(Un)masking Evil

Evil loves to wear a mask.   Both Jason Voorhees, fictional character of the endless Friday the 13th movie series infamy and  the (unfortunately real) head-hacking members of ISIL both generally cover up when doing their dirty deeds.   Both hearken back to the ‘headsmen’ of old, who chopped off heads for the State wearing long black hoods.

jason v

There are two related reasons for this masking of evil:  Shame and fear.  Since conscience never completely dies away, regardless of how one thoodes isil membersries to repress it, we may presume that they at some level still ‘feel bad’ about what they are doing.  Shame itself is derived from this ‘fear of being found out’, so anonymity is key.  Just look at the shaded windows of triple-X pornography shops.  People, I guess, generally enter by the back door, and don’t want to be seen browsing in such an establishment.

masked isil


But the masking of evil also allows one to instill fear into one’s victim.  Fear responds to an unknown future evil, one that is not yet ‘upon ‘ you, but you know is lurking around the corner, waiting patiently .  Our imagination tends to magnify this evil, which is why we are afraid, or at least more afraid, when it is dark.


This principle was used to good effect, inadvertently, in the 70’s thriller Jaws, about a Great White shark that terrorizes a Cape Cod beach.  Spielberg, the director, originally intended for the shark to have a greater role, but the mechanical model would not work properly, and was not all that realistic.  So, it was decided to keep the shark out of sight for most of the movie, signifying his presence by the ominous basso-symphonic chords we now associate with impending doom.


Things enter a sort of denoument when the shark is ‘revealed’ at the end and chomps down on a screaming Robert Shaw, who ironically lived his entire life in fear and hatred of sharks.  But the ‘Great White’, when he appears, seems a bit of a let down.  A big, rubber, awkward monster.  One is almost tempted to laugh (a healthy reaction to most horror movies, but in the hands Spielberg, Jaws is a step above such).  It is a testament to Shaw’s acting ability that he made us terrified as he slid down the deck to the gaping, yes, ‘jaws’ (well, I saw thejaws film as a young child, so would likely have been terrified if the shark had been made of felt and paper mache).



That is why it is requisite for us to unmask evil as much as we can, to make it present its true face.  Only then can we fight it on equal terms, and see it as it really is.  More often than not, the evil is more pathetic than we imagined.  Recall Darth Vader when finally unmasked in Return of the Jedi; he ends up being a misunderstood giant with a scarred face, suffering from Daddy issues.

There is a philosophical principle that explains the limited nature of evil:  Evil does not really ‘exist’, but is rather the privation of a good, the lack of something that should be there.  Evil is an emptiness, like a cavity is the absence of a tooth; it may cause great pain, but only because there should be a tooth to cover up and protect the underlying nerve.  Behind the mask of evil there is blankness and despair.


That is also why it is a grace that certain evils are currently being unmasked of late in the world:  Here I will focus on the ‘unmasking’ of Islam in the barbarism of ISIL.  Do they in fact show the true face of this controversial religion?  Is Islam inherently violent, coercive, puritanical and repressive?  Its origins in the seventh century seem to evince as much, and there is no ‘Pope’ or ‘Magisterium’ of Islam to determine infallibly and with authority what Islam should be; hence its inherent fissiparousness and factionalism  (there are almost as many ‘Islams’ as there are Muslims).  The members of the Islamic State (as well as the Nigerian Boko Haram) seem to believe they are acting in accordance with the Qu’ran, and that even their fellow Muslims are not Muslim enough for them.  One can only hope that they soon begin quarrelling with each other about what Islam really entails, for a house divided against itself cannot stand.

women in burqas


But the fact remains that the face of Islam they do present is not one that any right-thinking person would want to live under.  No alcohol?  No dancing?  No music?  No games and cards?  Women dressed head-to-toe in shapeless burlap, undressing just long enough to serve the sexual desires of their, ahem, ‘husbands’?  What joy do they offer?   Just stern, inflexible ‘worship of Allah’ seven times a day according to the dictates of these angry young men?  No wonder they all wear masks.


Yet they do, partly perhaps out of shame, but also to instill fear in their intended victims.  I have seen a few photos of them unmasked, and some of their members have been identified:   A Welsh medical student here, a British engineering student over there; disaffected youth, seeking a purpose and solid foundation for their life, perhaps also out for the camarderie and the sense of belonging to a group.


