I have just finished reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, the story of the life and death of Pinkie, a young psychopath (for want of a better word to describe him). At the very end of the book, after Pinkie dies violently, Rose, a girl who has become tragically entangled with him, goes to Confession believing she is damned. The old priest, Greene writes, “Sighed and whistled, bending his old head. He said, ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.’”
This is a wonderful and arresting phrase and it has been reverberating in my mind ever since I read it. Yesterday morning I happened to turn on Radio 4 as the writer Will Self was giving his “Point of View” at 8.50 am. Called “Terminal Thoughts”, it was Self’s idea of how to die with dignity. Starting with the statement that at some future time in his life “I am expecting to kill myself”, he gave an atheist’s view of why suicide should be the acceptable and normal way to end life when “the alternative is a slow and painful death from a terminal illness.”
I have to say he gave a fluent, persuasive and seemingly reasonable presentation. He spoke of “an epidemic of old age” because “we are living longer and longer”. Due to the advances of modern medicine death, “the final tragic act of our lives”, is now “more and more protracted”. He described the deaths of both his parents from cancer “while heavily sedated”. He commented that “few of us really understand how to end our lives painlessly and effectively” and concluded with the opinion (which I do not quarrel with) that we cannot hope to understand how to have a good life unless we also prepare ourselves “for a good death.” Indeed, he quoted with approval the words of the Christian funeral rite, that “in the midst of life we are in death”.
It is all in the interpretation of these phrases: what do we mean by a good life or a good death? I blogged recently about my brother’s last day; he had said his goodbyes, made his peace, received the sacraments and was ready for the end. His dying was not unduly hastened but nor was it unnecessarily protracted. He had what Christians would describe as a “good death”. I think what Self seems to be advocating is suicide by (doctor-assisted?) morphine when you are staring a terminal and painful illness in the face. But this raises other questions and difficulties: what if you are old and ill – but not dying?
What if you are lonely, afraid and without friends? What if you are depressed or despairing or demented but otherwise healthy?
Our parish priest remarked in his homily yesterday that he sometimes wished Christians could live in a parallel world where they had their own schools and hospitals and did not have to engage with the “nonsense all around us”. Well, this is the time and the world that we are living in; we have to engage with it, not flee from it, and in the case of suicide, assisted dying or euthanasia, we should support the vast majority of doctors who have always voted against government legislation in this area. We should also work to ensure that end of life protocols like the Liverpool Care Pathway are not misused so as to precipitate death with indifferent haste.
If, as Christians, we really live as we profess, truly believing that we come from God and will one day return to Him, and that our lives are intrinsically sacred because of this, we can offer intelligent, questioning atheists like Self an alternative to the bleak image of white-coated professionals advancing with their hypodermic syringes: indeed, a compelling vision of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.
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