Pieta (Michelangelo)Last year I took part in a conference organized by the Flemish Emmaüsforum. This forum is based in my hometown Aalst and I’m happy to be one of its members. The conference theme revolved around the way our identities and human self-understanding are shaped by “stories”. Hence the title of the conference, De Mens is zijn Verhaal – Man is His Story.

The aim of this meeting was to explore how human experiences receive meaning from age-old images, metaphors and story cycles, especially from the Christian tradition. We started from the observation that science cannot express the essence of an experience like grief, for instance. A merely scientific explanation of the origins of grief and the way it operates do not give you the experience itself. The age-old stories of mankind are a living rejection of scientism, allowing us to communicate, transmit and share the depths of the human condition.

We invited Nic Balthazar, a Belgian director whose movie Tot Altijd (Until Always) made use of several Christian themes to tell the story of Mario Verstraete. Mario Verstraete was suffering from MS and fought for a legislation of euthanasia in Belgium. In 2002, he was the first to make use of the new law on euthanasia.

Other speakers for the conference included Sylvain De Bleeckere (philosopher), Jens De Vleminck (philosopher) and Nikolaas Sintobin SJ.

I was reminded of some of the discussions during that meeting when I heard of a new proposal regarding the law on euthanasia in Belgium. The Guardian reported the news like this:

Baby Jesus and Mother MaryBelgium came a step closer to introducing the right to grant euthanasia for terminally ill children, breaking what is an almost universal taboo, when a parliamentary committee voted it through by a large majority.

The law, which still has to go to a vote of the full parliament that analysts say is likely to pass, would make Belgium the first country in the world to remove the age limit for the procedure.

Safeguards would exist, which include insisting parents approve their child’s decision to die. […] The Belgian law requires a psychologist to evaluate children’s ability to choose to die. Opponents have said it is impossible to determine whether a child is able to take such a decision. […] Belgium is already one of the world’s most liberal countries when it comes to euthanasia, making it available to adults who are not terminally ill.

I have to say that I believe this to be a very scary development in my country. I don’t want to judge. I just want to raise the question on whatever happened to our will to bear each other’s suffering. Adults who are not terminally ill, suffering – also merely psychologically – “in an unbearable way” can ask for euthanasia in Belgium. Can’t we, as a society and as individuals, do anything to prevent this desire for death? (Read more on this by clicking here).

Pieta (Jan Fabre)Pieta, the image of Christ held by his mother, is a powerful reminder of a motherly Love that desires life, even when everything seems lost and broken. Jan Fabre (born 1958) reinterpreted the famous Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo (1475-1564), calling his sculpture Merciful Dream. Maybe these images can help us to reimagine the tension between life and death, taking into account the horror of suffering as well as the miracle of love against all the odds. Maybe they can even inspire us to accept and be comforted by the caring hands of others when we feel lost… and broken.

To introduce the topic of the conference De Mens is zijn Verhaal I made a video with different interpretations of the Pieta, showing some fragments of the film Tot Altijd as well. Music is by Leonard Cohen, Come Healing (click the title for song lyrics). The image of the Mother and Child hopefully shows that we are not alone, and that others have walked similar paths before us…