But many of them, wangry isil mane may presume, flocking from Westerna nations, are not trained soldiers, and, as others have suggested, any disciplined,well-equipped army could defeat them.  What they do have going for them is their religious zeal, which gives rise to their willingness to kill and to be killed seemingly without remorse.


In the end, however, they are pathetic, which literally means to arouse pathos  or strong feeling: Righteous anger, yes, but also sadness at their sorry plight.  What a waste of what might have been a promising life, to be thrown away in the desert in the misguided zeal of a misguided interpretation of the worship of ‘Allah’.  As Christ predicted, ‘they will put you to death, thinking they are doing a service for God’.


Of course, they must be stopped, with great force if necessary, but the most effective way to fight evil is to provide a contrary good, to fill up its emptiness with something valuable.  Beauty, truth and goodness will always triumph in the end.   Unfortunately, a large part of the attraction to radical Islam, as others have commented, is the current vacuity of Western culture:  Casual sex, rampant abortion, using people as commodities, unemployment, dissolution, despair and the breakdown of the family are gnawing at our once-great civilization, and eroding its very foundations.  Youth unemployment in Spain is hovering around 50%, and many other countries are not far behind.  Population is in a demographic death spiral.  The young men (and it is almost always young men) see the futility of such a life, and run for what they perceive to be ‘the truth’.   They want something they are willing to live (and die) for, as do we all.


Yet the truth is not to be found where they are going, and the sooner the masks are ripped off and they realize its emptiness, the better.  But we all must look into our own emptiness, for without the true good in all of its fullness being given to our future generations, and without offering them hope, they will continue to seek the false good behind masks and images.


November 25, 2014

The Tipping Point

Pursuant to the article on the Quebec pilgrimage, I have to vent a little on the topic of tipping.  When I travel solo, I tend to go light, with a tent, eating from grocery stores, walking; I rarely, if ever, stay in hotels and, if I can, I try to avoid restaurants.   I have a number of reasons for that, only some of them financial, but that need not detain us now.


When one is with company, one must do what the Romans do, and join in.  So, with my students, I had a pint in a pub, and went to a local eatery.  There was one other incident with a squeegee man on the street, which does pertain, so allow me to begin with that.


We were waiting for a red light in downtown Montreal, when out of our periphery a blondish-red-haired and somewhat scruffy man appeared of indiscriminate age, perhaps later twenties, who began squeegeeing our front windshield.  We locked the doors and continued our conversation.  When we did not open the windows and offer him some a ‘tip’, he berated us with a ‘Get back to Ontario’, in a guttural Quebecois accent.  Nice welcome to la Belle Provence.


Driving away, I wondered how many people actually give him something, two dollars, perhaps even a fiver.  They would do this partly out of pity (poor guy, trying to scrape out a living), partly out of fear (what if he dents the car, honey, or tries to break a window?).  That got me thinking how much he could make per hour.  It took our scruffy friend about 30 seconds or so to ‘clean’ our already-clean window; a brief calculation, and I came to the conclusion that, if even a minority of people offer him something, he could quite easily make forty dollars an hour for doing a menial job that no one needs done, and no one asked him to do.   These squeegee people must be making some incentive, for they keep coming back (the guy in the photo is not the same guy, but the cleanest and most modest stock photo of a squeegee ‘kid’ I could find…).


An analogous case, although not as bad and more pleasant, is waitressing (at least she is providing as service that I have asked for!):  At a pub in Quebec City, I bought a pitcher of local brew for our table; the beer itself was somewhat flat and rather insipid (I had better fortune in the hostel with another local ale).   When I went to pay afterward, the price was $17.50, steep for any pitcher, but especially for what we were served.  I handed the waitress a twenty, and she slowly, inexorably, deliberately and painfully, drew out of her apron two quarters, clearly not wanting to reach in for that other two dollars.  I took the quarters, and walked away, unable to endure anymore.


But, again, I got to thinking:  How many pitchers and drinks did she serve that night in that packed bar?  One hundred?  Three hundred?  Did she make $2.50 on each one?  To understate the case, that’s quite a bit of extra income.


