When I was a young boy my great-grandmother died in a hospital in Dayton, Ohio. Great-Grandma Glenn lived well into her 90's and up until the last several months of her life lived in her own in the little house she had once shared with her husband. As she began to expire in her hospital bed the nurses and doctors attending her sprang into action and began resuscitating her repeatedly. Great-Grandma hadn't spoken to anyone for several days as she had been in a comatose state, but she spoke now very clearly when she opened her eyes and said to my Grandmother; "Please tell them to stop doing that! I can see my Jesus waiting for me and I want to go to be with him."
I was standing just outside of her room as these events unfolded and they have stayed with me ever since. Resuscitating my 90-plus year old Great-Grandma seemed to me a kind of macabre torture though at that time in the mid-1970's it was the standard medical practice. Since that time, through the growth and development of the hospice movement, a much more sensible and dignified stance has been adopted towards end-of-life care. Today, my Great-Grandma would not be subjected to such treatment.
As an Orthodox priest I have seen and been intimately involved with end-of life issues in a variety of settings. It is part and parcel of the ministry of the priesthood. The Terri Shiavo case playing out in the media, the Congress, and the state and federal courts has thrust this issue into the public eye for the last several weeks. At the time of this writing, Terri has been without food or water for one week. Repeated attempts by her parents to have her feeding tube re-inserted have been apparently exhausted. So now they can only wait for the inevitable conclusion of their daughter's life. I don't intend to delve into the specifics of this case in this column. But I do want to frame some remarks about what this portends for us as a society and how we as Orthodox Christians must respond.
Orthodox Christianity has a clear and irreducible bias toward Life. Everything that we do and everything about us as a people and as persons created in the Image of God is done in service to the Lord of Life. St. John wrote about the Incarnate Word of God; "In Him was Life and the Life was the Light of men. And the Light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it." (John 1:4-5) It was in order that death might be overturned and the Kingdom of death destroyed that Jesus Christ came into the world. St. Paul wrote of this in his 2nd Epistle to St. Timothy thus: "..(Jesus Christ) hath abolished death and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Tim 1:10) And this we loudly and repeatedly proclaim at every Pascha when, in an eruption of joy, we sing; "Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs He is bestowing life."
There used to be time when these sentiments for life were broadly shared in our culture, but no more. The reductionism and the "practicality" of our post-modern world has led us to a place where life no longer retains even a whiff of it's' mystery. Why do I use the term "mystery?" Simply because my own simple and direct observation of life and death affirms it. I have seen, both as a priest and as a cardiovascular surgical supplies sales representative in my private sector career before my ordination a career which saw me daily in the surgical suite, the tenacity of life in the face of overwhelming odds against it.
One former employee of mine was diagnosed more than a decade ago with a rare form of stomach cancer. She was a young mother and in excellent health otherwise. Over the course of the next 6 or 7 years she endured several surgeries and rounds of treatment. But long past the point that she "should have" succumbed to her illness she stubbornly refused to die! Why? Because it was important to her that her son be adequately provided for after her death. And then, after she had situated her son in her mother's home to begin the school year in a new town, she held on until after the holidays because, as she explained it to me, she didn't want him to have a negative connotation of the Christmas season if she died just then. When she finally allowed herself to go she weighed barely 60 pounds.
I have seen dying persons cling tenaciously to life, in some instances refusing to let go until given permission by their families to do so. On more than one occasion I've prayed the prayer for the separation of the soul and body only to see the person seemingly at death's door recover and leave the hospital. I've also seen apparently healthy and vigorous young people die unexpectedly from undiagnosed illnesses and elderly saints quietly and peacefully slip into the arms of the waiting angels at the very moment when the prayers of separation were being read. It is God who decides the number of our days. We are admonished to "..number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom." (Psalm 90:12)
We post-moderns have arrogated to ourselves the prerogatives of God in our de-mystification of life and death. That we have done so is scarcely surprising since we have long since expunged Him from our lives and from society. I sometimes literally pine for the days when we still possessed enough shame to at least give lip-service to our now deceased Judeo-Christian ethic. In the vacuum created by our having expelled the Lord of Life from our lives we find ourselves in the cloying grasp of a culture of death. This culture of death is manifested in very many ways. The 1973 Supreme Court decision "recognizing" the right to an abortion catapulted us down the slope we find ourselves sliding today. A society that refuses to affirm and protect the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable members of that society ceases to be truly civilized. Worse still, the very basis for our judgment as we stand before the throne of God according to Matthew 25 is how each of us have treated "the least of these my brethren."
