He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Fair Questions: Why do Catholics call Mary the Queen of Heaven?

Today was an interesting day for discussions about Mary.  One of my friends called me with a question about how to respond to a Protestant friend who was concerned that using the title "Queen of Heaven" for Mary was an act of worship or logically implied worship.  And then at lunch another friend asked me if the Orthodox owner of the restaurant worshiped Mary, and I had to explain that neither the Greek Orthodox Church (to which he belongs) or the Roman Catholic Church teach that Mary is to be worshiped.

Wikipedia has a good explanation of how that title was developed historically, beginning with the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century.  One thing to note is that Ecumenical Councils do not propose new doctrines, but rather define existing Christian tradition as doctrinally correct and/or clarify the theological underpinning of a doctrine when it is in dispute.  The doctrines about Mary were a response to the Christological controversies in the early church; the Church was not defending their treatment of Mary, but rather their view of Christ as truly God and truly man.

So why is this so hard for post-Reformation Christians, particularly those steeped in modern egalitarian ideas like myself?  I would like to propose an explanation that makes sense in light of my own personal struggles with coming to terms with the Holy Theotokos and in light of the sorts of philosophical assumptions we Americans tend to make out of our Classical Liberal heritage.  The American Christian sense of hierarchy has every human being as deserving of equal honor and God alone deserving anything and everything above that.  The ancient hierarchy was much more complicated.

In ancient hierarchies, there was a multiplicity and variety of ranks and honors to go with those ranks.  The honor due to the King was greater than the honor due to his Duke.  The honor due to the Duke was greater than the honor due to his Steward.  And so on and so forth through a lengthy chain of honor and rank for each role in the society.  There were many ways to honor a person of higher status without worshiping them in the ancient world, which is probably why they had no trouble distinguishing between the honor we give to human beings, the veneration of the Saints (including Mary), and the worship of God.

These distinctions were readily understood to people of the time.  Any good Queen's servant who grew up in the ancient hierarchies knew perfectly well that the Queen was not God and did not deserve worship. We don't worship Queens simply because they are Queens, and even then Christians reserved worship for God at the peril of their souls.  Aha!  But what about the fact that God is the King of Heaven and the ancient Church claimed that Mary is the Queen of Heaven?  Doesn't a Queen deserve the same honor as a King? Doesn't it logically follow that she should be worshiped?

Not in a patriarchal culture in which the King ranked higher than the Queen.  And even supposing that the King and Queen did not exist within a patriarchal framework, the honor given her would be based on her role in society as it was for anyone else.  If the Queen was the mother of the ruling King, then it's not true that she would be given the same honor in that culture because she does not have the role of ruler.

We worship God not because we view Him as a King, but rather because He is God.  Just as worship does not follow from applying the title of King to God, worship does not follow from applying the title of Queen to Mary. (1)  We don't worship Mary because she is not God.  We do call Mary Queen because that's what we call the woman who gives birth to the King.  And we call her the Queen of Heaven because her son is the King of Heaven.

We call God King not because worship is due to Kings, but because it is the highest human honor we can bestow upon Him.  He is so much greater than our human honor could ever express, but we offer our best and our highest to Him. We use the honors we give to human beings to allow us to begin to express our incomplete understanding of the honor due to God in Heaven.  In the same way, we use the honors we give to human beings to allow us to express our incomplete understanding of the honor due to the Mother who bore the King and raised Him so that He might die and be raised again.

This of course will seem odd for someone unaccustomed to living in a society rich with various ranks and levels of honor, and they may still disagree with calling Mary the Queen of Heaven, but the ground upon which their objection to the title will be built is a cultural one rather than a rational one.  I can respect someone who admits that their objection to the title is cultural and proposes that we get rid of the title "Queen of Heaven" because it doesn't suit the cultural milieu of the day.

I disagree with that position, but it's a perfectly coherent position to take for someone who believes that Christianity should be reshaped in the image of the contemporary culture.  For those of us who believe that the contemporary culture needs exposure to the insights of the ancient world into which Jesus was born, that doesn't seem like such a good idea.  Hopefully that is at least understandable to the modern American Christian, and hopefully these disagreements can be made charitably and in good faith with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Note: The above is a picture I took of a Coptic icon called the King and Queen of Heaven, depicting Jesus the King as a child, Mary His mother enthroned, and the angels surrounding them.


