11 Apr Perspectives on Spirituality and End of Life
Written by Ann Boyd, PhD
In two small works by Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor entitled, Holy Living and Holy Dying, Taylor reflects on deaths in his own family and that of his sponsor for whom he is spiritual director. In his time (16th C) the average life span was less than 40 years, less than half what it is today but his reflections speak across the centuries. As a priest it was Jeremy Taylor’s privilege and duty to be present with the dying and from his experience he extracted this maxim: “One dies the way one lives.”
In a small book, A Day in the Life of Ivan Illyich” Leo Tolstoy makes a similar point. The man has spent his life in search of material things and at the end, he is estranged from wife and son. In the end of his earthly life, Ivan confesses his broken relationships are the product of his misplaced values and he whispers merely, “Forgive” and dies. It is a redemptive moment and a lesson in what it means to live well in order to die well.
Theologically, in the Christian tradition, God who is Triune is relational and it is this image in which we humans are made. Medical science can protract dying, but not prevent it forever. End of life choices can be a time to clarify what technology to employ and for what period of time. The debate about how much to persist to preserve the human organism (body) and when to let go can reflect the values and beliefs of the individual and their close relations.
Spiritual, broadly defined, means the ways we transcend ourselves. At the gate of death, we stare into an unknown future and grasp for hope. We are more than reasoning bipeds. We are relational beings with a sense of something greater than ourselves. It is the gulf between where we are and what lies on the other side of death that causes suffering.
Suffering arises when we are aware of being torn from the life we know, separated from those we love in this time and space, and move toward the unknown. Pain is different in that it is physical, a biological signal warning of harm, but suffering is existential. We may treat pain, but it is harder to address suffering. If there is any merit in suffering it is to give birth in us for compassion.
The summary of the law, to love God and your neighbor as yourself is similar throughout world religions. Theologically and spiritually we should seek to know what this imperative implies for us and for our mortal life journey. What is the purpose of life? What is the significance of the relationship between you and God, between you and other persons? What does it mean to respect the dignity of a human being?
Exploring the spiritual dimension of life is an important way to clarify values that contribute to living a good life, and a journey to a good death.
Dr. Boyd is a professor of biology and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at Hood College. She served as the Program Director of the Biomedical Science Program from 1982 to 1993, and as Dean of the Graduate School from 1993 to 2002. Her interests include biomedical ethical issues in genetics, infectious disease, and public health.