.
In our current climate, there is a lot of writing and voices about “dying with dignity”. Many people fear dying without dignity, and dying in needless or useless pain. By this we normally mean that once we are no longer in control, then we are no longer dignified. Our culture places autonomy and dignity a high priority in our scale of values.
However, the fact is that more often than not, many happenings in our lives are beyond our autonomous decisions and control. Many things happen to us – good as well as bad from our perspective.
This being said, I admit that I will be quite scared of pain and suffering of any kind. My natural instinct is to take flight or to ask God to spare me of these. Yet my deepest sense is that each one of us will have our own unique Gethsemane. We probably have to wrestle with God in prayer about the cup from which the Lord may want each of us to drink.
It would be legitimate to protest, but like Jesus in Gethsemane, we will still be invited to drink our cup with trust in Him. The dark moments may include the feelings of being abandoned by God.
However, it is trust in God’s merciful faithfulness to us to the end that we are invited to place in God. We need to believe that we will never go through them alone.
No wonder that St. Paul speaks of the cross as God’s wisdom for those on the way to salvation. We can appreciate deeper the meaning of God choosing to become one of us in Jesus – vulnerable, powerless, and at the mercy of many forces of destruction. For it is God’s way of mercy, compassion, and love. It is our road to our true fulfilment and the fullness of life.
As our friendship with God grows, the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection then begins to make sense.
After asking Peter whether he loved Him three times, which was understandably annoying to Peter, He said these words to Peter: “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”(Jn 21:18).
As our faith matures, we are often led and carried by God to places that we don’t want to go.
This kind of thing cannot be taught nor intellectualised. It can only be experienced. It is the kind of knowledge that comes from the heart. For only those who have gone through it with faith can understand how close God is to those who suffer. It is in allowing ourselves to be carried by our Lord to places that we would rather not go that our belief in Jesus will become mature and bear good fruit.
By Father Bernard Teo, CSsR
Singaporean Father Bernard Teo joined the Redemptorists and was ordained a priest in 1979. He has taught moral theology at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, Australia, since 1991, and also regularly teaches theology in the Philippines.