Despair and Hope in Belgium and the West
A heartbreaking story about Belgium appeared recently. The numbers of people seeking death by assisted suicide has grown disturbingly high:
Belgium has the most liberal euthanasia laws in the world. You can end your life here by simply telling a doctor that you have unbearable physical or mental suffering.
Terminally ill children of any age can receive a lethal injection if their parents agree with the child’s wishes.
. . .
Belgian Euthanasia Commission Accused of Violating the Law
A member of Distelmans’ euthanasia commission resigned after the commission failed to act against a doctor who euthanized a dementia patient without consent. Dr. Ludo Van Opdenbosch wrote, “I do not want to be part of a committee that deliberately violates the law.”
Clarke says, “There are now more than 13,000 euthanasia cases that this commission has reviewed. And in those 13,000 I’m aware of now one which has been referred to the prosecutor.”
When Belgium passed its law legalizing euthanasia, critics warned that it was headed down an ethical slippery slope. Some wonder if the European nation may have hit bottom, as medical ethics are being replaced by a culture of death.
Euthanasia Now a “Medical Solution” in Belgium
Oncologist Benoit Beuselinck at University Hospitals-Leuven says, “We have begun to offer death as a medical solution, even for non-terminal cases. It’s a problem. I have heard about people who were offered euthanasia even though they were not even considering it.”
“The types of conditions, the things that would qualify someone for euthanasia, are being pushed further and further out", Clarke says, “There were euthanasias carried out on children as young as 17, 11 and nine.”
Professor of Health care Ethics, Dr. Theo Boer says, “The supply of euthanasia stirs the demand. What you see is that for an increasing number of people, euthanasia becomes the default way to die.”
. . .
The embrace of death in Belgium is not isolated to that country; it is present in many other countries, as well. The global suicide rate has risen 60% over the last 45 years (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics). However, since this writer and the South in general spring from the same stream of Western European culture as Belgium, we will limit our analysis to that part of the world.
What is it that is causing the people of Belgium to embrace death to such a degree? Her GDP is one of the highest in the world, 25th out of almost 200 countries (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-gdp/), but her suicide rate is also one of the highest, 11th out of all countries (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/suicide-rate-by-country/). The same is true for other Western countries - high GDPs together with high suicide rates. The trend has grown by alarming proportions here in the States, where the suicide rate has risen 33% from 1999 to 2016 (https://psmag.com/news/the-suicide-rate-is-at-its-highest-in-a-half-century), despite a GDP for the union that far outpaces others in the world. If material things are the key to happiness (as the modern culture never tires of telling us), why are so many people rushing so quickly towards death, rather than savoring the good things of this life for as many years as possible?
The question answers itself: ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ The land of Belgium, and Western Europe as a whole, was once teeming with Orthodox churches and monasteries, with Christian bishops, hermits, martyrs, confessors, monks, nuns, priests, nobles, farmers, mothers, fathers, and such like. The West was a spiritual garden abounding in saints and gifts of the Holy Ghost. However, the West’s communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church, was broken in 1054 by the actions of the Roman Pope, who drug the West into his newly created Roman Catholic ‘Church’. The life-bestowing Grace of the Holy Ghost naturally fled from this imposter institution and from all who embraced it (this goes for the children of the Roman Catholic rebellion as well, the Protestant sects). The post-Orthodox West, therefore, for all her external Christian garb, has little inner spiritual life to speak of. She is like the white-washed tombs the Lord Jesus speaks of: pretty on the outside but full of the stench of death on the inside.
