Cherishing the Gift of Life

When St Maximilian Kolbe was canonised as a martyr, I was rather dubious. It seemed to me that the pope (St John Paul II) was stretching the traditional definition of martyrdom too far. St Maximilian was, by all accounts, a martyr of charity, but did he die in defence of Catholic truth?  Then again, although I shared his enthusiasm for the latest and best printing equipment, I was not drawn to the Friars of the Immaculate and their particular forms of devotion, nor did I share their particular conception of mission. Wasn’t St Maximilian just a little too alien to be my kind of saint? What a horribly officious little prig I was (and maybe still am)!

I realise now that the witness Maximilian Kolbe gave to the truth of the Cross was immense. He gave his life for another and, in so doing, taught us something important about life itself and the nature of priesthood. He died because he cherished life, not because he saw it as of no consequence, and he fulfilled his priesthood by sacrificing himself as our Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed himself.

I was thinking about this when I heard on the radio that a fellow cancer-sufferer intends to take his own life today at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. I am praying that he may have a change of heart, not because I want him to experience more pain and suffering — I don’t — but because the gift of life is the most beautiful gift any of us ever receives; and it is given us on trust. To choose to end it strikes me as inutterably sad and is symptomatic of the throwaway culture we have embraced so heartily in the West. If life isn’t perfect, scrap it.

In September Parliament will have another Assisted Dying (Suicide) Bill before it*. If passed, those of us with terminal illnesses may well feel pressure to ‘do the decent thing’ and lift a burden from our family/community and the State. Then what of the old, the disabled, the not-very-bright, the socially inept, the criminal, all the imperfect beings that go to make up the definitely perfect world in which we live? We all have a tendency to argue from our own experience and do not always see the wider implications of choices made from a particular perspective. Most of us have probably experienced times when we felt that life was not worth living — when pain, grief and despair sucked everything human from us and left us an empty shell. Most of us will have seen someone we love suffer great pain and anguish. But is choosing to end life the best way of dealing with pain and suffering, or even imperfection as society views it? In his bunker, St Maximilian Kolbe experienced the torment of starvation, thirst and unbearable heat, but he went on, encouraging others, praising God and, yes, cherishing the gift of life. May we think very seriously about how we ourselves do the same.

* A Private Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MP Rob Marris.

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7 thoughts on “Cherishing the Gift of Life”

  1. An important message–life is indeed a gift to be cherished. Nobody should have to feel pressured to end one’s life because they are ill or old or disabled. Nobody should have to feel as if they are a burden if they don’t fit some arbitrary notion of being a contributing member of society.
    Each life is a gift to be cherished
    Thank you for this post.

  2. Wonderful blog, Sister Catherine. It made me think of “The glory of God is man fully alive” (St Irenaeus), right to the end of our lives, whatever that journey involves. It is the only way we can discover that we are all made for a life that we never imagined possible. As a dear friend of mine said when dying, in a lot of pain, it’s a great mystery, but I believe.

  3. I’m sure we’ll never agree on this issue – but I really do feel the need to put the alternative view.
    Life is indeed to cherished, and absolutely no-one should ever feel pressured to end one’s life. But by the same token, no-one should be forced to continue an existence that has become a burden to that person.
    Continuing or ending one’s life should be an individual choice, rather than being forced on a person. My personal belief in the rightness of assisted dying for those who want it should not and must not in any way pressure you to end your life. However, in the same way your beliefs should not prevent me from ending my life if I feel that, for me, it is the right thing to do.

    • I am with dying people every single week. I can see why, in some cases, one might be tempted to argue that we wouldn’t let an animal suffer like this, but…. And it’s a very big but, there are, in my experience, many more elderly or disabled people who,are very concerned about those they love and “not wanting to be a burden”. They would feel morally obliged to end their lives well before they should. Some would make that choice so,as not to spend all their money/savings on care, but rather give it to the children. The ‘slippery slope’ argument is very real. Laws should never be made for individuals, but for the many. The longer I spend with the dying, and te more I study ethics, the more I’m with Sr Catherine

      • The slippery slope is absolutely real and awaits just the other side of any such provision which, Heaven forbid, might ever get passed into law. The last time the issue came up for debate in Parliament, Virginia Ironside said openly in a TV interview that in her view old and infirm people should indeed elect to die because they’ve had their time anyway. I’m grateful to Ms.Meyer for the respectful way in which she puts her point of view above, but I profoundly disagree with the view that such decisions are purely a personal matter. They simply aren’t, nor could they ever be.

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