My photo
Waiting in Joyful Hope

What is life?

During my time in hospital ministry I came to realise that I needed to develop a "Theology of Life" to help people, including myself, come to grips with the many hard questions that we face in this kind of institution.

The first thing I've come to realise is that hospitals are supposed to be about Life. They are not about Death — that's called a funeral home. Yes, there may be dying people in a hospital, but that simply emphasizes the point even more, because it presents a conundrum: why is there Death in a house of Life? But the fact that the presence of Death in itself creates a conundrum, rather than simply being part of the norm, only highlights the point that hospitals are meant to be about Life.

A second point: we cannot give Life. If we could, we could cure Death, and we can't. Indeed, we can't really cure anything, strictly speaking. It is the body itself that has the final responsibility to keep itself alive, and all we can do is help it along by creating conditions that favour the body in its struggle for Life. So we offer medications to kill germs, we set broken bones in casts, we cut out tumours, and we place people on respirators — but we do so, finally, in cooperation with the body, which still has to be the one that maintains the overall balance.

Finally, I've come to see more clearly is that a person is either alive or dead, and there is a world of difference between the two. There is no such thing as someone who is "half-dead", and we should never speak this way. The body is an amazing thing, fundamentally oriented towards life, struggling for it in each moment. I know it is a circular definition, but one of the defining features of Life (it seems to me) is that it seeks to go on living. And this struggle is with us every day — the sick simply happen to be more acutely aware of the struggle, as it is tougher for them. Life, then, really is a miracle of sorts. We live an extremely hostile environment, when you think about it: germs fill every breath of air we breathe, and get inside our bodies when we eat, drink, kiss, make love, prick our finger, whatever. A significant part of what we eat is indigestible, and the air we breathe in, once used, becomes a poison we must breathe out. Accidents happen, and we get cuts and break bones actually fairly frequently. And yet, the body not only has a capacity to take in what it needs to live, and to eliminate the rest, it also has an amazing capacity to heal itself and to fight off invaders that seek to destroy it. In what is often a hostile world, the fact that Life is able to surge upward in us is truly amazing. And so the sick are never "half-dead". Even if we know it will lose the battle in the end, as long as the body continues the struggle it deserves to be honoured with the adjective "alive". To say otherwise dehumanizes the sick and the dying, as causes us to live in the illusion that we ourselves somehow are no engaged in the same struggle. We are, and the sick are actually our brother and sisters in Life, from whom we can learn a great deal.

Reflections on cancer

Dr. Peter Gruener is a retired oncologist living here in Montreal, and he now volunteers with the pastoral department at the Lakeshore General Hospital. He once told me something which has remained with me: "Cancer is the body's attempt to become immortal." You see, all normal body cells have a built-in kill switch: they do divide in order to replace themselves, but they also die to make room for the new cells. Cancer cells, however, don't have this built-in regulation, and simply never die unless killed by an outside force. They possess, in a sense, the kind of immortality that St. Augustine said Adam and Eve had: possunt non mori, the possibility to not die.

The effect, however, is devastating: in their "quest for life" they drain it from the rest of the body, acting as parasites on the system, tending it towards death. Cancer is irony: in the end the cancer dies too, as the tumours cut off some vital system, or they simply drain the body of strength.

"Cancer is the body's attempt to become immortal." It does make me think of Adam and Eve: perhaps the declaration of the sentence of death by God on Adam and Eve is not purely a declaration of punishment, but something necessary for the health of the overall "body of humanity". Imagine a world full of immortal evil human beings: they truly would be a cancer on creation. In effect, God's declaration is not "If you eat the fruit, I will kill you", but rather "If you eat the fruit, I will have to let you die." It is a judgement, in fact, of mercy, for the human race as a whole.

As human beings we naturally fear death and reject it, despite how it looms. Are we willing, however, to admit that in our present state death is necessary for the sake of the greater spiritual and moral health of the body of humanity? Are we ready to thank God for his "sentence of death" upon humanity, admitting that without it, in our fallen natures, we would become cancer?

I pray that the Lord Jesus may come soon, and I am Waiting in Joyful Hope for that Day. When he does, though, because he will be bringing the gift of Resurrection and eternal life, it will necessarily involve a Judgement, in which the "cancers" are removed from the Body. In the meantime, am I willing to face the possibility of my own death in solidarity with those who share my fallen human condition?

Where was God in the Asian tsunami disaster?

The recent disaster in South-East Asia is, for many people, a challenge to their faith in God. As Christians, we are called to bring a message of truth and hope to the world, particularly in trying times like these. It is therefore important that we come to a clearer understanding of God's providence and salvation.

While I do not presume to know the mind of God, this disaster does not need to be seen as a punishment from God. In the time of Jesus there was a well-known natural disaster — the collapse of a tower in Siloam — which killed 18 people. Jesus told his hearers, "Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No." (Luke 13: 4-5) Not every disaster is a punishment for sin. Apart from this, consider the children now suffering in Asia, some of whom are now orphans: the book of Ezekiel clearly teaches that "The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son." (Ez 18:20) Christian faith does not oblige us to believe that this disaster is a result of God's wrath, and we err if we automatically assume it is.

