The closing prayer of the Divine Mercy Chaplet was on my mind when I read about Charles D. Snelling and his wife Adrienne. The Snellings were deeply devoted to each other for over sixty years of marriage. They were blessed with five children and eleven grandchildren. They were both well educated and came from socially prominent families. Yet on March 29, 2012, Charles Snelling killed his wife and then took his own life. According to the Washington Post, Adrienne Snelling had Alzheimer’s disease and did not want to live after all hope of a “good life” was over.
She wrote to her children:
All of our lives, Dad and I have talked over our end of life beliefs. We are both in agreement that neither one of us wants to live after all reasonable hope for a good life is over. … We have had such a great life together and with all of you.
The portrayal of this murder-suicide as understandable, reasonable and even desirable is perhaps more distressing than the deaths themselves. Many of the online comments posted in response to the Washington Post article label the murder of Mrs. Snelling as euthanasia and declare it a work of mercy. They applaud the Snellings for seeking “death with dignity.”
But there is nothing dignified about either euthanasia or suicide, for each declares that life is utterly undignified and disposable. The value of the person is reduced to an arbitrary metric of productivity or pleasure. This utilitarian perspective holds that suffering diminishes the value of life and finds it is better to end life when suffering cannot be abolished.
Yet suffering is part of our human condition. In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI states:
We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.
The word compassion actually comes from Latin, and means “to suffer together.” We show authentic compassion when we suffer with someone, not when we get rid of him because his suffering makes us uncomfortable. There is no doubt that it is agony for a husband to watch the woman he married fade before his eyes due to physical or mental disease. This infirm woman is far different from the woman he married. Yet this suffering provides an opportunity for heroic generosity. Offering love to this woman who can no longer reciprocate imitates the love of Christ who took our suffering, weaknesses and sins upon His shoulders when He carried the Cross. Christian charity calls us to embrace opportunities to selflessly care for the weak and vulnerable even though they may never repay our love and kindness.
Likewise, the afflicted must not view their declining self-sufficiency as a diminishment of their worth. Admittedly, it is both humbling and frightening to envision oneself with an addled mind, foul breath, unkempt hair and the most intimate details of daily hygiene being beyond our capabilities. Yet, such images should not drive us to despair. Rather, we should see this as a transition from doing to being: our purpose in life at that point is to be the recipient of compassion, generosity and love. Our disabilities can be the occasion for another’s sanctity.
What greater cause can we serve than enabling holiness in others? How sad if we reject this calling out of either pride or fear.
It would be unfair to minimize the challenges posed by both authentically compassionate care and the humble acceptance of dependency and blithely say, “Offer it up.” But Christ did assure us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Him. Whenever we pick up our cross and suffer with the sick and disabled or we allow others to care for us in our own infirmity, it is as if we are Simon of Cyrene and sharing Christ’s cross on the road to Calvary.
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Blessed Pope John Paul II expounded beautifully upon this in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris:
Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.
Again looking at the words of Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi we see that authentic compassion, or suffering with another is not just an option to be encouraged, but rather our Christian duty:
The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society.
It is clear that a Culture of Life welcomes those who suffer. While we seek to alleviate suffering when we can, we recognize that sometimes suffering is inevitable. We are called to respond to those who suffer with generosity, empathy, holiness, and love. May the poignant prayer of the Divine Mercy Chaplet be answered, and may the despair of all those who suffer be replaced with hope.