Actually, being a serious student of any sort is learning what to read, what to skim, and what to totally BS.
When a student learns math from a human teacher, the fire of love for the teacher is limited by whatever the nature of the relationship is, and the fire of love for the subject may well be limited by intelligence. But when the Christian learns virtue from Christ, the teacher is much less limited than a math professor in his ability to stoke the flames of love.
In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit descended explicitly to crown our lives with tongues of flame, and to play the role of moral guide (what Socrates called his daimon) for both Christians and their Church.
I was delighted to be a guest on Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ program "From the Rooftops" on the Radio Maria network this week (the MP3 will be posted in the next few days). We talked about the class that I help teach, “Theological Dimensions of Suffering and Death”. My notes for the talk are as follows (though we didn’t actually get to all of the questions!):
What is this class that you teach?
Theology 348: The Theological Dimensions of Suffering and Death. Upper-division nursing students (juniors & seniors) are required to take this course. We explore three main concepts: first, the grand questions about why God allows suffering and death, secondly, we look at different perspectives on suffering and death, primarily from a Catholic Christian perspective, and finally, we talk about how caregivers can remain compassionate and engaged with their patients in the face of constant suffering. Ultimately, the class is about the student and helping them to think about these questions so that they can be effective caregivers. Nurses who have at least thought about these things in advance won’t be caught unawares when a patient asks, “Am I dying? What’s going to happen to me?” By the same token, for those of us who aren’t nurses, thinking and praying about these things also prepares us to be ready for whatever life may bring our way. There is a long tradition in the Catholic faith of meditating on “the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell”, this class is one way we can broach the subject in the context of an academic education.
What does the Catholic faith have to offer on the topic of suffering that is different than other approaches in our secular pluralistic society?
Catholicism is a faith that is centered on a radical idea: the creator of all things himself took flesh and became a human like us, one who walked and talked and suffered like we all do. God is not something utterly unlike us, He has had our experience, and He has walked with us. This is the ultimate meaning of “compassion”: “to suffer with”. So for Catholics, God is near to us because He knows our weaknesses and knows what graces we need to get through. There’s one other important point: in Jesus Christ, God has already won the battle against suffering and death. The end to this grand story of history is already written; this is the message of hope that we as Catholics are called to share.
What are some specifically Catholic approaches to suffering and death?
As the US Catholic bishops wrote, “In the face of death — for many, a time when hope seems lost — the Church witnesses to her belief that God has created each person for eternal life. Above all, as a witness to its faith, a Catholic health care institution will be a community of respect, love, and support to patients or residents and their families as they face the reality of death. What is hardest to face is the process of dying itself, especially the dependency, the helplessness, and the pain that so often accompany terminal illness” (Ethical & Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, USCCB 2009, p. 10). These few sentences underscore our charge as Catholics: to support those who are dependent, to give hope to the helpless, and to alleviate suffering. How counter-cultural is that? We are a nation founded on “declaring our independence”, and the secular culture thereby teaches that to be dependent on another is to lose your own identity. And we’ve allowed the secular culture to misappropriate the term “dignity” to mean that the only dignified death is one that is done by your own choice, rather than to realize the reality that each person’s very existence is from the beginning a gift which is not his or her own. In a 2011 book by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, M.D. & Fr. John Cihak called “The Catholic Guide to Depression”, there’s a marvelous quotation that highlights the wide gap between our secular culture and an authentically Catholic approach. Dr. Kheriaty writes, “Consider the approach to suffering currently offered by secular humanism, which proposes to eliminate all pain and suffering someday through purely technological means. Since this is clearly not currently possible (and even in the future it will never be completely possible), the backup plan seems to be to eliminate suffering by eliminating the people who are suffering; for example, through euthanasia or assisted suicide. This strikes me as being a rather primitive and destructive form of denial. If we are looking for pragmatic ways to cope, non-religious answers to suffering appear rather pale and thin compared with religious responses that do not shrink from or ignore the reality of human suffering” (from the Introduction).
How is the caregiver’s work related to Catholic Social Teaching?
In Matthew 25:31-46, Christ commands the Corporal works of mercy; caregivers participate by providing direct intervention + work for systemic change. The Church is called to be countercultural in the name of the Gospel. For example in Oregon, where we live, the Catholic Church has been a prophetic voice speaking out against physician-assisted suicide. We may appear to be on the losing side when one considers only the laws and the courts, but the Church continues to work to change hearts and minds on the issue by walking with those who suffer, and providing direct care to those who have no one to care for them. By our compassionate actions on behalf of the least of His brothers and sisters, we work to be counted among Christ’s sheep, not to be herded in with the goats who deny Him when they fail to care for His people.
How can caregivers remain compassionate in the face of constant suffering?
First, realize that we are never alone, that we can share the burden with others; realize that we are each called to support others, to walk with them in their suffering; our faith offers us the support of prayer and reflection on scripture; we can seek spiritual direction and psychological counseling – science and medicine are not “the enemy”, but can be a partner in healing.