My point is not about the 2 bucks, or that waitresses should not make a good living, but that, if they are underpaid, it is the owner of the pub who should pay them, not me.  Why should I be forced to supplement the income of his staff?  I must presume he is already making a very tidy profit on the beer itself (the pitcher of their less-than-Stellar-Artois draft could not have cost him more than a few dollars), to say nothing of all the other drinks and food.  So he pays her a pittance, and we, the already fleeced customer sitting at a sticky table listening to over-loud music, are supposed to make up the difference.  (You might see why I try to avoid modern bars).  If I had left no tip, she would have considered me a cheapskate, even though I was already overpaying for my beverage.  A tip that is no longer a ‘tip’ becomes a service charge, and should be declared as such in the price of food and drink.


This practise of tipping is endemic to our supine society, so given to idiotic ‘customs’ that we are afraid to change (and I refer not the custom of tipping cows, dangerous and inhumane at the best of times).


Remuneration for work done, I agree, is a complex topic, relative to the virtue of justice, about which the Church and many thinkers have written much, but we as everyday citizens have to put these teachings into practice in a concrete way in what we pay for goods and services.

tipping bill

Why are some professions tipped, and others not?  Should we feel constrained to tip in every circumstance, like we now stand in ovation for performances, however grand or mediocre?  Should the amount be relative to service received?  Does this not lead to obsequious service, forced smiles, and a ‘how y’all doin’ today’ of pretty young things, whose forced gaiety is primarily to make your wallet a little lighter?  The same young woman would in all likelihood not recognize you outside the restaurant.

silent waiter

Give me back the days of the silent waiter or bartender, who was paid well for his job, and did not expect a tip (a custom that I have heard still prevails in my native Scotland, where a bartender will be offended if you try to tip him).


Can we not return to the days of a fair price for a fair service?  Tell me what I owe, and I will pay, but do not make it dependent on some vague and ill-defined ‘tipping’ customs, with the consequent glare of an over-worked bartendress, or disgruntled squeegee ‘kid’ who is approaching early middle-age.


Let’s get back to simple justice, and we can all do the math.


November 19, 2014

La Belle Province

Quebec cathedralQuebec is celebrating a Jubilee Year on the 350th anniversary of the founding of their cathedral, Notre Dame, the oldest and principal church in all of North Amercia, and I just returned from a pilgrimage there with some students from the college at which I work.  Quebec, as such, is the primatial see, the first diocese, and still the principal diocese of Canada.  To commemorate the Jubilee, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has decreed a ‘Holy Door’ into the cathedral, the first time such a decree has been granted outside of Europe; entering through the finely sculpted, heavy, iron doors on the side of the cathedral gives one an indulgence and special graces; pilgrims were lined up twenty deep and the cathedral full on the chilly mid-November day that we arrived, well into the ‘off-season’.


We also were graced to visit the tombs of two of Canada’s newest, and two of her earliest, saints (both of them lived in the 17th century, in Canada’s very beginnings):   Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Canada and North America, and Marie de L’Incarnation, a remarkable woman who was one of the first to bring the faith to Canada as a member of the Ursuline Order (whose school still stands), and is credited even in the secular world with being one of the foundresses of this country.


On the way, we stopped in at the Oratory of Saint Joseph, praying at the stations of the Patron of the Church, the tomb of Saint Andre Bessette (another of our patrons!), Mass in the Basilica, then a vigorous hike up to the top of Mount Royal for a breathtaking, panoramic, night-time view of the of the illuminated city stretching into the horizon far below (with some impromptu piano playing by students in the nearby chalet, where we went to warm up).


In Quebec later that evening, we stayed at a delightful, inexpensive hostel in the vieux-ville, allowing us easy walking access to all the sites across the cobbled stones which look as though they have not changed since the four centuries of Quebec’s founding.  The weather held up, crisp, clear and sunny, perfect for walking.


The students very much enjoyed the trip, which was prayerful, inculturating (speaking French and enjoying crepes and poutine!) and, of course, fun.  Not to understate the case, but even though the faith in Quebec is not what it once was, there is holiness there, built on the sacrifice of her countless early saints, both known and unknown, and whose legacy still stands in the beautiful churches and monuments.  Je me souviens, ‘I remember’, is the motto of la belle province.   May this memory lead those in Quebec, and all of us Canada and throughout North America, to become, what we once were, and what we should be again.