Why do such disasters therefore occur? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that "Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. the universe was created "in a state of journeying" (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it." (paragraph 302) The letter to the Romans states that "Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God." We must not forget, therefore, that part of our faith is that Jesus will one day return in glory, and when he does all of creation will be transformed. Until he does come, though, the world is still subject to violent forces of nature, like earthquakes, volcanos, and tsunamis.

The fact that Jesus has not yet come again does not mean that God's providence is absent, however. God's providence might not always prevent tsunamis from forming, but God does actively try and guide human beings so that these natural forces don't harm us. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall, does anybody care? If a tsunami hits a beach and there is nothing there to be swept away, does anybody care? So part of the issue at hand is not a lack of God's providence, but a lack of our response to God's providence. It is not that God is punishing us, it is that human beings punish themselves by acting as though they can do well enough without God, closing our hearts to his guidance.

If Adam and Eve had not sinned, our human culture would be radically different. We would not have diverted many of our resources over history to uses which find their origin in immorality. We would have had no need of military expenditure, for example, an expense which annually consumes billions and billions of dollars. All those resources could then have been used for art and science, and the problems of developing early warning systems and protective barriers against potential natural disasters would have long been solved. In such an ideal world, the world God originally intended for us, there might have still been tsunamis, but there would have been no one on the beach when it struck.

In addition, we need to keep in mind that Adam and Eve, before their sin, were in perfect harmony with the will of God. As much as their outer five senses were in tune with the world, their inner, spiritual senses were profoundly in tune with the Holy Spirit. By sinning, they lost this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a lack they pass on to their descendants through original sin. It is possible to restore this indwelling of the Holy Spirit to a person through the amazing gift of baptism, but unfortunately this does not automatically restore the perfect sensitivity of the inner spiritual senses at the same time. Even with original sin removed, we human beings find ourselves in a state where our preoccupation with material things tends to often drown out our spiritual impulses, a tendency called concupiscence. It tends to make us deaf to the voice of God in our hearts, a voice which always tries to guide us to the greatest good.

So we can have confidence that God's providence truly was and is present in South-East Asia. We see this in all kinds of little miracles, like the amazing ability of many animals to escape destruction, or the small "coincidences" which led to many lives being spared here and there. The outpouring of assistance and generosity is another sign of this providence, as the Holy Spirit moves the hearts of people to compassion.

In the end, though, many did perish, and we cannot minimize the depth of that tragedy. But our response cannot be to close our hearts to God, because that is part of the problem in the first place! No, we need to turn to God even more, repenting of our lack of recognition of his Lordship, and seeking his will in every element of our lives. "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living." (Wisdom 1: 13) God does love us, and his will for us is always for our good. Even the pain and doubt we may feel in the fact of this tragedy are simply signs that we need to turn to him once again, with all our hearts.


A discussion I recently had with a parishioner eventually turned to the question of malevolence, because of things that were being experienced. I firmly believe that there exist malevolent personalities out there. I also think that many of us are poorly equipped to deal with such persons when we encounter them.

What is malevolence? The word comes from the Latin word malevolens, meaning a wicked or spiteful person, and it in turn comes from two root words: malus, which means "evil", and volens, "to wish, desire, be favourable towards". A malevolent personality, then, means a person who engages in seeking evil for others, rather than their good.

The idea that such a thing exists causes many of us to recoil in horror. Evil is ugly, and we do not want to look at it. Many of us make the mistake of trying to reason away the existence of evil. "Perhaps the malevolent person does not realise the harm they are doing," we might say to ourselves. "Perhaps the malevolent person is a victim of a poor upbringing, and so is not really responsible for their choices." "Perhaps the person I think is malevolent is not really making evil choices, but is simply psychologically ill." In any of these cases, evil is reduced to merely being some form of an "accident of life," and it is easy to forgive or excuse accidents. In many cases, one of these may be true. But what if it isn't?

I have found that the difference between persons who are malevolent, versus those who are merely psychologically ill, lies in the nature of their break with reality. A person who has suffered a psychotic break may act out in anti-social behaviours, but their entire life eventually becomes disorganized, and we typically see that they themselves are victims of their unusual behaviour; their contact with reality is characterized by *confusion*. In my honest opinion, such persons probably still seek the same *ends* in life as ordinary folks, but their illness prevents them from using appropriate *means* to attain those ends, because the psychotic break damages their ability to determine true cause and effect.

A malevolent person, on the other hand, is highly functional. They are often very well-spoken, and appear confident and self-assured. They seem in control. They understand cause and effect, but in their pursuit of desired effects they are willing to use two kinds of "causes" that betray them as truly malevolent: lies, and wrath.

Regarding the lies, I am not speaking simply of little while lies, or the lies we sometimes tell when caught off guard; I am speaking of deliberate, calculated, pre-meditated lies which, taken together, eventually spin a "web of deceit" that others can get trapped in -- especially since the malevolent person speaks them with such confidence. Yes, the malevolent person is also living a break with reality, but it is often a self-induced break caused by telling so many lies that you eventually wind up believing them yourself. In a sense, a malevolent person is acting "like God", trying to shape their external reality -- through the agency of deceit -- into something they can control, sometimes only for the thrill of controlling.

