RonRolheiser,OMI

Suicide – Reclaiming the Memory of our Loved One

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Each year I write a column on suicide. Mostly I say the same thing over and over again, simply because it needs to be said. I don’t claim any originality or special insight, I only write about suicide because there is such a desperate need for anyone to address the question. Moreover, in my case, as a Catholic priest and spiritual writer, I feel it important to offer something to try to help dispel the false perception which so many people, not least many inside the church itself, have of the church’s understanding of suicide. Simply put, I’m no expert, not anyone’s savior, there’s just so little out there.

And, each year, that column finds its audience. I am constantly surprised and occasionally overwhelmed by the feedback. For the last ten years, I don’t think a single week has gone by when I did not receive an email, a letter, or phone call from someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.

When talking about suicide, at least to those who are left behind when a loved one succumbs to this, the same themes must be emphasized over and over again. As Margaret Atwood puts it, sometimes something needs to be said and said until it doesn’t need to be said anymore. What needs to be said over and over again about suicide? That, in most cases, suicide is a disease; that it takes people out of life against their will; that it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; that people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up for a myriad of reasons being too bruised to be touched; that those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, that given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.

This year, prompted by particularly moving book by Harvard psychiatrist, Nancy Rappaport, I would like to add another thing that needs to be said about suicide, namely, that it is incumbent on those of us who are left behind to work at redeeming the life and memory of a loved one who died by suicide. What’s implied in this?

There is still a huge stigma surrounding suicide. For many reasons, we find it hard both to understand suicide and to come to peace with it. Obituaries rarely name it, opting instead for a euphemism of some kind to name the cause of death. Moreover and more troubling, we, the ones left behind, tend to bury not only the one who dies by suicide but his or her memory as well. Pictures come off the walls, scrapbooks and photos are excised, and there is forever a discreet hush around the cause of their deaths. Ultimately neither their deaths nor their persons are genuinely dealt with. There is no healthy closure, only a certain closing of the book, a cold closing, one that leaves a lot of business unfinished. This is unfortunate, a form of denial. We must work at redeeming the life and memory of our loved ones who have died by suicide.

This is what Nancy Rappaport does with the life and memory of her own mother, who died by suicide when Nancy was still a child. ((In Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (Basic Book, N.Y., c2009) After her mother’s suicide, Nancy lived, as do so many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, with a haunting shadow surrounding her mother’s death.  And that shadow then colored everything else about her mother. It ricocheted backwards so as to have the suicide too much define her mother’s character, her integrity, and her love for those around her.  A suicide, that’s botched in our understanding, in effect, does that, it functions like the antithesis of a canonization.

With this as a background, Nancy Rappaport sets off to make sense of her mother’s suicide, to redeem her bond to her mother, and, in essence, to redeem her mother’s memory in the wake of her suicide.  Her effort mirrors that of novelist, Mary Gordon, whose book, Circling my Mother, attempts to come to grips with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her death. Gordon, like Rappaport, is too trying to put a proper face on the diminishment and death of a loved one, redeeming the memory both for herself and for others. The difference is that, for most people, suicide trumps Alzheimer’s in terms of stigma and loss.

Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide, and so there is something truly redemptive in properly coming to grips with this kind of stigma. We must do for our loved ones what Nancy Rappaport did for her mother, namely, redeem their lives and their memory.

A Visit from the Goddess of Night

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There are few more insightful studies into the spirituality of aging than the late James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character.  Ironically Hillman was more critical of Christian spirituality than sympathetic to it; yet his brilliant insights into nature’s design and intent offer perspectives on the spirituality of aging that often eclipse what is found in explicitly Christian writings.

Hillman begins this book, a discourse on the nature of aging, with a question: Why would nature design things so that, as humans, just as we reach the pinnacle of our maturity and finally get more of a genuine grip on our lives, our bodies begin to fall apart?  Why do we suffer such a bevy of physical ailments as we age? Is this a cruel trick or does nature have a specific intent in mind when it does this? What might nature have in mind when the ailments and physical foibles of age begin to play some havoc with our days and nights?

He answers these questions with a metaphor: The best wines have to be aged and mellowed in cracked old barrels. This image of course needs little explication. We all know the difference between a mellow old wine and a tart young one that could still use some maturation. What we don’t grasp as immediately is how that old wine became so mellow, what processes it had to endure to give up the sharp tang of its youth.

Thus, Hillman’s metaphor speaks brilliantly: Our physical bodies are the containers within which our souls mellow and mature; and our souls mellow and mature more deeply when our bodies begin to show cracks than they do when we are physically strong and whole, akin to what John Updike wrote after undergoing a death-threatening illness. For Updike, there are some secrets that are hidden from health. For Hillman there is a depth of maturity that is also hidden from health.

With that fundamental insight as his ground, Hillman then goes on in each chapter of the book to take up one aspect of aging, one aspect of the loss of the wholeness of our youth, and show how it is designed to help mellow and mature the soul. And since he is dealing with various lapses in our bodies and our health, we can expect that what follows will be pretty earthy and far from glamorous.

Thus, for instance, he begins one chapter with the question: Why does it happen that, as we age, we find it more difficult to sleep uninterrupted through the night but instead are awakened with the need to go to the bathroom and heed a call of nature? What is nature’s wisdom and intent in that?

