|February 28, 2005|
My Mother and the Pope
Religiously Incorrect Suffering and Compassion, Worlds Apart
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Religiously incorrect according to various relatives and churchgoers, a very ill Protestant 77 year old American lady ignores disparaging remarks about Catholicism, the Vatican, and the antiwar stance of Pope John Paul II. Every day my mother asks in whispers through her mask, “How is the Pope doing today? I’m worried about him, I feel for him…” Sometimes she cries, imagining—and knowing—what he’s going through.
Oceans, denominations, and nationalities apart, my mother and the Pope are struggling for life. In an age of intolerance and divisiveness, this gives me hope.
When you’re closest to heaven is when you least want to go there
Much of the time, religion comforts those who suffer. Religion can summon the care of others, even strangers, when it’s most desperately needed. But just as the Hippocratic oath commands physicians to “First, do no harm”, above all else, religion should not make matters worse. It should not increase worry, fear, loneliness or despair. Religion should quietly step aside when all it can offer are painfully obvious Pollyanna pep talks based on the desire to “quick-fix” the suffering person’s pain.
Like the nurse who gently asked our kind pastor to leave the room when his joking and positive talk failed to distract and uplift, clergy and laypeople alike should be sensitive to those times when the struggling patient just needs to have a good cry, not force pretended joy regarding the perks of heaven.
“I can’t wait to get to heaven” is a common phrase in evangelical churches, but should never be spoken to a sick or dying person.
These statements take on a whole new meaning when you’re throwing up blood, gasping for air until your lips and fingernails turn blue, and getting stabbed with needles in both arms by frazzled, angry-sounding nurses screaming, “Stat! Stat!” No visitor, whether they’ve been to seminary or computer school, has the right to tell a person fighting for life that the hereafter—and the death required to get there—is what he or she should most desire.
Consider the Pope. His breathing problems mirror my mother’s, and though hers are not followed by CNN or the BBC, it seems newsworthy to me that she suffered a similar breathing crisis on the same day that he had to have an emergency tracheotomy. The Pope and my mother are fighting, with everything they have and with all the care and technology that medicine can offer, to stay alive.
Nowadays it’s religiously correct to say you’re just dying for the Rapture to come, so you can get to heaven as soon as possible. The Left Behind series has made a fortune from the promulgation of this idea, and many Christians proudly claim that they’re “ready to die”—one of those platitudes that’s easy to say when you’re not looking death in the eye.
If dying and going to heaven is so great, why isn’t the Pope trying to get there? Why does he fight so hard to stay alive, despite all the evidence that it’s going to be a constant struggle to do so? If this “mere” earthly life is so second-rate, why does the Vatican pursue the most rigorous medical care available for this seriously ill elderly man?
I don’t know much about Vatican politics, but I know something about the human heart. While I’ve disagreed with the Pope on some things, I have always admired his concern for humanity, for life. But more than this, I see in him a man who wants to live. He just wants to live! He enjoys life, even when it comes with shackles and chains.
When I see John Paul II struggling to breathe, I wish that I could rescue him, the way I dream of rescuing my mother from this invisible monster that fills her eyes with terror when it ruthlessly steals her breath. I wish that God would—could?—rescue them both.
“Always preach the gospel, and use words if necessary.” St. Francis
The fact—and it is a tough one to face—is that religion tells us to desire heaven, but what human beings really love is life. And there is nothing wrong with this. There is nothing unchristian about this. Jesus loved life: As he was suffering on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
There’s a cross on the wall just below the TV set, but it doesn’t really comfort my mother, nor does it comfort me. When the Sisters ran this hospital, the crucifix featured the dying Jesus, his face contorted in pain, with which suffering patients could identify.
Today the hospital is owned by a corporation, and the crucifixes have been replaced by a happy, white-robed risen Jesus floating before an elegant cross. Maybe the CEO decided that the suffering Christ was bad for business.
Crosses of any kind, however, are nonetheless objects, manufactured by workers in factories somewhere. Objects cannot gaze into your eyes and understand what you’re going through. What sick or depressed people need isn’t even the loveliest icon, but messengers of God’s love, warm human beings like the dark-skinned chaplain who prayed with my mother—caressing her hair and holding her hand, unlike the nice but cautious white chaplains—confidently asserting himself with God without one ounce of temerity or pleading in his voice:
“Dear Father God, we’ve seen the doctor’s report, but what we’re going to pay attention to is God’s report! Sometimes suffering is not unto death! Father God, we pray that you heal this woman! You love Mrs. Whitehurst and we want you to comfort her now. In Jesus’ name we pray, Father God, amen!”
My mother looked up at him and, in a rare moment between tears, brought his hand towards her face, which was nearly hidden by the respiration machine attached to her head. I hadn’t been sure if it would help or hurt to have a member of the clergy drop by, which might signal to someone in her condition that the time had come for “last rites”.
But when I saw her eyes flutter open as he called on God to give a better report than the doctors had, and to let this suffering be not unto death, I knew that this form of religion—the human form—was what she needed most.
Mother Teresa said, “We want to be God’s love in action”. Bibles and crucifixes may comfort some people, but these objects can never do what God in the hearts of human beings can do—share the divine gift of hope through simple things like holding the suffering person’s hand, asking the nurse to bring some pain medication, talking of flowers and beautiful things, or just wiping the tears away with a warm wet cloth.
Religion is ascendant in our world today—in some ways healing and hopeful, and in other ways murderous and callous. It’s easy for people far from the battlefield to speak of just wars, sinful violence that steals the breath of countless human beings who are loved and cherished, like my mother and the Pope, by God.
Christian suffering is considered valuable and worthy, but deep in their hearts even the devout long for rescue when their lives are on the line. Why won’t (or can’t?) God take away the illness, or protect them from the bombs? That’s a question we all ask, but too often we revert to soothing clichés. When religion doesn’t help, we should respectfully tuck it away and simply be with the person who’s struggling to live. Heaven-talk should be reserved for sermons and funerals. In the ICU, God works best in human form.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles That Will Transform Your Family (2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One" as seen on her website.
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