By Stiven Peter
On March 31st, 2019, a dear friend of mine, Henry, was admitted to a Long Island Hospital with symptoms of COVID-19. A rough, but manageable fever transformed into a life-threatening virus that shattered my and my church’s sense of stability. Some days there would be signs of progress, the ventilator load would decrease, and some sedatives were taken off. Other days, his condition declined, requiring more sedatives and the ventilator on full load. All the while, the most we could do was to pray and watch from a distance. With the outcomes uncertain and each day worsening the prognosis, the usual questions of the problem of suffering come knocking. If God is all-powerful and all-good, why couldn’t He heal Henry? Is God or is chance and its machine of choice, the ventilator, in charge?
For me, these questions point to the different ways of how I would interpret the world. In fact, I think they show experience at the hospital reveals two broad hermeneutics, present in the Western world but who are opposed to each other and have come crashing in the medical care of Henry and his community. The first road, which dominates modern medicine, is a rational, “disenchanted” road, and the second is a transcendent, “re-enchanted” road. These roads, differing on the nature of God’s existence, provide different sets of virtues and actions of making sense of Henry’s situation…
The first road, the secular, immanent one views medical care at the institutional level as a dispassionate, intellectual process of avoiding death at any cost available. This road considers the individual as a sovereign self in a world to be conquered and controlled. God’s existence is helpful at best to the sovereign self’s aims and indifferent at worst.
Since the self is all there is death becomes the self’s greatest enemy. In the secular road, death is a taboo topic since it brings us face to face with our finitude. Harvard professor Michael Balboni notes that in the twentieth century, death became a topic of avoidance. In the hospital, death means failure. For the patient and their family, fear and anger about the topic drive silence. Instead, patients would “rather concentrate on staying alive than talk about death”.
Caregivers are no longer partners in death, but are forced (through institutional pressures) to become scientists treating consenting clients. The virtues of science, namely objectivity, and dispassion dominate even against the desire of doctors and medical staff themselves to care for the patient at the personal level. If a patient is seen as in an unending decline, doctors are forced to go treat other patients such that there is no way for either the dying patients to get support or for the doctors to get closure.
In this world. Henry lies in a hospital bed alone, hooked up to machines foreign to him, his personality masked under a series of charts, levels, and probabilities. Dr. Farr Curlin of Duke Medicine writes that such a view of medicine generates “a disorienting worry that the medicine we practice today, at its best, may not be medicine at all.” Doctors, at the behest of a medical system beholden to financial and legal motivation risk treating a patient as a statistic. However, when confronted by the particular patient lying right there, even the doctor in the “disenchanted” system understands that the sick patent is more than a set of lungs and quality care is more than achieving a few benchmarks.
However, while the immanent road leads to alienation of the patient and a faith-like hope in rationality, the transcendent road promises fellowship and community through faith and hope in God. This road believes the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor 1:3-4) works “all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). Calvin rightly describes the world through the lens of faith as the “a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power”.
Jesuit Priest, Jean Pierre de Caussade, echoes the same sentiment: “All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.” We are not sovereign selves, rather creatures in God’s drama. Seeing where the drama is headed only requires us to abandon our self, our own “script” and surrender to God’s will in the present moment. In the case of medical care, faith does not see a rational, scientific affair, but an opportunity to manifest the healing and comforting God. The doctors and their equipment become sacramental entities, signs pointing to God’s gifts and mercy. Doing this we affirm “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4).
Along with this faith, lies hope, which is a sure belief that God is for us. We know, I know, that God cares for us in His own suffering on the cross. St. Bernard exhorts: “Take heed and see: His head is inclined to salve thee; His mouth to kiss thee; His arms spread to embrace thee.” God personally knew death itself so that we might be comforted. Conversely, in suffering, we become also more like Christ. Henry, in his suffering, is being conformed to Christ, knowing “the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). In either case, if Henry lives or dies in this instance, we know that God has his best good in mind. The discipline of hope thrusts to us neither presumption nor despair, but confidence, to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:18).
Finally, faith and hope allow us to love in the present. This love does not provide exact actions. Rather, faith and hope provide a base script for us to improvise faithfully. In the midst of Henry’s treatment, my friends and I have been joined in prayer, we have given our time and resources to support the family, we have a deeper appreciation of our loved ones and our dependence on God. These actions are faithful displays of God’s love that strengthen the faith and hope of our community, of Henry, and the medical staff. Success is not measured in the life or death of the patient per se, but in our faithfulness to act lovingly.
We strive to help each other, but we also recognize that the fate of Henry and all others suffering is beyond our control. We are freed of a weight by recognizing that our freedom lies not in control of matter and time but in the love we give to others. We are patient co-sufferers with Henry and the staff, the supporting cast in God’s action.
So the difference between the two roads lies in prayer. I could view prayer as a nicety or dare to believe it makes God present, whether medical expertise is successful or not. Prayer looks to God for answers, whether they be through healing or comfort from family, friends, and staff. Ultimately, I choose to look at Henry’s suffering and reply with the words of Jesus, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
- Update: Henry has progressed significantly and is now with his family continuing his recovery