It is a brave act of valour to contemn death; but, where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valour to dare to live. ―Browne
A few years ago now, I went to the funeral of a man who had died after having spent the last years of his life with dementia. During the sermon, the minister referred to a section from a catechism―I think it might have been the Westminster Catechism―which teaches, “Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” He described the last few years of the deceased, and then said that he had come to a point where his disease became so bad that this end was no longer being fulfilled. He was no longer able to glorify God, and so his life had to come to an end.
This sermon struck me and I have often thought of it since. The sentiment was well-meant and intended to help the family understand the death. But I think that the minister was fundamentally wrong: not because that line from the catechism is wrong, but because he thought that a person with a crippling mental disease was no longer glorifying God.
Our faith is full of paradoxes, and the greatest perhaps is that we worship a Saviour who died the torturous and humiliating death of a criminal. On the night before he died, he said to his apostles, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.” Contrary to all our instincts, Jesus’s passion and death were part of his own glory and how he gave glory to God. As we look forward to the feast of Christ the King, we might recall that in all the Gospels, Jesus’s kingship is most explicit during the passion narratives. In John, Pilate says, “Behold your king!” after Jesus has been flogged and mocked; in all the Gospels a sign bearing the title, “King of the Jews” is above his head on the cross. Jesus’s kingship is one of weakness and suffering.
Moreover, time and time again, Jesus manifested the love of God by attending to those who were suffering. When he meets the man born blind and his disciples ask if the man is blind because of his parents’ sins or his own, Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
One of the reasons the Church anoints those who are gravely sick is as a sign that they are especially close to God and a vital part of the People of God. The Second Vatican Council taught the following about this sacrament:
By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them… and indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ. (Lumen Gentium §11)All of this shows that in weakness, suffering and humiliation, people are indeed capable of giving glory to God. Perhaps it is even when he is glorified the most. This is one of the key insights of Jean Vanier, the Canadian academic who left everything to create homes for adults with mental disabilities. He recognized that it is the rejected, the weak and the suffering who are the ones who often show us the glory of God most clearly.
Dementia, like any disease, is ugly and an evil in of itself. It is not something that we should wish on anyone. But with the eyes of faith, we ought to see the face of God in the sick, no matter now powerless or wracked with disability. They are the image of the living God. In the end, our ability to see him in this “distressing disguise”, in the words of Mother Theresa, is the measure of how well we really know him.