Last week, Aaron Taylor wrote a reasonable Christian defense of capital punishment. Without wading too deeply into this ongoing discussion, I think it’s worth noting the thrust of his argument. Channeling Aquinas, Taylor argues:
Giving the worst criminals a fixed time for their death, and access to sacramental and spiritual resources which would prompt them down the path to repentance, was believed to put them in a better prepared position at death than most other people, who do not know the time of their passing in advance, and may not have the benefit of the last sacraments.
I find this argument, one explored throughout the history of advanced civilization, convincing. Take the Epic of Gilgamesh: When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is confronted for the first time with his own mortality. He mourns, repents and his tyrannizing ends.
Or consider the Odyssey. Odysseus, after enjoying the decadent (read: sinful) pleasures of Circe’s Island, sets his sails homeward after being struck by the passage of time.
Indeed, it is a theme repeated throughout western literature: mortality humanizes.
Of course, the shadow of death is not cast on the wretched alone, whether they are criminals like Gilgamesh, John Errol Ferguson or Kermit Gosnell, or epic heroes like Odysseus. The everyman experiences the specter of death as well, in ways perhaps less dramatic than in heroic literature but equally poignant. This has become increasing clear to me lately, as my grandfather suffers through the final stages of a ten-year descent into the paralyzing and crippling effects of Parkinson’s disease.
The knowledge of death has prepared my grandfather for the afterlife. A lifelong Christian, it’s doubtful he ever seriously questioned his belief in God, and while it’s not for me to judge, it’s hard to imagine a man more deserving of eternal life. But in his suffering—perhaps even more than in health—he has loved his family: his wife, who cares for him endlessly, and his children, who put his well-being above theirs. He has cherished the seconds of life more than I, a healthy 24 year-old, possibly could. He has savored every breath, no matter how hard they’ve been to take.
Parent and child, brother and sister, grandchildren and grandparent, uncle, aunt, niece and nephew: all delight in the life and mourn the inevitable death of one man — like Gilgamesh and his beloved Enkidu. In my grandfather's life, we find hope in the goodness of God when we pray for his redemption and his salvation “in the life of the world to come.” Our goodness is expressed in our service to him, but we can’t help but reflect on our sins—how could we have been better children and grandchildren? Am I am appreciating the goodness of life? Do I love my neighbors? Our selflessness and our vanity are revealed through his life and his suffering.
This brings to mind Marilynne Robinson’s, beautiful, theologically meditative novel Gilead. The narrator, Reverend John Ames, knows that he will soon die of a faulty heart. He will leave behind a wife and young son in economic hardship, widowed and fatherless. He suffers like my grandfather, not necessarily in physical agony, but emotionally, knowing he will die and leave his family behind with nothing; knowing he will never see his son grow into a man. Interspersed bewteen his memories, the narrator constantly weaves reminders to himself—and his reader—that he will soon die. This knowledge frames his view of existence. He loves the beauty of God’s creation; he revels in its everyday majesty, and he knows that it will soon be gone for him. When we know death is close, whether we are criminals or saints, whether it is through physical or emotional suffering, we ask for forgiveness, as Taylor argues, but we also appreciate life on earth.
While we should enjoy our lives, we must be wary of the modern instinct towards endless self-preservation and the glorification of the body. The dream of modern man to conquer natural death is the epitome of dehumanization. I’ve written before that
In our increasingly secular [and medicated] society, Christians and non-Christians alike are more likely to be consumed by temporal existence. If our bodies are our end, then suffering, and ultimately death, is surely the greatest evil (see Hobbes).
Yet, medicine has given my grandfather a chance to savor the beauty of existence while allowing him the chance to come to terms with death, through suffering. We must employ life-saving technology with Christian humility, as a chance to square our souls with divine justice and to greater appreciate each breath on earth before our temporal flame is extinguished.
Knowledge of death becomes suffering in its truest form, because while we acknowledge our mortality we can’t help but mourn the loss of one form of our existence, which will soon end. We are forced to reconcile life and afterlife. This is the power of suffering. We should not suffer for the sake of suffering; after all, we are not flagellants. Suffering is evil in itself. But out of that evil comes redemption. We nod in agreement when Dostoyevsky says:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.
Mortality and suffering reveal to us higher Truth: Namely, that in life, we must enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, while also remembering to repent for our sins because we will die and be judged in the afterlife. This is what the knowledge of death can do for all of us.