(1) To those who prefer syllogisms, the following may be helpful.

We know that the following reasoning is incorrect because God is worshiped by virtue of being God rather than by virtue of being King.

Premise One - Kings deserve worship.
Premise Two - God is a King.
Conclusion - God deserves worship.

His royal title is not why He is worshiped.  Thus Premise One is false and the syllogism fails to demonstrate the conclusion.

In the same way, we also know that the following reasoning is incorrect:

Premise One - Queens deserve worship.
Premise Two - Mary is a Queen.
Conclusion - Mary deserves worship.

This syllogism has the same problem as the previous syllogism.  Premise One is false and the syllogism fails to demonstrate the conclusion.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Love it to Death: The Tears of Love

Not all tears are the same; though the briny water rolling down our cheeks may have the same molecular composition every time we cry, each flood of emotion welling up against the dam of our eyes is as unique as our fingerprint, its currents creating an irrevocable impression upon the bottoms of our hearts.

The impression we are left with after crying because we are ashamed of ourselves is far different from the impression that remains after shedding tears for the death of one we loved.  The tears of shame are not at all the same as the tears of grief for our beloved.  The floods of emotion are both strong, and yet the stamps they leave upon our hearts are quite different from one another.

When our beloved gives us a gift so far above and beyond anything we could deserve, the tears can flow from a burst of humility because we know we are not worthy of such a gift.  At the same time, the tears can flow because we are overwhelmed by the extravagance of love shown to us by our beloved in the giving of the gift.  We can shed tears for more than one reason at a time, our hearts full of both humility and joy, or full of both grief and gratitude.

It is not that the grief pushes out the gratitude, or that the humility pushes out the joy, but that they exist fully in the same space, neither impinging upon the integrity of the other emotion.  It is a paradox that the fullness of both emotions could exist in the same heart, and yet it happens just as the fullness of both God and man were able to exist in the same person.  In this way, our tears can be a sign of the true paradoxes of love.

The Incarnation was a true paradox, a gift of love, and holding in our hearts the true paradox of simultaneous grief and joy is a preparation for holding in our hearts the true paradox of Christ who is simultaneously God and man.  The Incarnation showed us how to be fully human, which is to live abundantly, to make our lives an offering of love, to make every single act an expression of radical love.  The Gospels tell us the story of the Incarnate, thus instructing us in the ways of love.

In the Gospel of John, we are instructed by the tears of love which are also the tears of Love itself.  Take note of what happens when the dear friend of Christ, Lazarus, has died.

"33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”"

All recognized that these tears shed by Christ were the tears of love.  These tears were welling up from a genuine will to do good for the other, from a desire that the other might have life and have it to the fullest.  Christ was not afraid that he would never see His friend again; He knew that this death is not the end.  

Even when we know that death is not the end, that we will see those we love in the fullness of time on the other shore, we still weep with tears of love.  The tears of love are the tears which fall because we still have so much love we want to give to our beloved ones; we ache to pour out our lives as an offering of love for them once more.

Oh, how deeply we yearn to offer them the love filling our hearts once more in this life!  Not because we wish to keep them from the divine love in heaven, but because true love always desires to give more to the beloved.  The desire to give to the beloved in the heart of just one person who loves truly would quickly overflow the oceans were we able to manifest it as water; such love would drown us all and cover the earth more deeply than the Great Flood ever could.  To love fully is to want to offer more than we have, to offer all that we have and account it too little for our beloved.

In the Gospel of Luke, we see how our tears of love are an offering which is pleasing to the God who loves us.

"37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment."

The woman gives all she has to show her love for Christ, shedding the tears of love upon his feet because she wishes to give more, but can only give all.

After explaining the matter to the Pharisee with a parable, Christ shows his appreciation for her gifts of love and her tears of love.

"44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”"

The woman shows us how to love Christ as He has loved us, by giving Him all that we have, by offering Him our most beautiful art, our best goods, and our true love.  The woman shows us how to love Christ by her tears of love, the tears which tell of a longing to offer all that is true, good, and beautiful to the one who loves us unto death.

