My hope is to engender discussion, leading up to a summer series of talks. I am looking pretty small, parish-level, perhaps community churches as well, but have felt called to do this even though it is not in my nature to stand-out too much.
Each week I looked forward to teaching this one particular group. They were certainly the least “advanced” students in the gym, with the least potential for athletic development, but they were also the ones from whom I learned the most. From these students I learned of the beauty of life. I learned first-hand of the innate dignity given to all of us, no matter what society might say, for I do think some would have found these students lacking in dignity. But through their joyful, exuberant participation in the life they were given I was shown otherwise.
Do we possess dignity only when our lives are perfect? Only when we possess good health, good looks, a good job, youth, vigor, happiness? Is dignity only a product of the potential we have to improve ourselves, to advance, to make more or do more? No. For as long as we are alive we have an inherent dignity borne out of our inescapable relationship with God. He is our Creator. We are His creatures, and we are “created . . .in His image.” (G1:27) We were formed (created) “of dust from the ground” (Gen 2:7), and after God breathed the “breath of life…man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). Scripture shows that our existence was willed, not created from some accident or as a by-product of some other process. But created on-purpose, indeed, created for a purpose. Man “alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.” (CCC356)
“The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God…for if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.” (CCC 27 – from VatII – I have this in my notes, will include in final draft) Living fully in dignity hinges upon our “communion with God.” Each person’s dignity is directly linked back to their creation in His image. We are, each one of us, an expression of God. When we strive to acknowledge and bind ourselves to Him, when we recognize that through our lives and actions God’s plans can be made known, then we can begin to reach out to Him, finding ourselves drawn to His perfection and coming to union with Him. In some ways, it may seem that our perception of dignity is tied into our perception of our relationship with God. Do we perceive His call to us? Do we sense Him drawing us closer to Him? But the reality is, since we exist, we have a relationship with God whether or not we admit it, whether or not we perceive it.
Did the students I spoke of at the outset perceive or admit their relationship with God? I can’t answer that. These students were all mentally, and many physically, disabled. Very few could speak. But they had an inborn relationship with God. Created by Him, they shared in His life. Very simply, without deep theological knowledge or awareness, but sharing in His love all the same: “God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence.” Each one of those students existed because of the love of our Creator. And even if they didn’t know it, His love shone forth from each one of them.
I remember one man in particular. He was one of the youngest in the group, probably in his early twenties. Unable to speak, his arms were disfigured as well – not fully formed, bent permanently at the elbows, stopping before the wrist. By our society’s criteria, his existence was not a useful one. And yet in him, I saw God. In his deformed body, and simple mind there existed such a radiant joy, that I couldn’t help but smile with gratitude each time I saw him. And I wondered, how could anyone say this young man did not possess dignity? How could anyone say it would have been better had he not been born?
Who gets to choose who will live and who will die? Who creates the criteria which determines the worth or value given to a specific life? At what point do we become complicit in the Culture of Death, either by our actions or inaction? It was not until recently that I realized my own complicity in this Culture of Death enveloping our county, a complicity born out of laziness and fear; a complicity which has emboldened the enemy because of the yawning silence of so many. Nor was it until recently that I looked at the numbers and realized that in this country alone more than 18% of pregnancies were ended through legal, induced abortions – in 2009, at a rate of nearly 90 per hour (cdc). And then I was left with questions: Why have so many chosen to embrace death? What evil has infected us? Where are we as a society going when we kill our unborn children in the names of practicality and compassion…when we encourage the old and sick to kill themselves in the name of dignity? Questions which at some level we all need to answer, and once answered we must make a decision: can we continue to be silent?