At the beginning of the movie Shadowlands, CS Lewis is heard saying, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is an obvious reference to CS Lewis’ theology of suffering. The point, however, is to make note that each person suffers and, at times, suffering is part of the Divine plan. Recently, it has come to light that Brittany Maynard, 29-year old Oregon resident who suffers from a rare form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme, intends to take her own life under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act”. Under this nefarious law, if a person is a legal resident of Oregon, judged to be competent and terminally ill, then a physician can prescribe a lethal dose of medication to the patient, to be taken any time by the patient, for the purpose of committing suicide.
Mrs. Maynard’s story is a quintessential study in the theology of suffering. Newly married and looking forward to family life, she never thought her life would be tragically cut short. No doubt Mrs. Maynard suffers from the mental anguish of her impending death as she states, “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” A painful death is something virtually everyone fears; even the Lord feared His impending scourging and crucifixion. But Mrs. Maynard raises an important question, will her death be dignified? Many in modern society may think so, but in reality Mrs. Maynard’s death will be a tragedy—a model of what not to do.
Christ gave mankind a conclusive model regarding death with true dignity. In the darkness of the midnight hours the Lord prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Christ’s fear becomes apparent to the reader of Scripture when Christ uttered the words, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14: 36). The beginning of Christ’s Passion is a study in the subject of suffering. It is here one sees how His suffering was more than just the mere physical tortures He went through, but rather illustrates how the mental anguish caused by physical suffering can be just as tortuous.
It should be noted, however, that Christ’s suffering also included the element of temptation. Here, the Word of God Incarnate faced His greatest battle with Satan. Even though the Evil One was not specifically mentioned within the passages of the Garden of Gethsemane, He was there. Jesus must decide: will He take the easy way out or will He take the tortuous path that He is supposed to. Adam faced Death too in the Garden of Eden and His decision was a similar one. But instead of acquiescing to the will of God, he chose his own will instead. As a result, Jesus must do what Adam failed to do. And it was in His perfect sacrifice that mankind gained a model of how to handle the path that has been laid before every human being when it comes to the subject of suffering. The Lamb of God took up the cup that had been given to Him. Throughout His tortures neither did He complain nor did He condemn His persecutors.
But sadly, Mrs. Maynard has not followed this example. In her Op-Ed piece that appeared on CNN.com she penned the following sentiment, “Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve [emphasis mine] this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain?” Unfortunately, she does not see the opportunity to show her love for God by being brave in the face of adversity. As St. Pope John Paul states in Salvifici Doloris, “We could say that suffering…is present in order to unleash love in the human person…” (no. 29).
Mrs. Maynard notes that she still may have a change of heart, “Now that I’ve had the prescription filled and it’s in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief, and if I decide to change my mind about taking the medication, I will not take it.” It is so ironic how the lethal dose represents the forbidden fruit in Eden. She certainly hasn’t “eaten” the forbidden fruit yet, but the Devil is obviously tempting her through her potential suffering.
Regrettably, the deadly sin of Pride also plays a significant role in Mrs. Maynard’s story. She wishes to die on her terms. She deliberately chooses not to take the path that has been laid out for her; unlike Christ who humbly and lovingly accepted what must happen. The love of Christ shone through by Him, literally taking on unjust tortures to forgive the sins of mankind.
While the story of Christ may seem long ago to many moderns today, and His death by torture and crucifixion as to be unfathomable; there are many other Christian examples of those who suffered through terminal illnesses with true dignity. Most notably was St. Pope John Paul II who wrote on the subject of suffering as mentioned above. Much like Mrs. Maynard’s illness, Parkinson’s is a debilitating illness and the world watched St. John Paul II suffer from it. But St. John Paul II gave life to his own words in his suffering, “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God” (Salvifici Doloris, no.12).
Again, the CS Lewis of Shadowlands stated it best, “I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering…You see we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel which hurt us so much with are what makes us perfect.” It is in this time that prayers should be offered for Mrs. Maynard. Her suffering presents an opportunity to help her grow in her relationship with God. It is a time for her to show true courage in the sight of mental agony, even if it is the agony of watching others agonize because of her condition. It is time to pray that she will choose the path of God.