The Seamless Web of Life

June 21, 2011

When Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed the bill outlawing the death penalty in his state, he referred to a book that had been published fourteen years earlier, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections, citing two phrases, “the seamless web of life” and a “consistent ethic of life.” Having missed the book when it first came out, I found a copy and have read it with deep appreciation.

To my surprise, I discovered that The Gift of Peace does not discuss the controversial social issues that are so much a part of the American political scene. Rather, it is a memoir by the author in which he reflects upon three challenges that had shaped the last three years of his life: the false accusation of sexual misconduct, pancreatic cancer, and preparing for death. These reflections became a testimony of Bernardin’s faith and an expression of an ever-deepening spirituality.

I came across the phrases that had brought me to the book in only two places, and even in these locations they are not used to debate gender-related ethical issues and questions concerning when life begins. Their only specific reference is to the need for consistent medical care throughout the society for all who need it. From the time he first experienced symptoms that led to the cancer diagnosis, Bernardin received the finest care that the American medical system could provide. Because of his position as Cardinal arch bishop of a large Catholic community, red tape was cut instantly and he was treated with little regard for the costs.

By implication, readers can conclude that Bernardin would favor revisions of the American health care system so that all persons, regardless of position or income, could receive the same care that he received and not need to worry about the costs.

A consistent ethic shows in other ways throughout this book. All of life is to be understood as bound up in one system that is bounded by God’s steadfast love and Christ’s continuing presence in every aspect of experience, especially our times of suffering. Even death is to be understood within the framework of this consistency. Death becomes our friend, part of our time of life that becomes our passage to eternity.

Bernardin frequently refers to the redemptive aspect of suffering. He sees it in Christ’s life, and especially in Gethsemane and on the cross. He believes that his own suffering because of an aggressive cancer could be his final gift to his diocese.

This understanding of suffering is illustrated by the way that his own experiences with cancer led him to a ministry with others in treatment at the same time and with cancer sufferers in an ever-widening circle around the world.

Bernardin does not debate theological questions about life and death. He takes life as it is, declaring that death has its place, and then shows how he lives with peace and joy in the shadow of the cross. He also shows how important it is that we support people who are sick, troubled, and suffering. During this period of his own illness, Bernardin came to realize more fully than before how important it was for him to minister to the sick because they are especially ready to come into contact with the transcendent.

The first crisis discussed in the book, the accusation of sexual misconduct, also illustrates how important it is to live so that the values of truthfulness, honor, and faithfulness to fundamental principles of life stay consistently in place.

This part of the book also illustrates how deep and strong the Catholic system of life really is. Life within the church and participation in its sacramental reality claim loyalty in a powerful way.

Bernardin died when he was a decade younger than I am now, which is one of the reasons why a theme that permeates the book affects me so directly: letting go. He suggests that this attitude is one for people throughout the life span. Its importance in the later years, especially as people face the reality of death, is even greater.

As Bernardin says in the hand written note at the beginning of the book, we can let go if we understand that “the good and the bad are always present in our human condition and, that if we ‘let go,’ if we place ourselves totally in the hands of the Lord, the good will prevail.”