November 19th, 2014

Heroism, then and now

“Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them”.   So wrote Shakespeare in Twelfth Night .


‘Greatness’ may take various forms, but I have been pondering of late the greatness achieved by heroism.   We may define a hero as one acts ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.  We may speak of heroic courage (the usual sort of hero that comes to mind), but also of heroic sanctity, heroic perseverance in scientific pursuits, heroic devotion to one’s children and so on.


We usually reserve applying ‘heroic’ to truly marvelous deeds, those that inspire awe.  How could someone do that, we wonder?



It is with this sense of heroism that I ponder the deeds of our soldiers, past and present.  I just heard an interview on the radio with a nonagenarian veteran from the Second World War, James Moffat, who survived the strafing and crashing of his plane, taking over from the killed gunner, then parachuting out (he was the sole survivor of his and the German plane) and landing in what he later found out was occupied Belgium.  Amidst grave danger, he was rescued by the resistance, all the while being pursued by ‘the Boche’, at one point jumping out of a window, running through a field, being chased by soldiers and dogs, and losing his trousers on a barbed-wire fence.  He spent months dodging the Germans, hiding, and running, eventually learning French and adopting a new identity, and spent the remainder of the war fighting with the resistance.


I did not hear if he was ever awarded a medal.  I would imagine he may have been.  But the point is that the ‘call of duty’ changes with changing circumstances.  What would require extraordinary courage in peacetime (for example, running over the top of the trenches into heavy machine-gun fire, with almost certain painful and bloody death looming, or stepping off the landing boats on Normandy beach), was just par for the course in both World Wars.  How does go ‘beyond’ such duty in those surroundings?  I suppose by rescuing a wounded comrade when one is not required, or storming a German pillbox singlehanded; these are the men awarded medals for ‘heroic bravery’.


I am not sure I would even be capable of what then passed for ‘normal bravery’.  But what men will do when necessity dictates is truly a marvel, for we, creatures made in the image of God, are capable of great things.


It is sad that the two soldiers recently killed on Canadian soil, Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo, will never get the chance to demonstrate that kind of heroism.  Their heroism is of a different order.  They were normal soldiers, doing ‘their duty’, the one walking through a parking lot, the other guarding the War Memorial in Ottawa.   It is Mr. Cirillo who has captured the Canadian consciousness, even though the ‘guarding’ in question was of a ceremonial order.  Mr. Cirillo, we may presume, did not expect to die that day; his rifle, though real, was not loaded; he would pose for pictures with tourists; he may have been bored, although we may also presume vigilant, while standing on duty.  No one, however expected someone to kill an unarmed Canadian soldier.


Yet in the mysterious designs of Providence, he was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.  Again, I say ‘asked’ with some degree of caution, for he was shot in cold blood, with little or no warning.  His was a greatness ‘thrust upon him’.  From what we know of Mr. Cirillo, he may have ‘achieved greatness’  as a soldier if given the opportunity in battle, but, due to the actions of his deranged murderer, we will never know.


A writer to the Ottawa Citizen has declared Mr. Cirillo ‘one of our great heroes’.  Now, I commend Mr. Cirillo, and, although not knowing him personally, I bereave the loss of his life.  He seems to have been personable; he was handsome, fit and gregarious.  He bore a child as a very young man, before even of legal drinking age, (he was 24 when he died, and his boy 6).  I am glad that he and the boy’s mother (whom I did not find mentioned in any of the media stories) kept the baby, and little Cirillo Jr. was born and raised (albeit without an intact family and, alas, now without a father).


With his youth and the tragedy of his lost life, Nathan Cirillo has become a focal point of our need for heroes in an age which so sorely lacks them.  But we should beware projecting all of these hopes upon a young man who in all likelihood would rather not have died in such a random, needless way, and who lived, and apparently happy to live, a rather ordinary life.   Heroism is something that we do, not something that we suffer.  Nathan’s ‘heroism’ was something he did not seek, nor ask for, and his death more tragic than heroic.  Yes, he was a soldier,  a good and zealous one from all accounts, doing his duty, but as a ceremonial guard, he did not expect to die a bloody death.  The soldiers on duty in both World Wars expected, and often received, such a death daily.