Try as they might, the Western confessions will not be able to lift men above the horizon of this fallen world, for they are part of the very fabric of it. No matter how many renovations, revivals, or reformations they go through, it will remain an impossibility. Thus, we see them slip further and further into imbecility and the darkness of the passions; into clown masses and the silliness of megachurches:
Because the West has lost the Grace of the Holy Trinity, she is entering into a new age of despair, not unlike the one she knew before the dawning of the Light of the Incarnation of the God-man. G. K. Chesterton describes that former time in memorable lines:
But in the case of many others I fancy there entered at this point a new negation. Atheism became really possible in that abnormal time; for atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of a dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul; the sense that there is a meaning and a direction in the world it sees. Lucretius, the first evolutionist who endeavored to substitute Evolution for God, had already dangled before men’s eyes his dance of glittering atoms, by which he conceived cosmos as created by chaos. But it was not his strong poetry or his sad philosophy, as I fancy, that made it possible for men to entertain such a vision. It was something in the sense of impotence and despair with which men shook their fists vainly at the stars, as they saw all the best work of humanity sinking slowly and helplessly into a swamp. They could easily believe that even creation itself was not a creation but a perpetual fall, when they saw that the weightiest and worthiest of all human creations was falling by its own weight. They could fancy that all the stars were falling stars; and that the very pillars of their own solemn porticos were bowed under a sort of gradual Deluge. To men in that mood there was a reason for atheism that is in some sense reasonable. Mythology might fade and philosophy might stiffen; but if behind these things there was a reality, surely that reality might have sustained things as they sank. There was no God; if there had been a God, surely this was the very moment when He would have moved and saved the world.
The life the great civilisation went on with dreary industry and even with dreary festivity. It was the end of the world, and the worst of it was that it need never end.
--The Everlasting Man, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, Cal., 1993 , pgs. 162-3.
It is just the same in our age: Men have put aside God and have therefore grown weary of living; they long for death, but it won’t come quickly enough. So they kill themselves instead.
Who can cure this disease of despair?
The Saints of the Orthodox West.
But what is a saint?
A man or woman who has acquired the Holy Ghost, who has attained holiness.
But because of Roman Catholic and Protestant ideas of legalistic, bank-ledger righteousness (the debt of sin, the infinite merits of Christ, etc.), the term ‘holiness’ and the concept of a saint have lost their former meanings. St John Maximovitch (+1966), the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, helps us to recover their original Orthodox meanings when he says in his homily,
Holiness is not simply righteousness, for which the righteous merit the enjoyment of blessedness in the Kingdom of God, but rather such a height of righteousness that men are filled with the Grace of God to such an extent, that it flows from them, upon those who associate with them. Great is their blessedness, which proceeds from personal experience of the Glory of God. Being filled also with love for men, which proceeds from love of God, they are responsive to men's needs and upon their supplication, they also appear as intercessors and defenders before God.
--‘The Canonization of Saints’, http://orthodox.cn/catechesis/johnmx/canonization_en.htm
Archimandrite Vasileios expands on this wonderful mystery, writing of these healers of souls and bodies,
The Fathers of the Church are honoured and known as the great luminaries who reveal to us liturgically that “the Light of Christ shines upon all”.
When you approach them, you find a spontaneous offering of the truth which sets free. You find life, honesty, confession, humility, the wealth of the spirit, the ascension of the flesh, the transfiguration of the world, the illumination of the opaque, the meaning of the insignificant, the grace of eternity spread over the everyday and ordinary, man given his true value, the cooling-fiery furnace of the Divine Liturgy in which all things have been filled with a light which transfigures them: it makes them all fire. It makes them all cooling dew. The Fathers, full of grace as they are, move about freely. They speak personally. They scatter blessing. They tolerate everyone (in their strictness). They know everyone through their love. They love everyone with the love of the one God in Trinity, who is love. They love everyone, because they themselves are love. Through them you know that the Orthodox Church lives the truth as a communion of love. It honours communion as a manifestation of the trinitarian deity. It respects man as a person in communion.
And God the Word goes outside Himself and comes to dwell in all through His intense longing, that all may become partakers of His grace and His divinity. . . . He becomes man and takes on everything that is ours, apart from sin, so as to give us everything that is His, apart from identity of essence. So that all may become sons of God and gods by grace.
This self-emptying, as a work of unfathomable love, is a theophany – a revelation of the truth of God as a communion of persons who love each other.