The tears of love are an outpouring of the love which overflows the dam of the heart because it is too strong, because the heart has not yet grown enough to contain the infinite wellspring of Love.  The tears of love are the drops that fall from an overwhelming desire to give more, to offer ever more grand signs of our love to those we love as our love for them grows with each passing year.

By the tears of love, we show all that like the Love of God, our love cannot be contained, that it must overflow the bounds of our hearts and shower all those touched by our lives.  By the tears of love, we offer back to God a portion of the Love poured out for us, the divine love which cannot be restrained except to accomplish the good of the beloved.  By the tears of love, we paint an icon of the divine love which gives all and wishes to give more to all His beloved ones.

By the tears of love, we gradually love to death all that would prevent us from beholding the infinite love of the divine which is offered to us by Love Himself, making room in our hearts for He who has made room for us in His heavenly home.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Love it to Death: The Obedience of Love

When I was a child, I was not exactly a big fan of obedience, which is something my parents will happily confirm from their experience.  Not only was I not prone to obedience, but I was a child who was very difficult to punish, and my parents struggled mightily to find a way to punish me effectively rather than wasting effort on punishing me in such a way that it didn't actually benefit me.  I, of course, saw no benefit in any of their punishments at that age, largely because I didn't understand the benefits of obedience.

As a child, I was mostly a tangled bundle of egotistical desires, as yet unraveled by the power of radical love.  My sense of self was bound up in actualizing my desires, and so any attack on what I wanted to do, especially if it came in the form of obedience to the desires of anyone else, was to be repulsed with all the force of my being.  Oh, how I dreaded the unraveling of my ego!  A single tug on that tangled bundle of transient desires was enough to make me turn and fight or put up a wall to keep the other out.

I understood obedience, not explicitly but rather intuitively, as a matter of bowing to authority.  And to the childish me, all authority was the same.  I believed that there was no legitimate authority I should obey; there was only the authority that oppressed me or gave in to my demands.  To the extent that I obeyed, I often did so because of a fear of punishment.  I allowed a small tugging on my tightly bundled ego so that it would not be yanked upon more harshly.  As I grew older, I feared punishment much less, as most of us who make the journey through Kohlberg's stages of moral development do.

While my fear of punishment left me fairly quickly, my understanding of authority and obedience did not come so quickly.  My philosophy courses in college taught me that appealing to authority was legitimate only in the case that the authority in question was actually competent in the domain in which the issue rested.  It took a few more years to figure out that my parents were actually competent in the domain of love, and that I should assent to their authority in that domain.

As an adult, I finally realized that what my parents wanted for me to learn was not the obedience of fear, but the obedience of love.  My parents were trying to teach me to love, which is to obey them not out of any fear of punishment, but because I love them and want what is best for them, because I want to serve them with a loving heart as they so often did for me.  As an adult, I try very hard to obey my parents precisely because of my love for them and my ever-growing gratitude for their love; the obedience of fear has no place in my heart.

The obedience of fear was not something imposed upon me by my parents, but rather a natural result of my clinging so fiercely to my own desires; I was so deeply afraid of losing the small pleasures which were the greatest I had ever known that I refused to let them go so that I could reach for the greatest love.  My parents wanted that greatest love for me, and were willing to drag me kicking and screaming toward it, inexorably drawing me to it despite my strongest efforts to cling to worthless lusts that I valued beyond measure.

The Church wants that greatest love for us too, and oh how we resent Her for trying to unravel the knots of desire which enchain our hearts!  She tries to drag us out of our own egos, and we accuse Her of trying to oppress us with all those rules.  We believe that the Church is causing us to be afraid by Her punishments, but it is our clinging to our childish desires for immediate comfort that causes our fear.  We are deeply afraid of losing everything we rely upon for our psychological security to venture boldly into the great unknown fields of radical love.

Christ who founded the Church and entrusted Her with His flock called us to the fields of radical love.  Christ called us to follow His example, to love to death all that separates us from Love itself.  Christ was obedient unto death, obeying the command of the Father which is that He give all of Love so that all might have life abundantly in full communion with Love.  Christ's example to us shows us that to be fully human so that we might participate fully in divine love is to practice the obedience of love.