Our mistreatment of the least of the brethren takes many different forms and our culture of death is manifested in a variety of ways. Foster children are inhumanely bounced around from home to home, mental patients walk the streets and sleep in gutters and walk into my office looking for food, young girls and boys prostitute themselves on city streets to eke out an existence for themselves, violence masquerades as popular entertainment for our children and nobody says a word, and our elderly citizens these treasures of history, memory, and experience are warehoused in under-funded "care" facilities, alone and forgotten. I was in two such facilities just this morning. In one, an old man sat alone in his room wearing a spring jacket and a ball cap staring vacantly at the floor while in the hallway a toothless woman wandered aimlessly about, the light of reason gone from her eyes.
Absent a Judeo-Christian ethic of life, left with only our own feeble light to guide us, the day cannot be far away when we as a society will no longer tolerate the presence of those whose lives have become too burdensome or expensive for society to bear. Our stubborn silence in the face of the dehumanizing culture of death has pre-ordained this outcome. A society based on utility and expediency must arrive at the conclusion that certain lives aren't worth the cost of protecting. A person spends relatively little on healthcare until the final years or months of his or her life. A utilitarian society will choose to abruptly end the lives of such persons for the sake of "the good of society." The day will surely come when today's "right to die" movement will evolve imperceptibly into a "patriotic duty to die" movement. It is this tug-of-war between advocates for life and advocates for utility that has thrust the Terri Schiavo case into the national spotlight.
The salesmanship that has been marshaled in support of Terri's demise has been staggering to observe. Her death by starvation and dehydration has been variously referred to as "natural," "painless," and even "euphoric." But this isn't the first time that euphemism has been employed to mask the truth of our actions. The National Socialists of the 1930's created the "Benevolent Society for the Transport of the Infirm" in Germany, never mind that the infirm were being benevolently transported to their deaths "for the good of society." And in defense of the utility of death we advance a "quality of life" agenda to cover the stark reality of genocide. The role of suffering in the course of humanity's salvation has been largely forgotten, even among us Orthodox today. What for our ancestors was taken as an inevitable part of living we eschew as unenlightened and archaic. St. Paul's testimony of being "crucified with Christ" in his epistle to the Galatians no longer resonates with us. Suffering is, to our new way of thinking, only bad and must be avoided at all costs not only for ourselves but for others so that we won't be reminded of our own impending death.
So what are we as Orthodox Christians to make of this test-case for euthanasia playing out before our eyes? (And here we must remember that we in the Church pray to be delivered from "sudden death," since for us a "good death" is one the leaves us time to prepare for eternity, hence, a slow one!) Particularly now in this season of Great Lent it is vitally important that we fully appreciate the vast difference between Light and Darkness, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Life and Death. For the very same evil that saw 7 million Jews technologically dispatched in the Second World War, that saw another 2 ½ million Armenians and Greeks swept from Asia Minor, that saw 40 million peasants in the Ukraine starved to death under Stalin's collectivization efforts, and in our own time saw the horrific carnage between the Hutus and the Tsutsis in Rwanda, now stands behind the state's compelling legal interest to see this young woman dispatched. The Great Iconoclast stops at nothing to see the Image of God in us marred and disfigured and led blindly to the grave apart from God.
The Church in affirming the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lord of Life calls us to remember that it is only in Him that we are truly alive. "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10) The Greek characters around His halo in every Byzantine icon affirm that He, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate Word of God, is the Great "I AM' and that it is only in Him that "live and move and have our being."(Acts 17:28) Those of us who have been united to Christ in the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church have been "..delivered.. from the power of darkness and.. translated.. into the Kingdom of His dear Son." (Col. 1:13) Thus categories of light and darkness, truth and error, heaven and hell, have eternal ramifications for us. And when we see society sliding headlong in the wrong direction we must not follow!
The Orthodox Church as the theanthropic organism of the Body of Christ, forever united to Christ, stands firmly and unapologetically for life. We affirm that all life is precious and that it is only God who has the days of our lives numbered. It is not our place to hasten the death of those whose lives have become an inconvenience to us. This does not mean that we resuscitate 90-year old Great Grandmothers or that we keep terminal patients on ventilators and respirators indefinitely. Modern science has created a dizzying panoply of choices for the families of the terminally ill. But there is significant difference between not artificially prolonging life and actually hastening death. We must trust that God knows when we are ready to meet Him and that He will bring us to Himself at the appropriate time.
May God shelter us from the gathering uncomprehending darkness of our times and give us the courage to be the lights in the world He has called us to be until He comes again.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.