This is the gospel of the new creation, the message of life which the Fathers proclaim by their existence. They show the way of existence. And they teach you how to live, to write, to organise…
They allow everything to move freely. They wait for the other person to find his own rhythm, to find his path. They sacrifice their lives, in the likeness of the God-man, for the life of the other. They pour out grace. They hide their virtue out of modesty. They know that everything true is given from above. They have given to God what little they had. And they have received everything. They receive it constantly, they accept it without ceasing. And they cannot bear the abundance of life. They want to withdraw to the sidelines, to be quiet, to vanish, to calm down, not to be commented on. All they want is for others to live.
This reality of the dawning of grace as a divine gift is something greater than all the glories and honours of the world.
. . . Their being shone out of them. They did not learn things divine, they experienced them; they underwent them. These things changed them, deified them. They have become a revelation of God – in other words, a true revelation of man. They show what man is and what he is able to become.
. . .
Sometimes, amidst the afflictions that make man human or the tragedies that can befall any of us, we remember them.
Then you look for the saints, and you find them. You form another circle of acquaintance. You find those people who had disappeared, those who are not, the humble and spacious, people made genuine by suffering. You live with them. You sit there, you listen, you watch. You do not do anything; you simply undergo the silent radiation that they give forth in sacred abundance. And this radiation of divine life caresses you, it heals you. It makes your wounds heal over. It composes your very existence. It nurtures your soul. It gives substance to your being. It makes you sensitive. It grants you consolation, which is love and abundance of life. You feel like a vehicle of joy, a chosen vessel, a creation of pre-eternal Love which takes flesh within time. You pass consciously into a liturgical time and space. You live with all the saints. You keep quiet and unceasingly glorify Him who is Alpha and Omega, the true light which lightens every man coming into the world (John 1:9).
--"The Light of Christ Shines upon All” through All the Saints, Dr Elizabeth Theokritoff trans., Alexander Press, Montreal, Quebec, 2001, pgs. 7-9, 19.
If it is possible, we should help people by giving them the possibility of weeping before Him who loves us. To weep like Peter. Because deep down we know that we are all hurt children, regardless of whether we are grey-haired, regardless of whether we pretend to be hard. And if we ever find a saint, then we shall realise that deep within us is hidden a hurt child. It is like a root which seems dead until the right amount of rain comes, and the sun, and then we realise that there is life hidden within it. That is what the saints do. They are the ones who love, the humble ones. And so they raise up possibilities within us that were dead.
--The Saint: Archetype of Orthodoxy, 2nd edn., Dr Elizabeth Theokritoff trans., Alexander Press, Montreal, Quebec, 1999, pgs. 32-3.
These are the saints in general. And, thanks be to God, in the West we can be even more specific. In the Belgian lands a host of Orthodox saints shone forth whose lives we may still recall with tender affection as we approach them, as we befriend them. One of these whose experience is akin to our own generation’s with all its worldliness, is St Bavo of Brabant (+654), patron saint of Ghent. Early in life he indulged in vices but was later moved to repentance by St Amand. Here is part of one description of his life:
THIS great model of penance, called Allowin, surnamed Bavo, was a nobleman, and native of that part of Brabant called Hasbain, at present comprised in the territory of Liege. After having led a very irregular life, and being left a widower by the death of his wife, he was moved to a sincere conversion to God by a sermon which he heard St. Amand preach. The apostolical man had no sooner finished his discourse, but Bavo followed him, and threw himself at his feet, bathed in a flood of tears. Sobs expressed the sorrow and emotions of his heart more eloquently than any words could have done, and it was some time before his voice was able to break through his sighs. When he had somewhat recovered himself he confessed himself the basest and most ungrateful of all sinners, and earnestly begged to be directed in the paths of true penance and salvation. . . . By these instructions Bavo was more and more penetrated with the most sincere sentiments of compunction, made his confession, and entered upon a course of canonical penance. Going home he distributed all his moveables and money among the poor, and having settled his affairs, retired to the monastery at Ghent, where he received the tonsure at the hands of St. Amand, and was animated by his instructions to advance daily in the fervour of his penance, and in the practice of all virtues. “It is a kind of apostacy,” said that prudent director to him, “for a soul which has had the happiness to see the nothingness of this world, and the depth of her spiritual miseries, not to raise herself daily more and more above them, and to make continual approaches nearer to God.”
