From the beginning of time, the Father of Lies has striven to twist goodness to his own purposes. To him, there is nothing sacrosanct—as one can see in the Gospels, he uses even Sacred Scripture in his efforts to tempt Christ. What unending frustration must he suffer, knowing that God always manages to bring good even out of evil. But frustration and failure do not prevent the Devil from continuing to manipulate even the most beautiful and good things in this life, so that happiness may be obscured, eyes and ears closed to the truth. Take, for example, one of the most inspiring and beautiful movies of recent years, Of Gods and Men. It is both a magnificent work of art and a call to total trust in God. Clearly evil cannot stand by and allow such good art to inspire magnanimity or to pique a soul’s interest in holiness. And so it has attempted to distort the beautiful message of the film by including a twist interpretation of it to feature prominently in the new film Me Before You. Many have already voiced objections to the weepy romantic drama on account of its attractively packaged pro-euthanasia message, but that is not the film’s only deceit.
In brief, Me Before You tells the story of a young woman, Louisa, who becomes the care-giver for a wealthy young man, Will. Though once successful and active, Will suffered an accident two years earlier and is now a depressed quadriplegic. Their relationship becomes romantic, only to end with (SPOILER ALERT) Will following through on his long-time plan to kill himself at Dignitas, an “assisted dying association.” Less apparent than the film’s campaigning for assisted suicide, but no less insidious, is its distortion of 2010 French drama, Of Gods and Men. Toward the beginning of Louisa’s time as care-giver, she reluctantly joins Will in watching the subtitled masterpiece, which tells the true story of Trappist monks martyred in Algeria in the 90s. Will appreciates the deaths of the holy men, but in an utterly perverse manner. Because the monks had several opportunities to escape probable martyrdom, but instead chose to stay and risk their lives, Will uses them to justify his suicidal decision, thereby identifying euthanasia with martyrdom. Me Before You director Thea Sharrock considers the martyrdoms “an obvious parallel” to Will’s assisted suicide. In truth, the two manners of death are essentially opposed to one another.
The monks in Algeria, depicted masterfully in Of Gods and Men, offer a complex study on the nature of martyrdom. For years, the men of God led peaceful lives, tending to their monastery, praying faithfully, and serving the quiet mostly-Muslim village nearby. After civil war breaks out, and radical Islam begins to sweep violently through the nearby countryside, villagers and politicians alike beg the monks to think of their own safety and either flee their monastery or accept protection. Even some of the monks believe at first that fleeing would be best. However, the monastery’s prior, Christian, encourages his fellow monks to pray and to open their hearts to the possibility of staying—even to their deaths. Each monk wrestles with his own demons; but, through deep prayer, and especially their common prayers and liturgy, the monastery finally comes to a unanimous conclusion that God wishes them to stay among the people they serve. As one of the monks says, “We are in a high-risk situation, but we persist in our faith and our confidence in God. It is through poverty, failure, and death that we advance toward him.” And so they remain, as witnesses to the joy of the Gospel of Christ, and as faithful, compassionate servants of the people. Almost all of the monks eventually face martyrdom at the hands of Islamic terrorists.
Unlike many martyrs, the monks had ample opportunities to escape their deaths without compromising their faith. However their choice to remain at the monastery completely harmonizes with the Catholic notion of martyrdom. According the Catechism of the Catholic Church, martyrdom is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.” It is a total surrender of one’s desires, period, but especially the desire for self-preservation, in order that the message of the Gospel be given paramount importance. A martyr offers himself, and unites his will completely to the Lord’s will, accepting whatever suffering comes, in order that God be glorified and His name proclaimed to all ends of the earth.
Contrary to Will’s interpretation, the monks never sought death for its own sake, though they knew it to be their likely end. The prior of the monastery even clarifies, “We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtakes us, despite ourselves—because up to the end, we’ll try to avoid it—our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.” Death for the monks was no escape from suffering, but simply the path by which God called them to Himself. Nor do they make an evil choice, simply hoping for a good result—which would be an ends-justifies-the-means scenario. But rather, understanding the danger, they choose to remain at their monastery. Ultimately, the monks’ deaths inspire hope in eternal life—that it is worth dying for—and an absolute trust in God’s ability to bring good out of suffering.
Unlike the monks’ total and heroic surrender to God’s will, Me Before You advocates for the supremacy of the human will, by usurping God’s sovereign authority over life and death. In the Catechism’s section on suicide, the Church articulates, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.” Will freely chooses assisted suicide, in a manner both purposeful and well-thought out. In doing so, Will wrests to himself the power over his life and death, evidencing the belief both that God has failed him, and that he knows better than God what is good. Profound and selfish pride, as well as deep despair, move Will to choose death for its own sake, as a calculated escape from suffering. The movie shrouds Will’s choice with brave and bold disguises—“I can’t be the kind of man who just…accepts,” he says—as if the strong man runs away from his cross like a coward, rather than facing it square on. He refuses to see that God can bring good out of such suffering—such as bringing Louisa into his life. As noted in The Guardian, “Accompanying Will to a glitzy wedding, Lou puts it to him that he would not even be talking to her were she not his carer. In fact, she would most likely be serving the drinks at such a function. A working-class woman like her would be as invisible socially to him and his friends as the disabled are to the rest of society.” Sometimes God’s greatest gifts come masked in suffering, but by turning one’s back finally on God’s gift of life, one closes the door forever to possible happiness. There may be something you will only learn about God through suffering, and by running away, you will never know the joy He intended for you.
Another manner in which Will’s choice to die “with dignity” differs drastically from the Trappist martyrs is in its utter lack of charity. Escape from suffering through suicide focuses solely on self, leaving others to mourn, and perhaps carry out tasks left undone. As clarified perfectly in the Catechism, “It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.” Will considers only his own suffering—not that of his parents, not that of Louisa. In contrast, the monks in Algeria consider first God’s will for them, and secondly, how they are called to serve their neighbors. Love for God and love for neighbor primarily move their decision, definitely not selfishness.
Ultimately, featuring Of Gods and Men in Me Before You provides not a parallel, as director Thea Sharrock thought, but a jarring irony. Will watches the movie, but totally misses the point. He ought to have taken from it an inspiration to trust in God’s abiding love, no matter what suffering he faced. For, while the martyrs witness abandonment of self in a complete trust in God, Will’s choice to die “with dignity” seizes God’s authority over death and idealizes despair—a profound mistrust in God’s absolute power to bring good out of suffering. The stark contrast harkens to St. Augustine’s City of God, in which men of the heavenly city love God even to the contempt of self, while men of the earthly city love self to the contempt of God.
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