By Monsignor Thomas J. Morgan
There is a legend that the historical Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom. All during his early years, he was sequestered in beautiful palaces. His father deliberately protected him from world problems and issues.
On rare occasions, the king allowed the prince to leave the palace. Whenever the prince did leave the palace, he was taken on scenic and pleasant routes. For years, the prince did not see any upsetting and any unsightly things. He did not see hunger and did not see homelessness. He did not see slums and did not see poverty. He did not see crime and did not see violence.
Finally, the young prince insisted on going out to see the world as it really is. He was curious. He wanted to see how the rest of the world lived. He was tired of living an existence of denial and delusion.
So one day he rode through the kingdom with his driver. And on that trip he saw sights that stunned him. One of the sights was an old man who was frail and bent over. And the prince asks his driver, what is that? And the driver replied, this is old age. Then the prince asked the driver, who does that happen to? And the driver replied, “To the lucky ones.”
Then as they rode further through the kingdom, the prince saw a sick man. His friends were taking care of him. And the prince asked the driver, what is that? And the driver replied, this is illness. Then the prince asks the driver who does that happen to? And the driver replied, to almost everyone.
Toward the end of their journey that day the prince saw a dead man. And then he asked the driver, what is that? And the driver replied, this is death. Then the prince asks the driver who does that happen to? And the driver replied, to everyone.
So, on that day the prince has his first up-close encounter with old age, and with illness and with death. He is surprised beyond all imaginings. He is awakened to the realization that there is suffering in the world; that there is old age; that there is illness; that there is death.
He came to know that life on earth is painful as well as beautiful. He came to realize that human decisions can create illness and sufferings and even death. He came to realize that millions of people all over the world die from diseases even though we have the medicines to cure.
Like the prince, I carry in my heart the awareness that there is suffering; there is old age; there is illness; there is death. They are inevitable. They come to each one of us whether sought after or not. Not one of us is exempt.
The denial of old age, illness and death is the cause of much added suffering. Denial is a troublesome and a serious defense mechanism for me whereby I refuse to recognize reality.
Old age, illness and death are part of reality. They are part of who I am. They are part of the way we are in the world. They make themselves known in ways that I cannot imagine or even predict. I cannot afford to deny these realities.
These truths call to be honored by me. And there is never a better time than this moment and always. St. Paul reminds me “the Spirit comes to our rescue when we are weak; when we are in pain; when we are in suffering; when we are groaning; when we have no words” (Romans 8:26-27).
And so the great challenge for me is to be accepting of my aging and my illness and my death. They are part of my journey. I am called to accept what I cannot change.
Acceptance and not resistance is the grace I need. Jesus could have resisted suffering and resisted death. He could have been a very bitter man as he walked the hill of Calvary. Yet, he chose not to be bitter but to be better. “As one alone he accepted death, so that we might all escape from dying; as one man he chose to die, so that in your sight we all might live forever” (Roman Missal, p. 624).
The suffering itself is not so bad;
It is the resentment
Against the suffering that is the real problem. (Allen Ginsberg 1997)
Msgr. Thomas J. Morgan is a retired priest of the Diocese of Camden.