Bavo considered that self-denial and penance are the means by which a penitent must punish sin in himself, and are also one part of the remedy by which he must heal his perverse inclinations, and carnal passions. He therefore seemed to set no bounds to the ardour with which he laboured to consummate the sacrifice of his penance by the baptism of his tears, the compunction and humiliation of his heart, the mortification of his will, and the rigour of his austerities. To satisfy his devotion, St. Amand after some time gave him leave to lead an eremitical life. He first chose for his abode a hollow trunk of a large tree, but afterwards built himself a cell in the forest of Malmedun near Ghent, where wild herbs and water were his chief subsistence. He returned to the monastery of St. Peter at Ghent, where St. Amand had appointed St. Floribert the first abbot over a community of clerks, says the original author of our saint’s life. With the approbation of St. Floribert, Bavo built himself a new cell in another neighbouring wood, where he lived a recluse, intent only on invisible goods, in an entire oblivion of creatures. He died on the 1st of October . . . . The holy bishop St. Amand, the abbot St. Floribert with his monks, and Domlinus the priest of Turholt were present at his glorious passage, attending him in prayer. The example of his conversion moved sixty gentlemen to devote themselves to an austere penitential life. By them the church of St. Bavo was founded at Ghent, served first by a college of canons, but afterwards changed into a monastery of the holy Order of St. Benedict. . . .
--Butler’s The Lives of the Saints, https://www.bartleby.com/210/10/012.html
There is life beyond the coarse material level with its focus on ‘eat, drink, and be merry’. Saints like Bavo show it to us clearly in their lives. And the miracles that they work for those who trust them and draw near to them for help are proof that their lives continue on even now in the spiritual realm.
Closely connected with St Bavo’s life, as we saw above, is St Amand of Elnon (+675). In his life we see again the joy that comes from a heart that inclines first toward God, which allows us to have a proper orientation to the world around us:
HE was born near Nantes, of pious parents, lords of that territory. At twenty years of age, he retired into a small monastery in the little isle of Oye, near that of Rhé. He had not been there above a year, when his father found him out, and made use of every persuasive argument in his power to prevail with him to quit that state of life. To his threats of disinheriting him, the saint cheerfully answered: “Christ is my only inheritance.” The saint went to Tours, and a year after to Bourges, where he lived near fifteen years under the direction of St. Austregisilus, the bishop, in a cell near the cathedral. His clothing was a single sack-cloth, and his sustenance barley-bread and water. After a pilgrimage to Rome, he was ordained in France a missionary bishop, without any fixed see, in 628, and commissioned to preach the faith to infidels. He preached the gospel in Flanders, and among the Sclavi in Carinthia and other provinces near the Danube: but being banished by King Dagobert, whom he had boldly reproved for his scandalous crimes, he preached to the pagans of Gascony and Navarre. Dagobert soon recalled him, threw himself at his feet to beg his pardon, and caused him to baptize his new-born son, Saint Sigebert, afterwards king. The idolatrous people about Ghent were so savage, that no preacher durst venture himself amongst them. This moved the saint to choose that mission; during the course of which he was often beaten, and sometimes thrown into the river: he continued preaching, though for a long time he saw no fruit, and supported himself by his labour. The miracle of his raising a dead man to life, at last opened the eyes of the barbarians, and the country came in crowds to receive baptism, destroying the temples of their idols with their own hands. In 633, the saint having built them several churches, founded two great monasteries in Ghent, both under the patronage St. Peter; one was named Blandinberg, from the hill of Blandin on which it stands, now the rich abbey of St. Peter’s; the other took the name of St. Bavo, from him who gave his estate for its foundation; this became the cathedral in 1559, when the city was created a bishop’s see. Besides many pious foundations, both in France and Flanders, in 639, he built the great abbey three leagues from Tournay, called Elnon, from the river on which it stands; but it has long since taken the name of St. Amand, with its town and warm mineral baths. In 649 he was chosen bishop of Maestricht; but three years after he resigned that see to St. Remaclus, and returned to his missions, to which his compassion for the blindness of infidels always inclined his heart. He continued his labours amongst them till the age of eighty-six, when, broken with infirmities, he retired to Elnon, which house he governed as abbot four years more, spending that time in preparing his soul for his passage to eternity, which happened in 675. His body is honourably kept in that abbey. . . .