Christ's love for the Father was perfect, and thus he obeyed the Father out of love.  This perfect love from which flows the obedience of love is precisely what He calls us to live out as well if we would take up our cross and follow Him.  Christ calls us to obedience, to keep His commandments as it is recorded in the New Testament, with a sure confidence that we will indeed keep them if we love Him.  Christ showed us the power of the obedience of love when he sacrificed Himself for the sake of the world, and we reciprocate that love when we practice the obedience of love toward Him and His Church, creating an ever-shining set of mirrors reflecting the light of Love all around the world and even into its darkest corners.

Christ showed us that it is the obedience of love which helps us to untangle the bundle of egotistical desires which imprison our hearts of purest love.  He showed us that it is the obedience of love which provides us with the extraordinary motivation to take up our cross and die to our selfishness so that we can live fully in the light of divine love.  He showed us that the road to the heavenly citadel of Love can only be traversed through the narrow gate, and that the practice of the obedience of love is what will teach us to let go of all that we carry which would keep us from traveling to the abode of the Father.

It is the obedience of love by which we love to death the tangled knots of selfishness wrapped around our hearts.  It is the obedience of love which prepares us to enter fully into the heavenly household as adopted sons and daughters of the Father.   It is the obedience of love by which we ignite ourselves in the fires of love so that all parts of us which cannot enter into the great fire of Love burning in the heavens will be burned away.

It is the obedience of love which builds up all those whose lives we touch by inviting them into the life of love, asking them gently to take courage and join us on our journey to the heights upon which Love dwells.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Waking Up: Sex, Drugs, and Near Death Experiences

In the fifth chapter of Waking Up, Sam Harris helpfully points out some potential pitfalls of contemporary spiritual seeking and practice.  He leaves us with some warnings about the alternatives after discussing the benefits of meditation in the fourth chapter.  This, I think, is necessary.  I know from my own spiritual exploration that there is a vast gulf between healthy spirituality and popular spirituality, and I believe that we have a duty to help others avoid the unhealthy spiritual paths, many of which are spiritual in name only.

Speaking of names, people often follow someone with a special name, whether because it is well known or obscure.  People often want to find what they may call a guru, an enlightened teacher of spiritual truths that are for whatever reason otherwise inaccessible to us.  And as Sam Harris points out, it can be difficult to find a good guru when we have no easy standards to apply for discerning a good one from a bad one.  He offers the following example from The End of Faith as an illustration:

"I know a group of veteran spiritual seekers who, after searching for a teacher among the caves and dells of the Himalayas for several months, finally discovered a Hindu yogi who seemed qualified to lead them into the ethers.  He was as thin as Jesus, as limber as an orangutan, and wore his hair matted, down to his knees.  They promptly brought this prodigy to America to instruct them in the ways of spiritual devotion.  After a suitable period of acculturation, our ascetic--who was, incidentally, also admired for his physical beauty and for the manner in which he played his drum--decided that sex with the prettiest of his patrons' wives would suit his pedagogical purposes admirably.  These relations were commenced at once, and endured for some time by a man whose devotion to wife and guru, it must be said, were now being sorely tested.  His wife, if I am not mistaken, was an enthusiastic participant in this 'tantric' exercise, for her guru was both 'fully enlightened' and as dashing a swain as Lord Krishna.  Gradually, this saintly man further refined his spiritual requirements, as well as his appetites.  The day soon dawned when he would eat nothing for breakfast but a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream topped with cashews.  We might well recognize that the meditations of a cuckold, wandering the frozen-food aisles of a supermarket in search of an enlightened man's enlightened repast, were anything but devotional.  This guru was soon sent back to India with his drum."

It seems very unlikely that this guru was engaged in the spiritual practice of Killing the Self as a true ascetic would be. It seems more likely that he was killing his craving for ice cream and for sexual release by abusing the trust placed in him by his erstwhile students.

This is not an isolated incident, unfortunately.  There are plenty of cases of spiritual teachers abusing their authority and using devotees for sexual gratification (just as it does in secular organizations with charismatic figures), and this happens in both the major religions and in minor cults that fade away quickly after the charismatic leader dies or is revealed as a charlatan.  Abuse of authority is inevitable in a world filled with morally imperfect beings.  It's just that the way we often regard our spiritual leaders is dangerous, and that the way spiritual leaders often come to regard themselves is also dangerous.