Nathan’s fellow guard was also shot at, but the bullet missed, and I bet he is glad it did so.  I only wish his murderer had equally bad aim shooting at Nathan.  Fate is a curious thing.


Nathan Cirillo is a flash point for questioning our own response as Canadians to, how shall we put it, a ‘changing world’.   It has taught us that terrorism, of a sort, even if from a couple of deranged minds (see my previous post) has now arrived on Canadian soil.


I take have taken my students on many trips to Ottawa, and the Americans amongst them are always amazed at the light security around the Parliament building.  They ask, ‘what, you can walk right up here?’  Even I find it hard to believe that, until recently, one could drive one’s own car right up to the doors.  The security guards at the front door were not even armed.


Times have certainly changed, and I will say one thing:  From now on, it will certainly take some degree of heroism to stand guard duty at war memorials or anywhere else in Canada as a soldier. You’re basically a sitting duck with an unarmed rifle, always wondering if you will hear the bullet before it hits. Other writers have commented on the irony of our disarmed soldiers being guarded by armed police officers.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, indeed?


It is a sad corollary to this tragic tale that the Canadian military immediately asked its soldiers not to wear their uniform in public.  I can see some prudence in this directive, but it is still sad that when we are finally able to display heroism, to ‘achieve greatness’, it is denied us.    A country should not capitulate to the enemy on its own very soil.  Could you imagine the Roman legionaries doffing their armour and tunic because a barbarian killed a fellow soldier, and threatened to do the same to others?  As we sing in our anthem on this Remembrance Day, we must ‘stand on guard’ for thee.


But that requires another post on the role of the military in this changing world.  It may no longer be a comfortable career move or resume builder, but, what it once was and should be again, an opportunity to stand and, perhaps, die for one’s patriaDulce et decorum est pro patribus mori.


Nathan Cirillo did his duty, even if this duty went beyond what he intended, without his intent.  For all soldiers, the notion of ‘standing guard’ has now been raised up several notches.


Requiescat in pace, Nathan.

November 11, 2014

Saint Martin of Tours

Remembrance Day

Viruses and the Ideological Canary

canary in a coal mineThe ‘canary in a coal mine’ was a primitive technology used before the age of sensors:  The bird can sense the presence of noxious gases far earlier than humans; thus, when the canary starts to gag, it’s time to run for the top.  The canary, being more sensitive, is the first to go.


Illnesses work the same way.  They first affect those most susceptible, or live in environments where the virus (or bacteria) can thrive and be easily spread.  The first attack most susceptible, the aged, the immuno-depressed, the already sick:  Such victims are the ‘canaries’.


I’ve been thinking about the similarity between such viruses and the ‘virus’ of ideology, which does not affect thebody, but the mind.   Such as we witness with Islamic radicalization, a fanatical adherence to Muslim ‘ideals’ (as my last blog mentioned, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the true ideals of Islam, not having an official teaching authority).  Those most susceptible to such radicalization are those in a more weakened state, the mentally fragile, the outcast, the loners, those who have lived for too long within the confines of their (usually mis-educated) minds.


What we witnessed here in Canada a couple of weeks ago were the actions of a couple of ideological canaries:  Two individuals with troubled histories who succumbed to the virus of ideology of radical Islam.  Yes, I am aware that, unlike ebola victims of the physiological virus, who are blameless for their condition, the killers of the two soldiers may well be more culpable for allowing their minds to be so affected, and the actions that flowed therefrom, but we must leave their judgement to God.


Were they terrorists?  It depends on how one defines that term.  Yes, they attacked representatives of the government (soldiers) in an act of rebellion, in some attempt to get a message across, and they have instilled fear into a certain segment of the populace (soldiers were told not to wear their uniforms in public, an ironic act of ‘submission’ to Islamic ideology).  Let us hope that they were nothing more individuals who went on a brief, poorly planned, apparently impulsive rampage, before being quickly subdued.  Imagine if, instead of one assailant armed with a deer rifle, or a car, there were five men with automatic weapons, carefully planned and staged, with military training; imagine a thousand such men, and the harm and fear they could inflict.  Such was the testimony of the killer of the three RCMP constables earlier this summer:  As he claimed, if he alone could wreak such carnage, what could a cadre of like-minded men accomplish?