Hillman answers with another insightful analogy: In monasteries, monks get up each night while it is still dark and do an exercise they call “Vigils”. If you asked them why they don’t do this prayer during the day so as to save themselves getting up in the middle of the night, they would tell you that this particular exercise can only be done at night, in the dark, in the particular mood that the night brings. The night, the dark, and the more somber angels this brings cannot be artificially replicated during the day, in the light. Light brings a sunnier mood and there are certain things we will not face in the light of day, but only when the dark besets us.

So what happens when our aging bodies make us get up at night to heed nature’s call? We heed nature’s call but then often are unable to fall back into sleep immediately. Instead we lie in our beds trying to will ourselves back to sleep when something unwanted and unintended happens. We receive a visit from the mythical goddess of night, Nyx. And she doesn’t come alone; she brings along her children: unresolved bitterness, lingering grudges, unwanted paranoia, frightening shadows, and a bevy of other dark spirits whom we can normally avoid and whom we refuse to face when the lights are on. But now, in the dark, unable to sleep, we must deal with them, and dealing with them, making our peace with Nyx and her children, helps mellow our souls and helps us grow to a deeper maturity.

Monks already know this and so, each night, they schedule a session with the goddess of night. They don’t call it that of course and might even be offended by the reference to their Vigil prayer as a visit with this mythical goddess, but their spiritual wisdom mirrors that of nature. Both nature and monks know that a certain work inside the soul can only be done in the darkness of night.

Monks have secrets worth knowing and nature eventually teaches them to us, whether we want the lesson or not. Nature eventually turns us all into monks: Our aging bodies eventually become a monastic cell within which our souls deepen, mellow, and mature, like wines being seasoned in cracked old barrels.

Disciples with many Faces

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In a new book entitled, Jesus of Nazareth, famed German scripture-scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, describes how people in the gospels relate to Jesus in different ways. Not everyone was an apostle, not everyone was a disciple, and not everyone who contributed to Jesus’ cause even followed him. Different individuals had their own way of connecting to Jesus. Here’s how he puts it:

“We may say that the gospels, especially Mark, are aware of a great variety of forms of participation in Jesus’ cause. There were the Twelve. There was a broader circle of disciples. There were those who participated in Jesus’ life. There were localized, resident adherents who made their houses available. There were people who helped in particular situations, if only by offering a cup of water. Finally, there were the beneficiaries who profited from Jesus’ cause and for that reason did not speak against it.”

Lohfink then makes this observation: “These structural lines that run through the gospels are not accidental. …  In today’s church, because it is a shapeless mass, we can find all these forms expressed.  It is a complex pattern, as complex as the human body. The openness of the gospels, the openness of Jesus must warn us against regarding people as lacking in faith if they are unable to adopt a disciple’s way of life or if it is something completely alien to them. In any event, Jesus never did.”  

If what Lohfink says is true, this has implications as to how we should understand the church, both as it is conceived in the abstract and how it is understood practically within our parish structures. Simply put, the similarity to Jesus’ time is obvious. When we look at church life today, especially as we see it lived out concretely within parishes, it is obvious that it is made up of much more than only the core, committed congregation, namely, those who participate regularly in church life and accept (at least for the main part) the dogmatic and moral teachings their churches. The church also contains a wide variety of the less-engaged: people who practice occasionally, people who accept some of its teachings, guests who visit our churches, people who don’t explicitly commit but are sympathetic to the church and offer it various kinds of support, and, not least, people who link themselves to God in more-privatized ways, those who are spiritual but not religious. As Lohfink points out, these people were already around Jesus and “they were not unimportant” to his mission.

But we must be careful in how we understand this. This does not mean that there are tiers within discipleship, where some are called to a higher holiness and others to a lower one, as if the full gospel applies only to some. There were some centuries in church history where Christian spirituality suffered from exactly this misunderstanding, where it was common to think that monks, nuns, contemplatives, priests, and other such people were called to live the full gospel while others were exempt from the more demanding of Jesus’ invitations. No such exemptions. The church may never be divided into the perfect and less perfect, the better and the half-baked, full-participation and partial-participation. The full gospel applies to everyone, as does Jesus’ invitation to intimacy with him. Jesus doesn’t call people according to more or less.  Christian discipleship doesn’t ideally admit of levels, notches, layers, and different tiers of participation … but something akin to this does forever happen, analogous to what happens in a love relationship. Each individual chooses how deep he or she will go and some go deeper than others, though ideally everyone is meant to go its full depth.

And, given human history and human freedom, this is not surprising. There will always be a great variation in both depth and participation. Each of us has his or her own history of being graced and wounded, formed and deformed, and so we all come to adulthood with very different capacities to see, understand, love, accept love, and give ourselves over to someone or something beyond us. None of us is whole and none of us is fully mature. All of us are limited in what we can do. Hence, religiously, nobody can be expected to respond to something that is completely outside of his or her sphere of possibility and so we will inevitably gather around Jesus in very different ways, depending upon our capacity to see and to give ourselves over. Jesus, it seemed, was okay with that.

In his view, there was no such a category as a Cafeteria-disciple or a Disciple-light.  There shouldn’t be such categories either in our understanding. We are all around Jesus in our different ways and we must be careful not to judge each other, given that Donatism and her adopted children are forever on the prowl.