Even in religions like Christianity that claim we are all sinful and prone to moral failure and Islam which is explicitly suspicious of clericalism, there is a strong tendency toward an idolization of clerics.  Harris helps us to understand why that is the case:

"A relationship with a guru, or indeed any expert, tends to run along authoritarian lines.  You don't know what you need to know, and the expert presumably does; that's why you are sitting in front of him in the first place.  The implied hierarchy is unavoidable."

While we may not be able to avoid a functional hierarchy, explicit or implicit, what we can do is try to mitigate our tendency to idolize experts, or worse, to idolize non-experts because we cannot discern whether a person is or is not an expert.  We can keep in mind that every person has moral failures, even the experts, and that we need to be very careful not to idolize another person no matter their status.

This is of course not the only pitfall for spiritual seekers. Drugs have long been utilized by those seeking an experience of the spiritual type that would provide them with a release from the cares of this world, sometimes in the context of religious ceremonies.  Typically, the drugs used for this purpose are significantly stronger than alcohol or tobacco with regard to their effects on our perceptions, able to profoundly alter our conscious experience.

And Sam Harris is no stranger to using drugs, albeit in a more controlled, responsible way than most who use them.

"...if they don't try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.

This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics.  As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers.  Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug.  It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved.  However, there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence.  Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring."

He goes on to add that taking these drugs is always a roll of the dice, that it is not to be undertaken lightly.  And this is from a guy who, like me, opposes the War on Drugs and sees it as a failure.

"There is no getting around the role of luck here.  If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible).  If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane.  While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one's respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one's compassion for people who suffer from mental illness."

This is something Harris knows from experience; he details a very bad trip on LSD elsewhere in this chapter.  And he recognizes that the use of psychedelics is not a matter of them always producing wonderful effects, particularly on a large scale.

"However, we should not be too quick to feel nostalgia for the counterculture of the 1960s.  Yes, crucial breakthroughs were made, socially and psychologically, and drugs were central to the process, but one need only read accounts of the time, such as Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, to see the problem with a society bent on rapture at any cost.  For every insight of lasting value produced by drugs, there was an army of zombies with flowers in their hair shuffling toward failure and regret.  Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is wise, or even benign, only if you can then drop into a mode of life that makes ethical and material sense..."

In the end, he recommends that these drugs not be used regularly when there are more safe, reliable methods available.  He recommends meditation, of course.

"I believe that psychedelics may be indispensable for some people--especially those who, like me, initially need convincing that profound changes in consciousness are possible.  After that, it seems wise to find ways of practicing that do not present the same risks.  Happily, such methods are widely available."

Of course, drugs and meditation are not the only ways in which we can experience profound changes in our consciousness.  Harris devotes some time to dealing with the specter of what are generally called Near Death Experiences and the conclusions many people draw from them.

He focuses specifically on a couple of popular cases in recent years that have captured the imaginations of a lot of people in the U.S.  One is the experience of a very young child of a pastor detailed in a book entitled Heaven is For Real (which I've read myself and found interesting but not convincing).  The other, which he spends more time addressing systematically, is Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, written by Eben Alexander.

Having read the excerpts, I am even less convinced by Alexander's account.  Harris seems beyond the point of being unconvinced.  As a neuroscientist, Harris minces no words in dealing with Alexander's account of the profound near death experience he encountered that fateful day.

"The proof he offers is either fallacious (CT scans do not measure brain activity) or irrelevant (it does not matter, even slightly, that his form of meningitis was 'astronomically rare')--and no combination of fallacy and irrelevancy adds up to sound science."

Like Harris, I haven't found any accounts of near death experiences that lead me to believe in a particular religious tradition, though there are certainly accounts that happen to cohere very nicely with my religious beliefs.  This is primarily because a few anecdotal experiences of people on the edge of death are not sufficient grounds upon which to build an eschatology, at least in my not very humble opinion.

Unfortunately, this is a spiritual pitfall many people can fall into.  Not that they will have a profound experience like Eben Alexander, but that they may easily believe that a certain religious belief is true on the shaky grounds that someone had an experience that seemed like heaven to them.

We humans tend to believe in the power of our visions to such an extent that it obscures our vision of what's important and how we discover what's true.  That is perhaps the most important lesson of this chapter, whether it's sex, drugs, or death that's obscuring our vision.