Those sick in body will find comfort in the lives of saints like Aldegondes (or Aldegund) of Maubeuge. The modern world teaches us to be greatly troubled over sickness and suffering, that they are evils that ought not to be endured; the saints teach us rather to understand those things as essential to obtaining a better inheritance in the life to come. The saints transfigure suffering from sadness and death to joy and life, just as our Lord did through His tortures and Holy Crucifixion, just as we ought to do should such things come into our lives:
SHE was daughter of Walbert, of the royal blood of France, and born in Hainault about the year 630. She consecrated herself to God by a vow of virginity, when very young, and resisted all solicitations to marriage, serving God in the house of her holy parents, till, in 638, she took the religious veil, and founded and governed a great house of holy virgins at Maubeuge. She was favoured with an eminent gift of prayer, and many revelations; but was often tried by violent slanders and persecutions, which she looked upon as the highest favours of the divine mercy, begging of God that she might be found worthy to suffer still more for his sake. His divine providence sent her a lingering and most painful cancer in her breast. The saint bore the torture of her distemper, also the caustics and incisions of the surgeons, not only with patience, but even with joy, and expired in raptures of sweet love, on the 30th of January, in 660, according to Bollandus. Her relics are enshrined in the great church of Maubeuge . . . .
One who shows just how readily the saints still are to enfold us in their love after all these years is St Dymphna the martyr and wonderworker of Gheel (early 7th century, commemorated May 15th):
St. Dymphna was the daughter of a pagan king and a Christian mother in Ireland. When her mother died, her father desired to take his own daughter to wife. Dymphna fled with her mother's instructor, the priest Gerberen, to the continent. Her father followed and eventually found them. When Dymphna refused to submit to his unholy desire, he had them both beheaded at Gheel in what is today Belgium. Throughout the centuries she has shown special care and concern from the other world for those suffering from mental illnesses and is greatly venerated throughout Europe and America.
--Monk Nicodemus, Saint Herman Calendar 2003: Saints of Ireland, http://www.oodegr.com/english/istorika/britain/history_irish_church.htm
There are many others who could be mentioned: Sts Waltrudis, Lambert, Remaclus, Gertrude, Ursmar, etc., etc. But we hope these few are enough to answer the question posed earlier: How can Belgium and the West escape the heavy weight of hopelessness that is crushing the souls of so many? First, seek out the relics of these saints of the West (or any who are nearby; nearly every Orthodox church has relics beneath its altar), whether at their shrines or wherever particles of their relics have been taken and pray to them there, where the warmth of their Grace-filled presence can be experienced in a deep way. If unable to do that, pray earnestly to them before an icon, or wherever you are. Their healing presence is not limited to their holy relics. And lastly, consider following their example and entering the arena of Orthodox monastic life, where all the disordered passions, despondency included, can be set right through the struggle for virtue, for union with God.
Their quiet hopefulness and joy can be the quiet hopefulness and joy of Western men and women once again if we are willing:
. . . it is quite clear from the lives of the Western saints that in Christ, victory and the heavenly ideal are possible and that the talent of Western ingenuity is capable of being transformed by Apostolic zeal in order to promote the Gospel in the most adverse and even absurd circumstances. May our readers soak up the “salt savor” of their sanctified Western forebears and begin to imitate their struggle unto the transformation of self and society by means of heroic Christian ideals which are not particular to East or West, but a heavenly commodity given to us at the last hour.
--Thomas J. Hulbert, Saint Herman Calendar 2000: Saints of the Low Countries, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Cal., 2000, p. 17.