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        Agonizing death, Why?


    The passages below are taken from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In Memoriam” published in 1980. It recorded his reflections and experiences of his mother’s death, due to cancer, on October 9, 1978.


Agonising Death (pg 21-32)  

     When I returned in the evening her eyes had changed. I looked at her but she could no longer respond with her eyes. I pressed her hand but she could no longer hold mine. My brother and sister were with me at her bedside. I said, “Mother, I want to give you the sacrament of the sick. . . .I want to give you the oil of healing and we want to pray for you together.” I bent over her and she said softly, “It is hard for me to think, you know what is good.” After lighting a candle, I prayed for healing, for new life, for strength in this moment of crisis and for the courage to surrender to God’s will. It was at this moment, when I crossed her three times with the oil as she lay quietly on the bed, that I realised she had turned her eyes to God.  

     Until this hour she had been thinking and speaking about us, her husband, her children, her friends. Now it seemed that the time had come to face God. Her eyes had turned inward. She no longer saw her husband Laurent, and her children, Harrie, Paul and Marja, Wim and Heiltjen, Laurine and Marc. She was seeing other realities, more awesome, more frightening, more captivating, but also more decisive.

     Shortly after this quiet moment---the intimate celebration with a burning candle, a few softly spoken words and the touch of oil---the struggle began. We were not prepared for it; we had never even thought about her death as a death with a struggle. We had not anticipated anxiety, fear and agony. Why should we? Hers was a beautiful, gentle, generous life, marked by giving all there was to give. It could not possibly end in a restless, painful, torturous struggle. Peaceful people should die a peaceful death; faithful people should die a quiet death; loving people should die a gentle death. But is this true? Who am I to formulate simplistic equations and logical sequences? Since I do not even know why we live, why should I expect to know how we are to die? If life is a mystery, why should death be viewed as a reality within our grasp and understanding?

     The soft oil I had given her was much more than oil that points to healing. The apostle James certainly had healing uppermost in his mind when he wrote: “If one of you is ill, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15) But oil is not only a symbol of healing. It is also a symbol of struggle. Ancient warriors anointed their bodies before battle. And modern-day wrestlers use oil to limber their muscles and make their bodies agile.

     Could it be that I had applied oil on my own mother to help prepare her for the final battle? Is it not possible that she who lived her life in such close union with God had also come to know the power of the Evil One more intimately than many others? Is it inconceivable that she who had spent so many hours in prayer was also most aware of the one whom we call “the Tempter”? Is it not possible that great faith reveals the possibility of doubt, that great love reveals the possibility of hate and that great hope reveals the possibility of despair?

     I began to realise that the oil I had given her was a sign that a great battle needed to be fought. Indeed, it is the ultimate battle, the magnitude of which is understood by only a very few.

     This is more than a pious attempt to explain a difficult death. Mother had told me not just once, but often, that she was afraid to die. Many people will say the same, but mother meant something very concrete, very specific, very unambiguous. Three weeks before her death she said to me, “I am afraid to die, not to go to the hospital, not to undergo surgery, not to suffer pain. I am afraid to appear before God and show Him my life.” It was this great encounter that frightened her. She was so deeply impressed by God’s awesome greatness and had become so aware of her own nothingness that the great encounter could only frighten her.

     Maybe fear was not the best word; perhaps she meant dread, the overpowering knowledge of the great abyss between God and His creatures. That awesome awareness meant a momentous struggle, a battle, a fight. How can a human being face God and live? What is there to hold on to except faith, hope and love? Everything else seems to vanish in this terrifying hour---even husband, children, grandchildren, and a beautifully lived life with its joys and pains. At the moment of death only God matters. The struggle is a lonely one. Indeed, the oil is a profound symbol at the hour of death.

     Shortly after I had given her the sacrament of the sick to my mother, she entered into a long, drawn-out agony. My brother, who had decided to stay with her a little longer while my sister and I went home, saw that the quiet peacefulness had left her and that a restlessness had started to take over. Not only did mother’s eyes no longer seem to focus on those around her, but her movements no longer had a specific direction and her whole body appeared to be gripped by fear. When my brother told me what was happening, we decided that from then on we wanted to be with her every moment of the day and night. We followed her agony from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day to day.

