Monday, March 30, 2009

A Life Worth Living

The violet-shrouded processional cross was held aloft by crucifer. He walked in a solemn pace leading the gift bearers during the Offertory procession. Behind him, a man hunched over was clutching the basket carrying the Book of Prayer Intentions and tithes. He was white-haired, his face bearing the unmistakable features of someone with Downs Syndrome. The young people accompanying him matched his steps and after they handed over the gifts to Father and genuflected to the tabernacle, they helped him turn around and return to the rear of the church. He smiled up at the teenage boy who smiled back at him.

The morning light filtering through the stained-glass windows flashed off the Special Olympics silver medal that hung around his neck. This is Philip, a treasured and cherished member of our parish who each Sunday morning at the early morning Mass, helps to hand out worship programs. He is always dressed in a suit and he never fails to bring a smile to my face, no matter how harried my morning may have been so far. Every Sunday, he shows off his medal and every Sunday, we are privileged to touch it and smile at him to tell him how happy we are that he won it. He is a joy merely by his being. And after Mass, to break the Eucharistic fast, I run to the nearest donut place, there he is sitting and eating his donut with sheer pleasure.

He is a rebuke to our culture of death that worships the self and pleasure over even life itself. Do not inconvenience me with burdensome diseases or imperfections, is the mantra. Now, there are genetic tests that allow parents to see if the child in the womb is a carrier of some cancer. They are given the option of "terminating the pregnancy" as though that is an act of mercy. Better to terminate than to allow suffering.

Suffering. It is woven into the woof and warp of human existence. We cannot escape it. But our Catholic Faith teaches us that suffering can be redemptive, can be transformative. And far from being a degradation, can be a path to greater holiness.

Yet our culture rejects suffering. We see this manic drive in science to relieve human suffering. We throw money into research projects and government initiatives to answer this and that kind of human misery. And yet, are we really any better off? In our pursuit to cure, we raise pragmatism above moral considerations. After all, the motivation to relieve human suffering is noble and so whatever must be done, must be done. Humanity must not bear and should not bear the stain of suffering.

I was reading recently of the abortion statistic for Downs Syndrome babies. It's astoundingly high. There is a professor in one of our state universities who claims that to knowingly birth a baby with Downs Syndrome is child abuse. He is not alone as the statistics bear out, that people see this birth defect as reason enough to destroy a child. The rationale is, of course, the suffering and monetary burdens that a family will face.

What is an acceptable life? One born without diseases or potential for diseases? How then are we to ensure against social diseases such as drug abuse, eating disorders? My beautiful niece, born perfect, into a dual-income upwardly mobile family is one such case. She had everything that money could buy, but the one thing needed: her parents' love and affection. So she slipped into a whirlpool of drug abuse, bulimia, and sexual promiscuity. Why? She had everything by the world's standards. And by the world's standards she was pursuing The Life in all its glamorous appeal. In order to try to save her, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in her rehabilitation. And yet she lives in constant despair.

What a contrast to Philip. What is a life worth living? Dare we to make the judgment of what is and isn't a life worth living?

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