One may define an ‘ideology’ as a set of principles that are immune to rational analysis, or any sort of criticism.  Being infected with an ideology more or less shuts down one’s reasoning  faculties.  Now, we will disagree until kingdom come on whose belief system is an ‘ideology’ and whose is not, but we must at least have a basis for disagreement (and, of course, agreement).  That is why Pope Benedict, in his Regensburg address of 2006, asked that we as human beings, regardless of our religion persuasions (natural or supernatural), always remain open to rational dialogue and discussion.  It is reason that makes us human, and it is on this basis that we can lead each other towards the truth.


Yet ideologies maintain some aspect of reason in the host, much like the virus.  Ideologues think they are acting rationally, even when their principles and actions fly in the face of reason.  They are locked within their own brains.  G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the insane have not lost their reason, they have lost everything except their reason.


Arisotle and Saint Thomas define truth as ‘adequatio rei et intellectus’, an adequation or conformity between the mind and reality.  Our thoughts are only true to the extent that they conform to what actually is. We should always be humble (that is, rational) enough to compare what we think to be true with the reality outside of us.  This is the whole basis of scientific experimentation and verification, but also applies to moral principles.  When we act, we should think:  Is this how I would want to be treated?  Could I make my action a universal premise to guide all behaviour?  Is what I am doing building up society, or tearing it down?  Do my principles lead to the flourishing of human beings, or their degradation?  And so on…


We are all prey to some form of ideology, holding on to principles that are dear to us, but perhaps false; we are all, to some extent, a little tiny bit ‘in-sane’, or unhealthy in our thoughts, and life is an ongoing process of becoming more grounded in the truth.  Such a foundation in the truth is the best immunization againt ideological infiltration.  But some ideologies are really bad, and deviate from reason in a radical way (sawing off the heads of innocent journalists and kidnapping underage girls come to mind).   There is a point wherein ideologies must be confronted with the full force and power of law to minimize the damage they cause.


isis member

A virus, physical or ideological, that is very deviant eventually burns its host population out, and the same will eventually happen to ISIS (or ISIL, or whatever they call themselves nowadays).  The same happened with Nazism and Communism.  Like a ‘house divided against itself’ they could not stand, for their anarchic principles could not maintain a long-term society.


We can hope that most of their members return to normality soon, so the havoc they wreak can be minimized.   And we should do what we can, when we can, to ‘convert’ ideologues back to the truth.

November 3, 2014

A Litany for Brittany

brittany-maynardBrittany Maynard took her own life on November 2nd; one might almost say ‘appropriately’, as it was the commemoration of All Soul’s in the Christian religion, but, then, there is nothing really appropriate about suicide, whether assisted or not.  You may recall that Mrs. Maynard, a young and beautiful newlywed, whose story, incarnated by the image of her pleasant face smiling into the camera as she curled up in a hammock, became an internet sensation. After receiving a diagnosis of a terminal cancer, an inoperable neuroblastoma, a type of brain cancer that causes significanat debilitation in its victims, mental as well as physical, she resolved to commit suicide on November 1st.   Mrs. Maynard wanted to go into that ‘great goodnight’ before becoming dependent and a ‘burden’ on those around her, taking her life into her own hands, so to speak.  She and her family moved to Oregon, where so-called ‘assisted suicide’ (which is really physican-assisted murder, that goes by the curious euphemism euthanasia or ‘good death’) is legal.  She wrote at the end of October that she may not keep her original deadline; I hoped perhaps she was going to change her mind, but, alas, in the end it was not by much.  She took the prescribed barbiturate concoction the day after her original intended ‘date with death’, surrounded by her family.


Suffering is always a difficult thing, and as a man blessed by good health, and unaccustomed to its more extreme forms, I hesitate to judge anyone’s response to real pain.  Of course, by its very nature, suffering goes against our nature, or at least our current state of comfort.  Yet, we must all agree that some suffering is necessary for us to grow as human beings.  The adage no pain, no gain is true in the main:  Virtue is only tested, and only grows, in adversity.  We need to test our bodies with exercise, and our minds with study, examinations, discussion and vigorous debate.  Our moral virtue is tested and perfected by adversity, especially by living with others, and being patient with their faults and defects (and they with our own!).  ‘Vita communis mortificatio maxima’, as Saint Philip Neri said.  A world of continuous comfort and ease would lead us quickly to the condition of the humans on board the spaceship in the animated feature Wall-E, fat and lazy, large lumps of concupiscence, too bothered even to lift a glass to our lips, everything automated and at the reach of our fingertips.  There are those out there not far from this condition, their chubby fingers twiddling joysticks in front of computer games, ‘eating chips off their chest’, as Weird Al so aptly put it…


So, we need suffering to become fit, intelligent, holy and virtuous.


