After the recent suicide of the famous American actor and comedian Robin Williams, various reasons were given to explain why he killed himself. Some of the reasons included the fact that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, suffered from severe depression, and was having money problems. For whatever reason, at the age of 63, Williams ended his life after determining that he was better off dead than alive.
To put Robin Williams’ suffering into perspective, I would like you to consider another “old man” who despite enduring immense suffering refused to give up. His name was Alphonsus Liguori, a Catholic saint who during the prime of his life was a well-known and respected Catholic bishop, theologian, and scholastic philosopher. During his lifetime, St. Alphonsus wrote several books, including The Glories of Mary, The Way of Salvation, The True Spouse of Christ, and Sermons for All the Sundays in the Year.
In 1767, at the age of 71, suffering from rheumatism, St. Alphonsus became so crippled that he had to be confined to a wheelchair. His neck was so weak that he was unable to hold up his head. Because of the weight of his head, his chin constantly rubbed against his chest, causing his skin to become raw.
In addition to his physical suffering, St. Alphonsus was publicly humiliated and removed from his order after it was shown that he had signed a religious document that was contrary to the teachings of the Church. The signing of the document was a mistake in judgment and was due in part to the fact that St. Alphonsus’ condition had deteriorated to such an extent that he was almost completely blind.
He had trouble reading anything, and when he was asked to approve the document, St. Alphonsus struggled to read the first page. After he read several lines and found nothing that was objectionable, he verified the authenticity of the document by signing it. He trusted the person who asked him to sign the document. He subsequently paid a heavy price for that trust.
Like Christ, St. Alphonsus was betrayed by a man who claimed to be his friend. Alphonsus took full responsibility for his actions and did not attempt to defend himself. He simply accepted the humiliation he suffered as a cross that had been given to him by God.
As St. Alphonsus grew older, his condition became progressively worse. He experienced what St. John of the Cross had previously described as a “dark night of the soul” — a condition where a person experiences a sense of unyielding torment and fear and feels as though he or she has been abandoned by God. This sense of darkness remained with Alphonsus until he died at the age of 90.
As we age, most of us wrestle with fears of ill health. Such fears are magnified by unanticipated ailments, more frequent visits to the doctor, and the experience of seeing close friends and family members struggle with their own health issues. We fear that we will not be able to live the rest of our lives in our own homes and that we will eventually need around-the-clock assistance to perform routine tasks.
Growing old is humiliating. Instead of looking back on our lives with gratitude, some of us view the past with anger and regret — anger for not making the right choices about ourselves and our future. This is the wrong way to look at our past.
I suppose that there will be a number of people who end up following in Robin Williams’ footsteps by deciding that they would be better off dead than having to face an uncertain and painful future. Our Catholic faith and beliefs cry out against this type of thinking.
Those of us who live to a ripe old age will have to live through and accept the deterioration of our minds and bodies that comes with age. The pain and suffering God allows us to go through are meant to humble us, purify our souls, and prepare us for our eternal reward. We are all called to be saints.
Rather than attempt to escape the pain and suffering associated with the ravages of old age, we should follow in the footsteps of the saints by humbly reaching out for assistance from our Lord, His mother, our guardian angels, the saints in Heaven, and our friends and family members.
Life is too precious to throw away — even the life of an old, broken man such as Alphonsus Liguori. He viewed his pain and suffering as gifts that were given to him by God to prepare him for Heaven. You and I should do the same.