True Paradoxes - Sex, Drugs, and Near Death Experiences

Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Other Side: Mercy Killing & Merciful Living

I was very impressed by the general civility in this debate.  There was no snide remark, no satirical jab at the other debater.  There was a respectful expression of views and serious disagreement.  It's a debate worth hearing, not because it is a comprehensive case for either side or because it is a persuasive case for either side, but because it is a model for how debate should be conducted.

Because the debate question was, "Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised?" one issue which was brought forward was the nature of the consequences of legalizing euthanasia.  Both Peter Singer and Archbishop Fisher employed evidence to support their views by highlighting consequences that were favorable to their positions, just as one would expect of experienced debaters of their intellectual caliber.

It's not terribly difficult to notice that Singer made special note of the U.S. states (Oregon, Washington, Montana) and Canada, because those seemed to support his view that the consequences of legalizing euthanasia are not the creation of a slippery slope, that we do not see as a result an increase in the most vulnerable (particularly the elderly) being killed at their request or otherwise.

It's just as easy to notice that Archbishop Fisher paid special attention to Holland and Belgium, because he was able to find greater evidence of a slippery slope in those countries. Singer attempted to defuse the concerns in Holland and Belgium by pointing out that other countries had adopted the laws after seeing the consequences in Holland, but I think this an obvious failure as a rebuttal.

I find it difficult to believe that Singer would not realize that countries often adopt policies, mistakenly believing that they are successful, for ideological reasons that ignore the facts.  After all, if this were not true, then wouldn't we expect to see all countries legalizing euthanasia just as he recommends?  Is it not (on his view) the irrationality and ignorance of the evidence that keeps countries from legalizing euthanasia, and if so, then why would we imagine that the populace of a country suddenly divested itself of that irrationality and ignorance the moment it chose to legalize it?

Aside from this point of argument, it seems that on the whole, the evidence of a slippery slope appearing after the legalization of euthanasia is mixed, that the slope is in practice more or less slippery in some places than in others.  Perhaps this is related to cultural views about the sanctity of life which act as a brake upon asking for death in some cultures, or less positively, a mere irrational taboo against asking for death in some cultures.

This was not the more interesting part of the debate for me, however, and so I want to look back at the debaters as they were making the first statements of their position.  In the Archbishop's opening remarks, two types of responses to the dying were presented.  The first was a mercy killing, a situation in which a man shot his dying brother at his request to end his suffering.  The second was a similar situation in which a man sang to the dying man and tried to comfort him as he passed away.

As he points out, in both cases we are inclined to be sympathetic to the dying person and to the feelings of the person choosing how to handle the fact that someone they care deeply for is dying.  There is no easy answer to the question of how we respond in that situation because no matter what our response, the person will inevitably die.  That said, some answers are clearly better than others.

We all inevitably die.  At times, life is so difficult that we would rather death come sooner rather than later.  At other times, life is so wonderful that we couldn't even imagine a desire for death.  During the difficult times, it is no work of mercy to help a person kill themselves.  It is, however, a work of mercy to comfort the afflicted, and surely someone near death is afflicted and in need of comfort.

Whether we cradle their head or hold their hands, soothe them with their favorite music or ensure they have a period of gentle silence, we are acting in a compassionate way.  We are with them in their suffering, helping them to meet death with courage and hope.  When we care for the dying, we are living mercifully by seeking to alleviate their suffering without diminishing any joy they might obtain before death.

When we kill the dying, we end (or at least significantly shorten) their suffering on their way to death, to be sure.  We also forestall any joy they might obtain before death.  What's far worse, we fail to act with true compassion by being with them in their suffering.  In killing to merely end pain, we engage in the opposite of compassion, the roots of which mean to "suffer with", by separating ourselves from the suffering of the dying.

The dying do not need to be relieved of their burden of suffering so much as the dying need to know that they are not a burden, that they are our brothers and sisters, worth suffering with until the end.  The dying need to know that their lives are a gift to others even in the darkest hour, that they remain precious to us in a way that transcends any mere utility or convenience which we might gain from their lives.

The dying need to know while they are still living that their life has a meaning beyond the mere avoidance of pain, and we ought to make sure that they know it.  This is the merciful living which is far better than any mercy killing.