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Suffering and Death with Christian Dignity

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 31, 2023

The Kingdom of God includes all of creation purified of evil. The Kingdom is also our eternal destiny in heaven. The elements of the Pearl of Great Price are sanctifying grace, suffering and death with Christian dignity, and eternal life. The Pearl is inseparable from the Tree of Life.

In the Book of Genesis, God places two trees in the Garden: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve lived holy lives in union with God. They could not know evil without disobedience. The fruit of the Tree of Life sustained them. Death was unnatural.

The serpent tempted them to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5) They ate the fruit, and their disobedience opened their eyes to evil and suffering. God withdrew the Tree of Life but promised a Redeemer. Suffering now afflicts human nature. After the Fall, without the gift (sic) of death, our suffering would be without end.

After the Fall, spiritual remnants of the Tree of Life remain. God implanted a desire to live forever in human nature. We avoid death to the best of our ability. Some suggest we were healthier in the days of relative poverty because our diets included all the nutrients the butcher and farms provided. (Remember calves’ brains and pickled pigs’ knuckles? No? Good for you!) Today, our selective eating habits require nutritional supplements to maintain health.

Medical treatment provides another aspect of the remnants of the Tree of Life. St. Luke, the evangelist, was a doctor. The miraculous healings of Jesus affirm the dignity of the medical profession. Up to a point, modern medicine restores health. Beyond that point, pharmaceuticals do not heal us, but drugs can prolong our lives. Many of us credit modern medicine for giving us a new lease on life.

Although the “work of human hands” (cf. Offertory prayers), nutritional and medical practices cannot replace God’s Tree of Life. Regardless of the splendid technological advances, we can only postpone the inevitable. Inconvenient as it is, someday, we will die. But a well-formed Catholic mind views death as the gateway to the Kingdom—eternal life in Jesus, the Pearl of Great Price.

In the PBS series “The Italian Americans,” the narrator marvels at the long life of the elderly despite all the pasta, tomatoes, and cheese in their diet. The commentator observes that grandparents trusted their families to care for them until they slipped into eternity. Families were their consoling lifelines to the Tree of Life.

A disordered fear for our lives renews the ancient enticement to “be like God.” The temptation has two extremes. The first is the all-too-common suicide of the “do not resuscitate” (DNR) medical directive. We sign the paperwork because we fear worst-case scenarios of suffering. Although the DNR order protects medical facilities, it does not protect us with its inflexible “one-size-fits-all” features.

The DNR directive does not distinguish between a person who loses consciousness because of dehydration (for example) or a massive stroke. Great care must be taken before signing a DNR. It is prudent to assign a medical power of attorney to a trusted friend—with a Catholic mind—who knows us and our condition, lives in the area, and understands the ordinary means required by Catholic teaching.

The second extreme is to do everything possible to cling to life. As our bodies fail, we often refuse to acknowledge that we are coming to the end of the trail. So, we look to medicine as the Tree of Life that should remedy every malady. Of course, mistakes, bureaucracy, greed, and medical malpractice are always possibilities. But we quickly blame doctors and the medical establishment for failing us. We often expect too much, and too many doctors (perhaps fearing lawsuits) enable our false hopes through excessively aggressive treatment.

Because of the advances in medical technology, many patients find themselves on extended life support. Futurists boast that artificial intelligence and computer chips will sustain our lives as our bodies break down. The prospects are provocative, promising an admixture of good and evil. Why do we desire to prolong our lives? Will we serve God and others? Or will the life-sustaining technology extend a living hell of suffering?

These questions are difficult, even for those who recognize God’s dominion. But posing difficult questions help us face reality and understand why God removed the Tree of Life from the Garden. Death—by the hand of God alone—alleviates human suffering in this life. A sane and compassionate society provides medical care and hospital emergency rooms for medical problems. But there comes a time when intensive medical care is futile, and we should allow ourselves to die amidst those who love us—with food and water, hygiene, and morally lawful and effective painkillers. We need a realistic Catholic mind and God’s grace to navigate these choppy waters.

During the Exodus (cf. Numbers 21:4-8), the Israelites complained of their plight on their arduous journey to the Promised Land. They thought Moses led them astray from the illusory Tree of Life of Egyptian slavery. God punished their misdirected search for happiness apart from Him and sent venomous snakes to bring them to their senses. Moses pleaded with God on their behalf and raised a viper on a staff. Those who gazed on the serpent faced their fears with courage and were healed.

The scepter of Moses became God’s Tree of Life, renewing the courage of the Chosen People for the journey. The staff also foreshadowed the Cross of Jesus, the Tree of Life that adorns every Catholic sanctuary for contemplation. Like the Israelites in the desert, we are also wayfarers. Jesus teaches, “Enter through the narrow gate.” (Mt. 7:13) Suffering and death in union with Jesus on the Cross is the gate to the Kingdom. We need His courage for safe passage.

The Cross of Jesus is the Tree of Life and another Christian paradox. The Tree of Life is suffering and death with Christian dignity because it leads us to the Kingdom of God, the Pearl of Great Price.

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Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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