The season of Advent is a season of spiritual preparation to meet Jesus. We will meet Him in the manger on Christmas Day; we will meet him in Holy Communion at Mass; we will meet Him when we enter eternity. We need to prepare ourselves spiritually, acknowledging our sins with a good Confession during these days. But caring for our bodies also binds in conscience: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19)
The poetry of the Psalms occasionally has a disturbing realism. Psalm 90 admonishes us: “Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone.” Life is inching away from us, and the latest in medical technology can only postpone the inevitable.
A wise doctor once said that people generally go to the doctor for healing before they reach the age of 50. After 50, the role of a doctor is to slow an inevitable decline. It’s a nugget of wisdom that is worth keeping in mind as we ask ourselves, “How do I properly care for – glorify – a body that will die someday?”
There are two main errors to acknowledge and confront. First, since our body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, we must avoid all forms of neglect and abuse. Second, since we believe with Saint Paul that our citizenship is in heaven, we must resist the increasingly common health obsessions that seem to suggest a kind of faithlessness.
We are body-soul composites. When we treat our bodies with due reverence, we take reasonable steps to keep ourselves healthy so that we may continue with our Christian duties of loving God and neighbor. Hence, the virtue of temperance – a difficult virtue in a culture of plenty – controls and develops our eating and drinking habits.
Beyond good nutrition, we need to consider our attitude toward medical health. Those who neglect chronic health conditions suffer terrible consequences. So properly treating high blood pressure and other persistent infirmities is a grave moral responsibility.
Maintain personal cleanliness. Wash your hands as your mother taught you. Carry a clean handkerchief or tissues, and don’t sneeze into your hand. Put that toilet seat down (as mothers mysteriously insist). Use common sense. (Priests who suppressed the Sign of Peace exchange as well as Holy Communion under the species of wine were indeed prophets.)
When we realize that someday we will die and meet Jesus, we tend to – but not always – avoid – a second extreme: an obsession with personal health. That we have a cultural fixation with health is beyond dispute. We need not belabor the endless (sometimes hysterical) COVID-19 reports and relentless medical commercials that provide the wearisome evidence. (Today, an unmasked face at a supermarket is more scandalous than Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”)
Curiously, we seldom hear the word “hypochondriac” any more. Maybe it’s because the culture has mainstreamed the neurosis. (We could say the same for “promiscuity.”) Much of our hypochondria and medical hysteria has its roots in atheism. We have replaced “God bless you” with the increasingly common (and annoying), “Be safe.” We’ve tipped the balance in favor of Godlessness.
The Church teaches that every human being has an immeasurable dignity. While we have no obligation to administer extraordinary means during end of life situations, we certainly must not intend to kill, even when we foresee that pain-killing drugs may shorten life.
Here’s some advice in brief:
Cultivate a Catholic mind concerning medical care. Avoid living wills and advanced medical directives. Medical treatment and our changing needs are too complex to reduce to one-size-fits-all. (“Sorry, I know you’re not dead yet. But we have no choice but to pull out your feeding tubes. You gave us permission in your directives.”) It is better to name an informed Catholic as your medical power of attorney.
It is also helpful to develop a thoughtful, personal healthcare philosophy within the context of sound Catholic medical ethics. Periodically discuss that personalized medical philosophy with family members.
Consider this modest proposal for someone who is in reasonably good health. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s offered to spark a healthy personal medical care conversation:
- Don’t go to the doctor without a good reason: for routine periodic medical checkups or necessary treatments.
- Don’t abuse the emergency room when a scheduled doctor’s visit will do.
- Except for compelling reasons, follow the doctor’s advice when sick or in need of treatment.
- Try not to obsess about a given medical condition. Pay the doctor to worry for you.
- We pay doctors by the procedure, so periodically consider the apparent motives of the doctor. If a test or procedure is mysterious, ask, “Why do I need it?” Expect a reasonable explanation.
- Take “preventive maintenance” health inspections, but don’t overdo it. Is it necessary to identify every bodily defect that comes with the high technology comprehensive body scans?
- Respect the natural healing capability of one’s body. If you have a gut feeling that your doctor may be wrong, don’t hesitate to obtain a second opinion.
- Seek the advice of family and friends, some of whom may be medical professionals. And fight nice. Be proud of your wrinkles. Paraphrasing Diane Feinstein to ACB, wrinkles reveal that “wisdom lives loudly within you.”
- Prepare a last will as a courtesy to your family and heirs.
Our bodies are the sacrament – the outward sign – of our soul, and our resurrected body has its destiny in Christ: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:52) Tending to the temporal concerns of our body is integral to our spiritual life as we prepare to meet the Lord.
*Image: Last Rites by Jakub Schikaneder, 1897 [Narodni Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic]