Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

13 August 2014

On Suicide and Surrounding Sicknesses: Further Reflections

After completing my previous post in memory of Robin Williams, I took to the webs and read even more on the subject of suicide and mental illness.

There is some worthy debate out there, of a more-than-merely-semantic nature, about the use of the term "selfish" in reference to suicide. First I encountered The Matt Walsh Blog, and later a contrary-minded piece by Dean Burnett from The Guardian. 

I don't want to be overly concerned about the disputations. "Take what you like, and leave the rest" is another one of those clever sayings I've heard over the years. Denizens of the blogosphere survive because of it. 

I summarize my takeaway from Walsh's offering from an excerpt of a tweet he included in the article: "It's not just clinical, it's spiritual." If by "not just" he means "but also," even "but primarily," it is acceptable. The soul is that which gives life to the body; the two are tailor-made for each other, and the soul is directly infused by the Author of Life, who cooperates with our parents in the sacred moment of our conception. I don't altogether dismiss his contention, but it requires some nuancing.

Concerning the central theme expressed in the article's title (Williams' "choice" of suicide): I do not judge the voluntariness of any particular suicide, as I state above. Nor can any man or woman fully plumb the darkness that impinges upon a profoundly depressed individual. In support of this, read Shaun McAfee's post, born of understanding and experience.

The claim that depression is a spiritual malady need not imply that "praying harder" or "thinking happier thoughts" or any merely human effort should do the trick, or that failing to do any of these things is defying or discounting God. Human persons suffer a profound deficit--a wound--in our nature, courtesy of original sin and compounded by personal sins. The wound manifests variously, but especially in the many forms of mental illness.

Burnett's article reinforces for me the reality that mental illness does not discriminate, and it disables the use of standard logic in those who suffer it. 

Warning of the supposed selfishness (or, if you will, "sinfulness") of suicide is not an adequate deterrent, instead providing further reinforcement of a negative self-image and assurance of others' (projected) ill feelings toward them. 

How exactly, I wonder, does one deter suicide, or alleviate depression? If depression is, as we often hear, "the common cold of mental illness," what's the prophylactic protocol? Upon hearing the first sneeze, is it time to say "God bless you" and start making funeral arrangements? "I speak like a foolish person" (2 Cor 11:21). Measures include prevention hotlines, therapy, medicine, personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness, and all the rest. 

The Sacraments, above all, have a healing effect on those who strive to partake of them with a pure heart. As I and others have noted, the attainment or maintenance of good feeling is not the aim of religion, and not even of spirituality (as if the twain never meet!); but Jesus did come "so that you
might have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10)!

But let's return to "personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness": that is the key!


'How are you,' he lied.

"How are you?" Pesky question, that. Blessed are they who respond courageously and honestly. Blessed, too, are they who care when they ask, and listen reverently to the response and all its undertow. It makes a difference, believe me.

Nobody has directly demanded a retraction of my use of the word "selfish," as people are focusing instead on blogs that garner appreciable traffic. I don't believe it's necessary, as my previous post did qualify it with the appropriate Church teaching on the factors that compromise freedom and understanding. 

In that brand of neurosis that normally calls for "podiatric dentistry," I will nevertheless shade my story by suggesting that suicide starts in a self-centered frame of mind. In his article Burnett speculates about people who take their own lives as a courtesy to those who, in their minds, couldn't care less, or more kindly, about them: an interior booby trap! Mental illnesses, like their corporeal counterparts, have a way of turning people in on themselves, their fearful projections of abandonment. When something--anything--is not right in me, I don't seem to care quite as much about others' problems, large or small.

Now self-concern can be a very good thing. When a life preserver surfaces, the drowning person will and should grasp for it. But there also remains the risk of self-pity and contempt for God, the "One with the infinite power" who does not seem to be too eager to remove this stumbling-block to belief in His omnipotence and goodness. God's silence in the face of physical and moral evil is the greatest scandal, likely underlying more of the New Atheism than New Atheists probably care to recognize.

To return to the first article of note, a spiritual solution is indicated. It is systemic in scope, and ultimately addresses what Pope Saint John Paul II called "the culture of death." Now I don't hold up Robin Williams or any other suicide victim as a billy club for the "culture war." Rather, every opportunity to affirm the value of our own existence, from generous parenthood to living wages to respect for the elderly to attentive listening to you-name-it: it's all the spiritual solution!

+ + + + +

Now my keener readers may have noted (though none openly) that my "In Memoriam" piece on Robin Williams failed to include a single recollection of the man--his generosity, sensitivity, faith, energy, or talent.