Regarding the wrath, the initial stages of this are usually a kind of unease when we are around the malevolent person, and we slowly we realise that, as much as we might like them, we also fear them -- they are like a schoolyard bully, popular in some strange way as long as we are not on the receiving end of their attentions. But the wrath comes out most strongly when the malevolent person gets caught, and someone calls them on their pattern of deceit. It now becomes a test of wills. We need to understand that, for the malevolent person, their whole universe is essentially under attack -- and they are the centre of that universe. The reaction, however, is rarely reasoned debate, but rather emotional violence. People sometimes tell me that when they confronted so-and-so about their behaviour, the look they received in return could chill the Sahara -- there was real *hate* there. It was a look of pure evil -- a look no one wishes to experience. So often we retreat -- but this simply means that, in effect, the other will has won. Perhaps it was not a battle we felt was worth fighting -- who want to fight? But still, the other side has won. So the malevolent person continues their malevolence.

Let me make something perfectly clear: I believe malevolence exists. I do not believe it is simply another form of psychological conditioning that people accidentally fall into. Sure, how we are raised etc. may have something to do with it. But while psychological disorders are a confusion of how to use means, malevolence is all about *ends*. Asking "What is the point of life?" generates horrifying answers from a malevolent person. Unlike the psychologically ill person, they are highly skilled at the various "means" available in life -- this is how they are so successful at manipulation. What makes them different is that they have *chosen*, even if only on some very primitive level, that the regular rules do not apply to them. In a sense, they are the god of their own universe, and humility is not to be found in them.

Let me also point out that Satan, the Evil One, the Accuser, is also called "the father of lies," and (as St. Peter says) he is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). When his attempts at deception and seduction fail, his wrath comes out....just watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to see the extent of that wrath. I sometimes explain the Devil to little kids by saying that he is really just a big bully, who unfortunately hates us just because he is a bully, and Jesus is our big brother who defeated the bully and who will continue to protect us -- as long as we don't choose ourselves to go too far away from him so that the bully can get us again. But this analogy, while useful, does not really capture the true horror of the situation. The Devil and his demons have an ultimate form of a malevolent personality type, with their original angelic purity turned to evil.

God be praised, I have encountered very few malevolent personalities in my life -- but I have encountered them (one tried to take me to court, not once, but twice -- it's quite a story), and more than once I have had to help others recognize them for what they are -- the lies and the wrath, combined with a highly functional but highly manipulative lifestyle, are the classic indicators.

How do we deal with a malevolent personality? To start, we need to be informed. My book recommendation of choice is People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. The book has its limits, but because it is written from a faith perspective it doesn't fall into the trap of dismissing malevolence as some relic of a pre-scientific religiosity. But once we are informed, then what?

Let me say that, first of all, attempting to gently reason with a malevolent person does *not* work. In fact, it simply feeds them. Often they will engage us in a discussion, even apologize or make excuses for their behaviour, and chalk it up to some sort of misunderstanding. But when we walk away confident that a new modus vivendi has been negotiated, this has simply given the malevolent person more power. Our happy expectations of a brighter future -- in which we emotionally invest -- gives them simply one more target for them to attack: our trust, and with it that emotional investment.

We also need to be wary of misapplied compassion. While I do *not* recommend any sympathy for the Devil, I *do* believe in compassion for persons who are malevolent, because they are still God's children. But because such persons are so manipulative, common expressions of compassion do not work. We need to realise that confronting a malevolent person with their lies is often the most compassionate thing we can do. We are forcing them into reality, we are forcing the truth to be told, even if that truth is as harsh as "You are a liar." By deconstructing their structures of deceit it is possible that we will provoke a wrathful reaction. But sometimes they burst into tears instead, with a "poor me" cry, and it makes us feel guilty. WARNING! This is just another attempt at manipulation and emotional blackmail. In such situation we need a "stern humility" -- we must unwavering in our commitment to the truth of the situation. To call a liar a liar can actually be a gesture of humility and compassion, if in fact the other person is a liar and calling them on it helps them to no longer be rewarded by their lying.

Finally, we need to be sure we protect ourselves. Malevolent persons can try and destroy us, through causing emotional harm, damage to reputations, and the sowing of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). But this is truly one of those situations where the Truth really does set us free. We simply need to sow the truth as much and as effectively as they sow untruth.

As for loving our enemies, dealing with a malevolent personality is truly a tremendous test of this difficult but necessary virtue. Only grace can provide. Sometimes all we can do is pray for the person, but that is already a lot. As much as we need to surrender any prideful belief that we can cure this particular spiritual disease ourselves, we need to remember that there *is* a cure: the Cross of Christ, which is the ultimate victory over evil. The more we cling to Him on his cross, the more we can pick up our cross and face these difficult situations with the strength of his grace. And if there is one silver lining in all of this, when we come face to face with this kind of "devil" we also really come to understand why the cross was necessary....and why it is so beautiful.