An Interview with Archbishop Fisher
“Only a little more than a year after I became your pastor I was, as many of you know, struck down by a serious sickness called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I was at one stage paralyzed from the neck down in intensive care at St Vincent’s Hospital. I am now gradually recovering and I hope I will have learned much about the logic of sickness and recovery, of evil and redemption that all of us will experience at one time or another. Many others, I know, suffer worse with little hope of things getting better for them. Some are much longer trapped in the hospital ward or the grave. Some are not yet able to join us singing Alleluias this morning. Yet so radical is the power of Easter that it does eventually break down the walls even of the tomb. Easter comes to the sick, the depressed, the lonely, and the deceased today and brings new life where it surely cannot be found. Life visits Death this morning and Life says: ‘I shall be your death, O Death’. Today Life reigns in every hospital, in every broken heart, at every deathbed, and even every graveside.”
Archbishop Fisher, you’ve recently been discharged from a four and a half month stay in the hospital, but hospitals and the healing professions aren’t things you’re unfamiliar with; you’ve contributed a lifetime of work to bioethics. How has your understanding of these issues been deepened or changed by your experience?”
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the importance of the body in our life and its vulnerability, its fragility, and the reliance we inevitably must have on others when we are frail or sick, and how we view that relationship. Is it humiliating to be dependent on others or is that actually part of what human relationships are about; what does that mean for the character of a sick person? I asked people to pray for patience, courage, and hope for me, so those were three virtues I sensed I would really need to develop while I was sick, and I hope I have cultivated those better during my sickness and been given some supernatural help with that too, so that I’ve jumped ahead more than just by my own efforts in those departments.
I think people often respond glibly to suffering, people of faith say things like ‘This is giving you a share in the suffering of Christ’, or ‘It will pass’, and ‘Keep up a happy disposition’, but there are many things people say which they hope will help and partly reflects that they feel helpless themselves, that they don’t know what to say. But they probably don’t help very much at the time, apart from that they communicate through those words, underneath those words, that they are helpless like you are, and that they fear for you and they care about you. I hope that at the end of this my answers won’t be quite so formulaic off-pat, simplistic as they might have been before.
Many people experience a health crisis at some point in their lives, which can lead to feelings of vulnerability and dependence on others. What did you learn about these experiences in your recent illness?
I think there’s no doubt that for the person who is used to being very independent and very able, it is humiliating when other people have to wipe your bottom for you, or help you shower, or feed you very basic things. I’ve been interested in recent years, a number of writers have, in moral philosophy and moral theology, been insisting on vulnerability and interdependence being at the very heart of what it is to be a human person, and to be a person in community, and in relationships. And that’s not just babies and the very elderly, but lots of people in between. We will be dependent, we’re all dependent in fact all the time on others to feed us; not literally to put the food on a spoon and put in our mouth, but to get the food to us, to grow it, to prepare it, to process it and all the rest. We are much more dependent than we actually realize or reflect upon day-to-day, but it becomes more obvious to us when things we’re used to being independent, or relatively independent about, we suddenly can’t do for ourselves anymore, then we realize ‘Oh, I need others, I can’t do this on my own.
This presents a very different starting point to the view of the human person as the totally autonomous agent who can do everything for themselves, who really doesn’t need others much at all, or only relates to others on the basis of a choice to do so, because there’s some mutual advantage in working with another person. Much of human life is just not like that, it’s situations where we don’t have much in the way of choices or they’re very limited.
To many people today suffering can seem pointless, useless, something to be avoided by any means, at any cost; but the sages and the saints have seen suffering a little differently haven’t they?
We could point to lots of saints who’ve suffered in one way or another, and come out the other end of that a greater, more beautiful, more whole person, rather than coming out bitter, angry with God, or the world, or their fellows. And I think as Christians we admire that, and we wish that for ourselves. It’s not that we wish suffering for ourselves, we’re not masochists as Christians. But Christianity does mean that we meet the suffering when it comes differently to someone without faith. We know that Christ has gone there before us, and the great saints have accompanied Him and accompany us in our suffering, and that Christ has a power to relieve that suffering in some way, or to help us transcend that suffering in some way, to bring some meaning, to bring some new inner beauty out in us, to make us like, say, Mother Teresa. After that long dark period of doubt, and of spiritual dryness in her prayer, and of loneliness in her vocation, she came out the other end as someone the whole world could be inspired by, someone that even non-Christians can look at and say, “Wow, that is humanity at its best, at its greatest,” and believers can say that is humanity at its holiest. I want some of that for myself – probably like most people, I’d rather have it without too much pain, thank you very much; I’d like the result, in terms of greater character without the process required to get there.
