By Mark Schmidt
Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice
When I worked as a hospice chaplain a few years ago I saw human suffering on a daily basis. I wasn’t just a bystander, though. My role as hospice chaplain, as that of all who work and volunteer in hospice, was to enter into the pain and suffering of my patients and their families; to journey with them through the difficulties and to help them recognize the beautiful things in their life, though however short it may be, that still existed. Through God’s grace my role as chaplain was to be there in whatever capacity they needed from me to offer relief in physical, spiritual, emotional, psychological and even relational suffering.
The Scriptures this weekend talk about the thirst of the Israelites in the desert. This thirst was more than just unpleasant; it was painful; it was life-threatening. But it wasn’t really the thirst for water that was most distressing to the Israelites. It was the feeling of abandonment, of hopelessness, that was what truly caused the Israelites agony. They were not sure that God was with them; maybe they had made a mistake by putting their trust in him. In the Gospel we hear of a woman suffering emotional and spiritual pain; she too doubted God’s presence, God’s love for her. And like the Israelites who received relief and reassurance from God, she too was brought out of her darkness by Christ’s presence and loving words at the well, when he offered her the waters of eternal life. Both the Israelites and the woman at the well sought relief from their pain but were unsure how to receive it; they sought it in ways that did not bring them relief.
When we suffer, we seek relief from that suffering. Not because we are weak, but because we are human. There are even times when suffering can distract us from God, just as it did with the Israelites and with the woman at the well. As Cardinal Bernardin says in his book “The Gift of Peace”:
“‘Pray while you’re well, because if you wait until you’re sick you might not be able to do it.’ They looked at me, astonished. I said, ‘I’m in so much discomfort that I can’t focus on prayer. My faith is still present. There is nothing wrong with my faith, but in terms of prayer, I’m just too preoccupied with pain. I’m going to remember that I must pray when I am well!”’
Suffering can often be greatest when our death is nearest to us, but God desires for us peace, love and happiness. God did not abandon the Israelites in the desert, and he does not abandon us when a terminal diagnosis is made. The physical pain that accompanies many terminal diagnoses is difficult enough to bear, but it is often compounded with the fear, despair or lack of readiness to face our own mortality. Thus, those with a terminal diagnosis need companionship, medicine and care to help relieve their physical, spiritual and emotional agony.
And if it cannot be completely relieved, to be shared with others, with us. Christ, though he was the thirsty one at the well, was not the one to be relieved of suffering at that moment. Instead, it was the woman who received relief by Christ’s loving words, his companionship and his presence.
God has inspired and guided humanity to develop ways in which we can help to relieve human suffering, particularly those who have a terminal diagnosis. Through God’s grace his children have developed hospice and palliative care as well as modern medicine to offer relief of physical and psychological pain for those with terminal or life-limiting diagnoses. Hospice and palliative care has been developed, not to ignore suffering, but to help people live their lives to the fullest in spite of suffering. Hospice is the water flowing from rocks. Hospice is Christ sitting at the well to offer comfort to the Samaritan woman. It is the relief of pain and suffering whether physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual suffering; hospice and palliative care is there to offer relief; not only for those with a terminal diagnosis but for their family and loved ones as well.
To find out more about hospice and palliative care go to dbqarch.org/endoflife to find videos and articles on hospice and palliative care.