I had the privilege over twenty years ago of working in a home for the homeless and a hospice for those suffering with HIV-AIDS that was run by the Missionaries of Charity in Washington, D.C. That time spent serving as a volunteer, which included my very first life experience of walking with someone through an illness to death, forever changed me and revolutionized my understanding of just how important is the role of faith, animated by love in action, at the end of life. One story in particular stands out.There was a man who had come to Gift of Peace, as many of the residents did, right off the streets. He’d had a life marked by countless tragedies, and came in hard and bitter with no evident interest in God. As he grew weaker, he became more dependent on my care – brushing teeth, wiping his bottom, shaving, eating. It was humiliating for him to receive my assistance. One day, after I had finished shaving him, I felt inspired to ask him if I could pray with him. He quietly nodded in the affirmative. After it was over we never spoke about it again. Several days later, in the midst of our normal routine, he said in a sincere voice, “Hey, thanks for that prayer the other day. It made me feel good, and since then I’ve been praying again like when I was a kid.” There was a palpable difference in him after that, a sense of abiding peace. I was told later by the person who was with him when he died that he had prayed, and among his last words was, “God, take me home.”From those ten months of service in D.C., and now working in the formation of future clergy as a seminary professor and academic dean at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, I am more convinced than ever that faith communities bear a grave obligation to invest some of their finest resources in offering spiritual and practical support for those who find themselves in a vulnerable state at life’s end. In additional to my own anecdotal evidence, numerous studies have convincingly demonstrated the crucial role that faith communities play in effectively helping people face death honestly and openly, especially as evidenced in the greater numbers of advance directives signed by those who are active members of a faith community. Why is that the case? Although many responses could be offered, let me propose five reasons that I believe help to explain this link and offer a compelling case for the active involvement of the leaders in faith communities in promoting the conversations that an effective advance directive like Five Wishes can facilitate. I’ll start with the first two reasons, and in my next post I’ll have the remaining three.
Reason 1: Dying and death are not just “medical moments”
Faith traditions generally bring a deep sense of purpose and meaning to the experience of death and dying that resists the dehumanizing reduction of that experience to a mere “medicalized” moment. For example, many faith traditions profess hope in an afterlife, which, in ways specific to each tradition, transforms the dying process into an important time of spiritual preparation. Faith traditions also offer a rich diversity of symbols and rites capable of inspiring a deep sense of peace and reconciliation with the meaning of death and afterlife. The faithful have a right within their own faith communities to have the opportunity to carefully and openly reflect on how their own faith might inform crucial end of life decisions, especially in a culture that tends to hide death and dying from the public view.
Reason 2: Reverence for “the person” and human dignity
A number of faith traditions value personal human dignity, the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death and resist all violations of these values. They also place great emphasis on the duty to reverence the God-given autonomy of a dying patient, affirming that each person has the right to make informed choices at the end of life. This impassioned reverence for the dignity of each human person makes faith communities a safe and natural “home” for encouraging both the very practical and deeply personal conversations that must occur before the onset of a health crisis. These conversations help ensure that all end of life decisions will be properly anticipated, deliberated and executed in a manner befitting each person’s right to receive medical care in a manner suited to their own faith and moral convictions.
These faith-based values are precisely what Five Wishes promotes in a very practical and user-friendly format.
Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.