Comics appeal to the incongruous, the absurd. Prophet-like, they point out to us where things don't match up when they should. They don't so much predict the future but disclose and decry the peculiarities of the present. We laugh at comedians, because somewhere their truth resonates within us, especially when that truth contains a hint of tragedy.

Yes, I watched a number of episodes of "Mork and Mindy" (1978-82) when I was a kid. I enjoyed "Moscow on the Hudson," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dead Poets' Society," and a few other Williams films. But one more recent discovery has seized my interest, courtesy of another Burnett: Carol. Her show's 11-year run concluded in my toddlerhood (1978), paving Williams' way for "Mork" and subsequent gems.

Thanks to YouTube, millions get to enjoy the lunacy (pardon the use of the word in this context) of the stars and skits. Here is one of my favorites, the Funeral sketch. Poking fun at our contemporary sterilization of mourning, Robin teaches Carol how to "keen":

12 August 2014

Rage Against The Dying of the Light (In Memoriam, Robin Williams)

So Robin Williams committed suicide. Cue the flood of tributes, laments, reposts of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), how "cunning, baffling, and powerful" (to steal a phrase) depression can be, how it tends to infest comic souls* and how particularly insidious depression can be when substance abuse accompanies it.

I am not for an instant maligning this response. Renewals of human solidarity usually take a tragedy to happen, but not always. The Internet is laced with incidents promoting carefulness, courtesy, and compassion "between the acts." And we'll always be "between the acts" (of suicide), for "the poor you will have with [and within] you always" (Mt 26:11).

Persons suffering from depression, substance abuse, and suicide temptations can be helped, but many well-intentioned attempts end up reinforcing it. Helping seems a delicate art, but not impossible and certainly not "for professionals only," because it's the amateurs--literally, those who love--who are the "first responders" in emotional crises.

Among my initial reactions to news like yesterday's is frustration and irritation. "Robin Williams! Well, that sucks! What a waste of talent, generosity, and energy! What'd he do that for? Couldn't anyone have tried to stop him?" As an adult, in the minds of his loved ones he might not have merited round-the-clock supervision; perhaps by that point he had a sense of calmness about arriving at his solution.

I don't know...and that's just it.

If we knew, that knowledge still wouldn't control the situation, now that it--he--has passed. Suicide understandably prompts guilt over the very fact that we "didn't know," or perhaps may have denied, the extent of the person's problems.

We may also be angry--at depression made flesh, at the suicide victim for seeming selfish..for being him/herself in that mysterious state, which is already very much given over to silence, to brooding, to isolation and alienation, and their attendant pain, so that suicide appears the only available option, the last, best prescription for pain relief. 

Objectively speaking, the taking of one's own life is a selfish act, contradictory to "the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life...gravely contrary to [the just love of self, of neighbor, and of God]" (Catechism, 2281). It is one of many ways people deny and defy the goodness of their own existence and its Creator.

However, given the numerous factors that inhibit the full use of one's intellect and will, compromising the full exercise of understanding and freedom, we have every reason to entrust tortured souls to the Divine Mercy that exceeds the limits we conceive (CCC, 2282-83).

But we still should "rage, rage against the dying of the light" (as John Keating, Williams' character in Dead Poets Society, might exhort). Our rage may take many forms: prayer, sharing links to helpful articles on depression and suicide prevention, keeping your eyes, ears, and heart open to the people around you each day--which may present you the opportunity either to extend compassion to someone who suffers, or to disclose your own hurts to someone who cares.

*Language alert ("Cracked," remember.)

10 August 2014

Dire Straits?

In anticipation of the weekend’s readings, I read an article that treated a matter of personal and ecclesial concern. The people of the Coal Region once were known for, among other things, their deep identification with the Catholic faith. What happened to that?

The current religious and spiritual landscape is becoming increasingly arid. When I visit the hospital, I receive a roster of patients grouped according to parish membership. The largest classification is “Unaffiliated." It contains people of all ages. I sometimes feel like I’m trying to sell something to them

More to the point, I feel like Saint Paul as he lamented all the graces that his own people were failing to appreciate. Maybe his manner of expression was dramatic, maybe it was sincere; but he said he’d be happier losing his own relationship with the Lord if it meant that people could gain theirs.

So as to redirect my pessimistic tendencies, I found a more accurate way to express myself in the article I read: We can no longer count on the secure transmission of the faith from parents to children within the larger context of fervent families and parishes. 