     How great is the mystery of our life! Not one of us had suspected that we would be witnessing this painful struggle of the woman we loved so much. There was nothing we could do except be there, hold her arms, which moved restlessly in the air, gently wipe her perspiring forehead, and carefully fluff up the pillows, offering every little bit of comfort we could.

    I still wonder what I was feeling during those hours. I felt powerless, small and helpless, but also peaceful, strong and quiet. I was seeing and feeling something I had never seen or felt before, an experience that to be described would require words that have not yet been found: powerless yet strong, sad yet peaceful, broken yet whole. I still do not fully understand this new emotion. One thing, however, I can articulate because I felt it so clearly: I was blessed to be part of a moment of truth.

     Everything was truthful, there was no lie. Mother was dying and nobody denied it. Although her suffering was deep and mysterious, it was not hidden from us. We experienced the privilege of being close to her suffering, intimately connected with her pain, deeply united with her agony. Looking at mother’s blank eyes, guiding her restless arms in their haphazard movements, and repeating words of consolation and comfort, I was not afraid, I was not anxious, not nervous, not self-conscious. I have never felt so strongly that the truth can make us free. It was a very sacred moment, and I was blessed to be there.

     The world outside---the cars on the streets, the voices in the hospital corridors, the students in the United States, the lectures to give, the conferences to attend, the articles to write and the books to discuss---suddenly appeared illusory and permeated by shadows of untruth. The truth was here, now, in this room: mother was dying, in mortal struggle with the great powers of life and death.

     She no longer saw me or my father, my brothers, or my sister, but she saw what we could not see. From the depths of her struggle she cried out to God, “O God, my God, my Father, my God.” These words---words she had said thousands of times during her life---now came from the center of her being and formed a long, agonising cry.

     As the long hours passed into longer nights and days, her cry became deeper and stronger. Bending over her, I heard her words of prayer: “MY Father who art in heaven, I believe, I hope, I love. . . My God, my Father. . . “ I knew that this was the struggle of the great encounter. I wanted to give her the freedom she needed to enter into this lonely hour, to give her the space where this most mysterious of events could take place. I knew that she needed more than comforting words; she needed whatever support we could give her in this struggle of faith. With my father, brothers and sister, I prayed the prayers she hinted at---the Our Father, the Creed, the Hail Mary and the Litany of the Mother of God. In this way, we felt as if we offered her the words she could no longer speak herself, surrounding her with a shield of prayer that allowed her to fight her lonely battle.

     Why? Why were we witnessing such pain and agony in a woman whose life had been one of goodness, gentleness, tenderness and love? Why did she who had been so generous and self-giving have to enter into this torturous hour? Why all this pain, this suffering, this struggle?

     During the days of mother’s dying, I heard that question repeated frequently. Often, friends suggested that it was unfair for this lovely woman to suffer such a painful death. Many were adamant that she did not deserve such wrenching struggle. But do we really understand.

     Slowly, as the long hours and days passed, I began to wonder if mother’s struggle did not in fact reveal the awesome truth of God’s love. Who was more loving than Jesus? Who suffered more than He? Jesus’ life of faithful service did not end in a peaceful, tranquil death. He who was without sin suffered an agony of immeasurable depth; His cry on the cross, “God, O God, why have You forsaken Me?” still echoes down through the centuries.

     Is it this agony that mother was called to share? Is it this cross that she was invited to feel more deeply than many others? I do not know. I cannot say yes or no to these questions. What really took place during the hours of her death cannot be explained or made understandable. But the thought that she who had loved so many, given so much and felt so deeply, was called to be united with Christ even in His agony, did not leave me during these days.

     Friends kept saying to me, “Your mother always thought of others first.” That is true. She lived for others: for her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her friends. She indeed had the mind of Christ, always considering the other person to be better than herself. But that does not necessarily lead to a smooth death. Why do we think that Christian death is an easy death? Why do we believe that the hope for a life with Christ will make our death like a gentle passage? A compassionate life is a life in which the suffering of others is deeply felt, and such a life may also make one’s death an act of dying with others. When I saw mother’s battle, her cry of hope and faith, I wondered if she was not crying with the many others for whom she had lived.

