I READ a terrifying story recently. It recounted the story of a couple who, rejoicing in the birth of their first-born child, learnt but a short while later that she suffered from a rare, terminal illness and that she was unlikely to live beyond her first year.
As predicted, their daughter died when she was seven months old – she spent her last hours on this earth in the arms of her parents, listening to them sing to her and tell her how much they loved her.
That is not the aspect of the story that made my heart sink.
What made me shudder was that the story went on to report that there is a pre-natal test that can identify whether a child has this disease and, given that it is not widely available: “One in one thousand couples is going to have a disaster.”
The interview with the mother and father of the child highlighted their pain at having lost their daughter, and their desire to make the relevant pre-natal testing more widely available in order to prevent any parent, “from having to go what we went through”.
The implication being, of course, that if such a test were conducted and indicated that a child in the womb was carrying this rare disease, the child should be terminated: the “disaster” would be avoided.
Lest anyone misunderstand me, in writing this, I do not intend to cast any aspersions upon the parents who were the focus of the story or downplay their pain at having lost their child.
In the face of such sorrow, I often think there is very little that can be said.
There is not a single recorded word of the Blessed Virgin Mary in any of the Gospels over the course of the events that took place on Good Friday.
What, after all, could she say?
But it seems to me rather odd that this recent story of a couple losing their child in the first months of her life has somehow become a “further” example employed by the advocates of abortion.
After all, as the parents of the girl made abundantly clear in their interview to the journalist, they loved their daughter – love such as only a mother or father can have for their child.
In fact, the profound depth of their love was the reason they were so hurt when their daughter died.
In the face of these facts – in the face of such a profound growth and outpouring of love – it seems strangely contradictory to suggest that the world, and the parents in question, would have been better off never having met this baby girl.
It seems strange that our society appears to accept the notion that it is better never to have loved at all, rather than to have loved someone and then suffered as a result of the death of the person so loved.
It also seems strange that the focus is exclusively on the pain of the parents at the loss of their daughter, rather than on the fact that their little daughter may well have experienced more love in her short life on earth than some people have the opportunity to feel over the course of a much longer lifetime.
We live in a society that is doing its level-best to inoculate us against all forms of suffering.
While many efforts in this regard are to be commended – palliative care exists purely for the easing of suffering – we ought not delude ourselves into thinking that we will eliminate suffering altogether.
Suffering is part of our condition here: “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”.
I am not saying that suffering is enjoyable; nor am I saying that we should skip down the street and clap our hands with glee when true suffering comes our way.
But the more we try to avoid the reality of our mortal existence – the reality that we will suffer over the course of our lives here on earth, that we will sometimes love and lose, and at other times not be loved and so feel loss in a different way – the more we will find any form of inconvenience unbearable.
As the Trappist Thomas Merton once wrote, “the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt”.
I personally find it frightening that we live in a society that seems to view any boy or girl who has the potential to be born with a disease as an inconvenience, rather than as a child of God capable of being loved and loving in return.
After all, a person’s body or mind may be broken, but their soul is always whole.
Life, contrary to the apparent understanding of many in our society, is not confined to those members of the physically healthy and materially wealthy bracketed between the ages of 25 and 40.
Whether seven months old or 70 years old, each and every person is the fruit of a thought of God – each life, each soul, is imbued with meaning and purpose and significance.
Yet when considering the perennial question of Hamlet – “to be or not to be” – some people seem to have decided that the latter option is preferable.
Not to be.
For people without faith, I can imagine this seems an attractive option in the face of suffering, trials, difficulties – in the face of the reality of our lives.
Yet St Catherine of Siena reminds us of a further reality we often forget: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of mankind; God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
Our period of exile on this earth is not gifted to us as an opportunity to live without inconvenience or sorrow.
Our life is given to us to live in such a way that we can grow in knowledge and love of God and the reality which He created.
A reality that is a manifestation of the most profound truth of our very being as created by a God who was willing to die for us.
“I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
The fullness of life is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, the crucified Messiah.
And we believe we are all part of the mystical body of that Christ; we are each a cell, an organ in that body and our every action, deed and thought and prayer affects in some mysterious way each other member of that same body.
I would venture to suggest that a life lived in love, however long or short, and a life that draws others to love and to a deeper understanding of what it means to love – including the suffering necessarily involved – is intensely expressive of the deepest truths of our reality and of the Trinitarian God in whose image we are created. (Genesis 1:26)
That is part of what both St Peter and St Paul meant when they wrote about experiencing in our own lives a portion of the sufferings of Christ: that we are often drawn into the mystery of the Holy Trinity through the dark night of sorrow. (1 Peter 4:13; Colossians 1:24)
Sorrow ought not, however, to be confused with despondent sadness.
The spiritual tradition of the Church often distinguishes between the sorrow which is usually attendant upon our lives here on earth and its despairing cousin, sadness.
This latter is a sense of forlorn hopelessness; an apprehension that “not to be” is more preferable than “to be”.
Reflecting on the lives and writings of both St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Teresa of Calcutta, my Dominican confrère Romanus Cessario once remarked that they have shown us “that interior joy can co-exist with sorrow, though never with sadness: dolor sed non tristitia”.
Despite some hagiographical depictions, the truths contained in the lives of the saints do not generally lend themselves to easy, colour-by-numbers, fairy-floss-flavoured exposition.
And that is as it should be: they were canonised because they manifest the life and light of Christ – and His was certainly not a life that is easily portrayed without a ready appreciation of suffering.
Jesus in His life revealed to us the fullness of what it means to be alive.
He revealed the greatest expression of our challenge on earth: to grow in charity, in love.
And to grow in love almost inevitably means to endure suffering: to accept this reality means to accept that we will be torn and bruised by life.
St Thomas Aquinas writes beautifully that “each creature is stretched out towards the attainment of its own perfection”, before adding “which is a likeness of the divine perfection and goodness”.
To attempt to eliminate any potential suffering from our lives ultimately amounts to a denial of reality.
Such an attempt also contains within it the seeds of the destruction of our very humanity, as it tends to view the difficulties of our life among other frail and fallible human beings as “a disaster”.
Rather than marvelling at the depth of love that exists between a parent and their child; rather than being filled with awe at a love which results in such a feeling of sorrow following the loss of a child; rather than being drawn more deeply into the mystery of what it means to be made in the “image and likeness” of a God who is a communion of persons, a God who willingly became man and endured excruciating suffering for our sake; rather than grow and allow themselves to be stretched out towards the attainment of perfection; rather than choose “to be” in the truest sense, some are tempted to choose “not to be”.
They are even tempted to make that choice for others.
In our prayers for those who have died and those who mourn them, we might also pray that through our sufferings on this earth, through our pain at loss and love, we might be drawn more deeply into a recognition of the divine love that each and every person represents, without exception.
Let us recall that the bird that sings sweetest, sings at night.