For good or ill, people had a better chance of becoming and staying Catholic if they were of a traditionally Catholic ethnic background (e.g., Polish, Lithuanian, Italian). Cultural expressions and family traditions conveyed the faith as perfect supplements to sound Catholic schools and CCD programs. Of course, knowledge alone doesn't purvey genuine faith: one can get into even heady theological discussions where God is best incidental and at worst a bludgeoning tool.

On one hand, then, a person can have absolutely no experience with a community where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived; on the other hand, one can learn everything about God, pay strict attention to rubrics, and do the right thing, but never come to know God personally. Neither scenario is ideal. What is? 

As a universal Church, as a diocese, as a parish, as families, and as individuals, we need to become the place where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived, and all this propelled by a vibrant communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with Mary and with all the saints and angels. If heaven and earth do not start to come together in us, here and now, we will never raise a generation who really cares about either.

In order to cultivate a real and living relationship with God, the first requirement is the ability and willingness to be silent. Face it: it’s not easy to be silent for long enough, like Elijah, to hear the “tiny whispering sound” of God. Our minds better resemble the storm-tossed boat in which the distraught disciples suddenly found faith. 

(By the way, “distraught” comes from an old adjective “distract,” which was an archaic past participle of “stretch.” You might say Peter and the other disciples, and every disciple since, has had to be stretched in order for faith to grow.)

The proliferation of sin prompts doubt about our worthiness of God. "I suffer from this or that failing. I rationalize my bad actions. I fear I may die without friends. My heart's desires will remain unfulfilled. Life has not dealt me a good hand. Untreated resentments about people and things in my past stew within me. I am distracted in every imaginable direction. I am beset by paralyzing fears, selfish attachments, and wayward drives. I’m a mess!”


Can we become honest enough with God and other people, to let them in? Are we that honest with ourselves? By His own admission, the Lord Jesus is the perfect audience, the perfect companion for messes like us: like our families, our communities, our workplaces and schools and world. It has to start with us. We have to let us into us so we will let Him into us, and then let Him move through us.

And fortunately, in establishing a personal relationship with us, Jesus “jumps the gun,” precisely by giving us the Eucharist, His own Body and Blood. He inserts the Mass into our mess, so we can take our mess to the Mass. The communal relationship of Holy Communion facilitates the personal relationship that the Catholic faith needs to flourish in our land.

03 August 2014

Plaque Buildup

Readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

I am fond of browsing in collectibles stores, thrift stores, and rummage sales. As the author of Deutero-Sirach may or may not have said, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." One never knows what will turn up, and what value, sentimental or otherwise, may resonate with the seeker. A few months ago I bought a reproduction of a painting of Christ healing a sick child in the arms of her mother. In light of my new ministry, this painting has merited some meditation time.

Recently (I won't say where) I came across two used baptismal candles. What does that say about their former owners' attitude towards Baptism? For all I know, however, those persons might have died and their families thought that the new generation might profit from the candles--even though I don't know of a parish that doesn't spring for their new parishioners' baptismal candles! I "had" to buy them, lest they go to profane use.

Some years ago a small wooden plaque caught my eye. Beneath the standard Olan Mills Protestant portrait of Our Lord was the saying:
Only one life--'Twill soon be past, 
Only what's done for Christ will last.
See what I mean with Jesus?
After years of buying this and that, I've started to clean house for things I can throw away, give away, or maybe maybe use. At first, it went in the give-away pile; but the events of late Saturday morning impressed me with the significance of the plaque, perhaps convincing me to keep it a bit longer.

I was paged to attend to a dying woman in the Emergency Room (I can't say who, or which ER). It was evident that she wasn't long for this world.

A favorite quote, from this weekend's first reading, came to mind:
Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Put another way,
Only one life--'Twill soon be past, 
Only what's done for Christ will last.
In anticipation of His Eucharistic Gift of Self, Jesus secured miraculous bread for the hungry crowd. It wasn't likely anyone's last meal, and certainly not Our Lord's. Could this ailing woman have pulled through? Only God knows, and He ain't sayin'! But one of the hospital Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion reminded me on Friday that we don't know when we'll be called home to the Lord. His own wife was a case in point!

Rather than paralyze us with fear, this thought should energize us for each day's bread of prayer and service. As He did with the bread on the mountain and with the heavenly Bread at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us, making of us more than we ever could have imagined, if we wish Him to do so.

Whatever we choose to do in a day, whatever we are forced to suffer--if we choose or accept it for love of Christ, He will make of it a bread that does not fail to satisfy. With our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings, we can nourish untold thousands!