     In Jesus’ agony we see the agony of the world in all its gripping intensity: “Sadness came over Him, and great distress. Then He said. . . ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death’” (Matthew 26:37) Is not every human being who wants to live with the mind of Christ also called to die with the mind of Christ? This can mean very different things for different people. It certainly does not have to mean the struggle mother suffered. Yet it seems at least important to understand that those who live with Christ must also be prepared to die with Him, to be willing even to accept the invitation to enter into His agony.

     What then is this agony? Is it fear of God, fear of punishment, fear of the immensity of the divine presence? I do not know, but if I have any sense of what I saw, it was more profound. It was the fear of the great abyss which separates God from us, a distance which everything that is dear to us slips away---our home and those we love, our body and its many ways of living, our mind and its caring thoughts--- and there is absolutely nothing left to hold on to. It is then that one must have the faith to surrender to a loving Lord, to believe that He will not allow us to fall into a cruel and bottomless canyon, but will bring us to the safe home which He has prepared for us. My mother knew her weaknesses and shortcomings. Her long life of deep prayer had not only revealed to her God’s greatness, but also her own smallness; not only God’s openheartedness, but also her own fearfulness; not only God’s grace, but also her own sinfulness. It seemed that it was precisely her lifelong conversation with God that made her death such an agonising event. At the hour of death all becomes faith. Faith in God, who knows every fibre of our being and loves us in spite of our sins, is the narrow gate which connects this world with the next.

     What am I talking about? Am I making an existential drama out of the death of a woman who lived a good life but died a painful death. The doctors and nurses in the hospital, who surrounded my mother with competent care, neither could nor would speak with the words and concepts that I have been using. They referred to a growing lack of oxygen, a hard-to-explain restlessness and a difficult-to-understand groaning. But is that all there is to say? No doubt lack of oxygen creates anxiety, but not all anxiety is experienced as a struggle of faith in the moment of the encounter with God Himself. What am I saying when I speak about a sharing in Christ’s agony? Some, mostly the medical staff, interpreted her struggle primarily as a physical response to a very radical operation. Others, who had known her piety, perceived it as the emergence of old memories and deeply embedded routine phrases repeated during a state of semi-consciousness. But I saw something else. I saw my own mother entering into the moment in which we are totally alone with God, in which the final decision of life must be made: the decision of faith.



In 1985, at the age of 53+ years old, Henri Nouwen left teaching at Harvard and move to France to live for at least a year with Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community that looks after the mentally handicap people, in Trosly. The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “The Road to Daybreak” published in 1988:


1.John’s Death (Oct 24, 1985)

     My dear friend Rose just called from Oakland, California, to tell me that her son John died yesterday morning at 9.30 A.M. Her voice was full of pain and desolation. “It is so hard, so hard, so hard to keep believing in the midst of all this,” she said. “I feel more lost and in anguish than when Dan (her husband) died.”  I heard her cries, her deep feeling of aloneness, her desperation.

     But she spoke words of consolation: “Oh, Henri, the people of the hospice were so good, loving, and caring. Many are gay or lesbian, and few are part of any church or believe in God, but their love for Johnny was so beautiful, so deep, so generous. Many give up their jobs just to be with their dying brothers and sisters. . . .Johnny has been loved to the end. . . I just want you to know.” Her words were like drops of hope in a sea of despair, inkling of gratitude in the midst of an overwhelming feeling of loss, flashes of light in a deep darkness.

     I said, “Johnny loved you so much and he told me how much your love for him meant to him. Hold on to that. Your pain is deep because you suffered that long journey toward death with him. You and he were so open with each other. You didn’t hide anything from each other. You saw and felt his struggle and he saw and felt yours. . . It will be hard for you. . . .very hard. . . .but I know your love is strong and beautiful.”

