Godtalk: Euthanasia and Love


Beautiful flowers dying by Daria Shevtsova

The philosopher and spiritual writer, Raissa Maritain, died some months after suffering a stroke. During those months she lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. After her death, her husband, the renowned philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in preparing her journals for publication, wrote these words:

     “At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which as followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. And subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words. In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humour, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvellous smile and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes. To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with what astonishing silent generosity during her last two days, when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed.” 

The last sentence has something important to say in an age where we are coming to believe that euthanasia and various forms of physician-assisted suicide are the humane and compassionate answer to terminal illness. The logic for euthanasia, compassionate in so far as it goes, does not go far enough to consider a number of deeper issues.

Of course no one can fail to be distressed to see suffering in any form.  But as Maritain shows us, even when the sufferer is unconscious, he or she would
still be present in a web of relationships.

He or she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and gently caressed, held and wept over, simply loved to the end.

And not only would the sufferer have been loved to the end, but, perhaps more importantly, he or she would have been actively emitting love until the end. From a ravaged, silent, mostly-unconscious body would have emanated an intangible, but particularly powerful, nurture and love, akin to the powerful life-giving grace that emanated from Jesus' broken, naked body on the cross.

We too seldom make this important distinction: We believe that Jesus saved us through his life and through his death, as if these were the same thing. But they are very different: Jesus gave his life for us through his activity, his usefulness, through what he could actively do for us. 
But he gave his death for us through his passivity, through his helplessness, through the humiliation of his body in death. Jesus gave us his greatest gift precisely during those hours when he could do nothing active for us.

This is not something intangible.  Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a dying loved one would have experienced that, in their helplessness and pain he or she is giving us something they couldn’t give us during their active life. From that person’s helplessness and pain emanates a power to draw us together as family, a power to intuit and understand deeper things, a deeper appreciation of life, and especially a much deeper recognition of that person’s life and spirit.

And this impalpable gift, as Maritain says, emanates from the mystery of pain, non-utility, and dying in which he or she is enclosed.  In our dying bodies we can give our loved ones something we cannot fully give them when we are healthy and active. Euthanasia is partially blind to the mystery of how love is given.

Peter Knott SJ