But what happens when suffering becomes, from a natural point of view, pointless?  When the suffering is just simply debilitating, where we lose our fitness, our beauty, even our very intellect?  This is real suffering, whose origin and purpose are, from our human point of view, mysterious.


A good place to start for an answer is the Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in 1984, and promulgated fittingly on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.   The Holy Father meditates on the purpose of suffering, especially when it seems to have no point.  Such suffering, he writes, only makes sense in the light of the Cross and Man’s eternal destiny.  There is a spiritual dimension to suffering, that transcends the ‘here and now’ of physical pain.  We suffer to gain spiritual perfection, for patience and resignation to God’s will.  We suffer to ‘atone’ for the effects of sin, both our own, and for others, so-called ‘vicarious suffering’.  For suffering is the means by which the God-made-Man, Christ, chose to redeem the world, and He asks for our cooperation in this work of redemption, as members of His own Mystical Body,


Of course, if our hope is for this world alone, and if we believe that bodily death puts an end to our existence, or we believe that suffering has no spiritual purpose, then such debilitating pain does not make sense.  That is why we euthanize animals; as creatures with no eternal destiny, their suffering has no point.


There are a posteriori arguments against applying such euthanistic practices to human beings.  Where would we draw the line?  Would people be put to death who are healthy?  Who chooses whom is going to die?  Who writes the rules?  The experience of the Nazi euthanasia practices in the 1930’s should alone be enough to give us pause.  They began by euthanizing psychiatric patients (the mentally disabled) and ended up killing anyone who disagreed with them, or whom they considered untermensch.


These are good arguments against euthanasia for those who see things from a purely natural point of view.  Yet, the issue runs far deeper than this.  Human beings should not be put to death, nor should they commit suicide, for the simple fact that our life does not belong to us, but to God, Who is the “Master of life and death”.  Our lives are a continuum from this life to the next, and how we live in the hereafter depends on how we live (and die) here.  A large part of that ‘living and dying’ is accepting whatever death God wills to send us, without taking matters into our own hands.


Pope Saint John Paul II lived out his own principles.  He suffered much in his life, the early loss of his mother and brother, growing up under the brutal, bloody regimes of the Nazis and then the Communists; as a priest, he tested and developed his own virtue with strict prayer, study and exercise, developing into an exemplary human being (in fact, a spiritual and intellectual giant, a saint amongst saints).

Pope John PaulYet, his greatest test was perhaps his last, when he had to suffer before the world the afflictions of Parkinson’s disease, losing his handsome looks and his great strength, his baritone voice, his capacity not only to ski and swim, but to walk and even care for himself.  By the grace of God, he kept his intellect to the very end (as my previous allusion to his fascinating book Memory and Identity, published in the year of his death, testifies).


John Paul suffered all of this, in union with His God, for reasons that remain mysterious to us, but that we can glean somewhat from his writings.  To suffer in solidarity with those throughout the world who suffer also, to atone for sin, to redeem the world with Christ.


It is sad that Mrs. Maynard, and many like her (most of the comments I have read on her death have been positive) could not, or do not, see the value of such suffering.  What she did was objectively wrong, and, in the strict sense of the word, scandalous, for many may follow her example, but we cannot judge her soul; that is left to the good and merciful God.  What we can hope is that she in the end commended herself to this very mercy of God, and that what she suffered in her brief battle with cancer will lead in the end to her salvation.  She may well have not known what she did.


We can also hope that many more, when faced with the daunting prospect of death, will follow the example of Saint John Paul, and be led into eternity by the path God wills for each of us, joyful, as Saint Paul says, that we can be made ‘partakers of the sufferings of Christ’.


November 4th, 2014

Saint Charles Borromeo (Karol Wojtyla’s patron saint…)