     I didn’t know John very well, but a few years ago when I was in San Francisco, Rose introduced me to him and we spent some time together. John told me about his homosexuality and his life in the San Francisco gay community. He did not try to defend his way of living or apologise for it. I remember his great compassion for the people he spoke about, but also his critical remarks about snobbism and capitalism in the San Francisco gay community. He himself was extremely generous. He gave much of his time, money, and energy to people in need and asked very little for himself. Seldom have I known anyone who was so eager to have me understand and learn. He was so non-judgmental, self-possessed, and honest that I came to think of him as an example of a just man.

     Last February, Rose called me in Cambridge to tell me that John was very sick with AIDS. I immediately flew to San Francisco and spent a day with Rose at her home and with John and his friend Mike in the hospital. John asked me to read the Twenty-third Psalm with him. It was the psalm he remembered, the psalm his father had prayed with him. It was a psalm that gave him peace. We prayed the words together several times:

     The Lord is my shepherd,

     there is nothing I shall want.

     Fresh and green are the pastures

     where He gives me repose.

     Near restful waters He leads me

     to review my drooping spirit.

     Tomorrow I want to write a little more about my visit to Rose and John. (pg 332)


2. John’s Agony (Oct 25,1985)

     My time with John and Rose showed me the ravaging power of AIDS. John could hardly stay quiet for a minute. Like a wild animal caught in a cage, he could find no rest, and his whole body moved in pain. To see his agony and not be able to do anything, to know that he would only get worse, was nearly intolerable. But I was struck by the care which surrounded him. Many AIDS patients are rejected by family and friends. But Rose’s love for her son grew stronger every day of his illness. No condemnation, no accusation, no rejection, but love as only a mother can give. And Mike, John’s companion, gave every minute of his time and every ounce of his energy to his friend. No complaints, no signs of irritation, just faithful presence.

     Mike knew that John would die soon. But it could be a week, a month, a year, or longer. He wanted only one thing: for John to feel a little better and be comfortable during the time that was left to him. “I don’t believe in God,” Mike said, “but if John wants to pray with you, please pray with him. Do anything that is good for John. That’s all that matters to me.”

     After I returned to Cambridge John began to recover somewhat. He left the hospital and found a small apartment where he could live with Mike. People from the hospital came daily to care for John while Mike went to work.

     In August I saw John again. He was less restless but suffered from terrible dizziness. “I want to die,” he said. “I cannot bear this dizziness any longer.” I asked him to accept death when it came, and not to hasten it. We spoke about Rose’s and Mike’s love and how much he meant to them. “Try to live for them as long as God wants you to,” I said.

     He asked me to give him the sacrament of the sick---“the last rites,” as he called them. He said, “I was baptised and received my First Communion, and I also want to receive the last rites before I die. Will you give me the sacrament?” He wanted to be alone with me. We sat together at the kitchen table. We prayed the Twenty-third Psalm again. I blessed him, crossed his forehead and hands with sacred oil, and prayed for healing---but also for the grace to die with Christ. Together we said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

     He said, “Thank you very much,” and added in his typical understated way, “This certainly can’t hurt me.” Afterwards I talked with Mike for a moment. “I am afraid he won’t live into the next year,” Mike said. “I can’t even imagine what it will mean to be without him.” I saw Mike deep suffering. All the attention was on John, but Mike needed support, too. Rose knew this and gave him all she could.

     When Rose called me yesterday, she said, “Mike and I cried the whole afternoon yesterday. We had to. I am so glad that Mike and I can support each other. We both miss him so much.”

     Today John is being cremated. Tuesday there will be a memorial service. Rose will be there. Mike will be there, and so will most of John’s brothers and sisters. I will miss being with them. “Can I do something?” I asked Rose on the phone. “If you wish, send some money to the San Francisco hospice people for their work. When they came to help me wash and anoint John’s body and take him away, they told us that Johnny was the fourth person to die from AIDS that day in San Francisco. These people are so loving, so caring, so good. . .they may not believe in God, but they surely help me to do so.”

     I thank God for having known John and having come to know in a new way the inexhaustible mystery of human suffering and human love. (pg 333)  


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