Saturday, May 24, 2008

Unnatural natural death

My father has aspiration pneumonia, a pathology caused by a calcium growth in the back of his throat that prevents food from properly descending his esophagus. The infection in his lungs causes fluid buildup. For the past several months, the doctors have been successful in combating the pneumonia with antibiotics and draining the fluid from his lungs. Recently the doctors proposed the option of a feeding tube, to avoid the problem of aspirating his food into his lungs. However, my father is no longer responding to antibiotics intended to fight his pneumonia. Hence, the feeding tube has been abandoned and he is being kept on an IV with the expectation of increasingly rapid, inevitable decline and death.

What has particularly impressed me about my father is how determinedly he has fought and resisted dying, even when his body has failed him, and even though I can think of few people less prepared in their own minds to meed their Maker. I suppose many would say that this is natural, that it's human nature to wish to struggle and survive. True. Yet I can remember many others who have welcomed their deaths; some, in fact, who seemed to long for it.

The Catholic Church teaches that life is sacred from the moment of conception to "natural death." In one sense of the word, death is perfectly "natural." One has a "natural" lifespan, and when that is over, one "naturally" dies. Not only is death the "natural" terminus of one's biological life span; it is also the portal through which those redeemed by Christ -- those who are baptized into His death -- are raised to enter eternal life. In this sense, there is nothing wrong with looking forward to death. St. Francis of Assisi spoke endearingly of "Sister death." One of the most beautiful choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach is entitled "Come, Sweet Death."

Yet there is a sense in which death is profoundly "unnatural." Death was never intended to be a part of God's perfect creation. In that sense, death is not normative. It is not normal. By the same token, it is not "natural." One thinks of Christ before the tomb of his deceased friend, Lazarus. Everyone who knows that the shortest verse in the Bible is "Jesus wept," knows the context: Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend because he was dead. Those who know the Greek will understand that there is a trace of anger in the response of Jesus, which led to him miraculously calling forth Lazarus from his tomb to new life. Both the tears and anger of Jesus attest to the ultimate abnormality and unnaturalness of death.

One sense of the word "natural" assumes man's fallen condition as normative; the other assumes man's pre-lapsarian condition as normative. One view welcomes death as as natural conclusion and transition. Another, without denying these facts, resists death as an unnatural evil. One thinks of Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night ... Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." Both responses are, perhaps, "natural."

I solicit your continue prayers for my father.

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