St John Paul II was famous for teaching on suffering and showing his suffering to the world. How has your own illness affected the way you understand witness of John Paul II?
There are some very good reasons why people often try to hide their weakness. But John Paul II showed us that sometimes it is right for people to see the crucifixion; that sometimes the vulnerability of the human person and their continuing to struggle in faith and hope and love, like every human being does at one time or another through suffering, that it’s good sometimes for people to see their leaders experience that and go through that just as they do, and to not sugar-coat it, not hide it or try various techniques that minimize it.
I think for John Paul it was especially dramatic because he had been so strong. He had been an athlete, he had been of tremendous physical and emotional and spiritual strength and so there must have been a real humbling for him: being cast down so low by his Parkinson’s disease and by the other things he suffered that left him more and more incapacitated. I prayed to John Paul quite a lot in my own sickness, knowing firstly that unlike him I am expected to fully recover and to return to my full health, whereas he knew that he would gradually get worse and worse. And yet somehow he managed to maintain great hope and great dignity; to be more than ever an inspiration to people around the world in his very weakness, in his quite public sickness which he didn’t hide from the world in those last years.
What has your illness taught you about the value and worth and destiny of human life, both our shared life here now and our new life made possible by the Resurrection?
I was struck down with my sickness on the night of Christmas and because Easter was very early this year most of the time that I was sick was in Lent, in the Paschal time looking towards Easter and going there through the Passion. So I just happened to be sick at a liturgical time that gave me immediately things to reflect on. Such as, that God, in becoming a human being, allowed Himself as creator of the universe, the all-powerful one, to have the fragility of a baby so that as a newborn baby He couldn’t do anything for Himself. When I found myself totally paralysed from the neck down I very much sensed I was there like the babe of Christmas at that same time; as powerless as Him. And then in the weeks that followed, when I gradually recovered a little of my strength but was quite disabled for quite some time, we found ourselves almost straight after Christmas going into Lent, reflecting on God on the Cross again with his hands and feet completely disabled and in tremendous pain.
As I went through my time of disability and pain, again I had a very strong sense that Christ had been there, was there with me, and that it’s exactly His hands and feet which he would be showing to us after the Resurrection, now glorified. That’s what he showed the Apostles first and foremost: ‘have a look at my hands, have a look at my feet’, still with the tattoos of His ordinary human life, of the suffering He had been through, but now gloriously enjoying new life, eternal life, transfigured life. So I kept asking Him in my prayer to share at the Resurrection of His hands and His feet, and I keep asking Him that in my prayer, that the new life He experienced after the Cross, particularly in his extremities, those limbs that were nailed, that I might experience something of that Resurrection even now in this life.
How would you recommend for individuals who are suffering and those who are caring for those people to grow in the virtues of patience, hope and courage of which you spoke earlier?
Well, the first thing I did to try and grow in those virtues is say to myself, ‘I can’t pull myself up by my own shoelaces’ – in fact I couldn’t tie my shoelaces at that stage at all, and nearly six months later I still can’t tie my own shoelaces – ‘I need God’s help if I’m going to have more patience, and more courage, and more hope,’ so the first thing I said was, ‘Everybody who loves me, everybody who cares for me, please pray for that for me,’ as I was praying for that myself. I think these are supernatural gifts, first and foremost, as all the virtues are great graces when we find them within ourselves and realize ‘I’m not the why of that’, or ‘I’m not the whole of the why of that,’ I find in myself some reserves of character that I might never have guessed I had, or certainly didn’t do the work to get them.
I think then, like all virtues, we also have to practice them, and so there were times when my emotions, my physical feelings, my spiritual feelings at particular times might have inclined me to frustration, to anger, to impatience; to where I had to practice virtue, to resign myself to the fact that I will be weak for quite some time, and it will not help me or anyone else to rage against that. A certain contemplative acceptance of our lot is proper, I think, to the Christian soul. It doesn’t mean, again, that we’re masochists, or that we’re lazy and do nothing about improving our lot – I threw myself wholeheartedly into the physiotherapy, the four or five hours in the gym every day. So having a certain proper resignation to one’s lot is not the same as being lazy, or not doing your best to cooperate with grace, and with your own gifts and possibilities to make the situation better. But it does mean that in the meantime you can live, you can adopt a certain courageous, patient, hopeful acceptance of the situation, and even learn some things, even gain some things – harvest some fruit from that period, so that it’s not just gritting your teeth and bearing it, but that actually there are some positives, some gains along the way.
Editor’s Note: This is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Patrick Langrell. The full text may be found at: humanlifereview.com
Originally printed in IMPRINT Magazine Fall 2016.