It’s been a bad spring; not for weather, but for suicides. Warm restless winds have stirred both nature and the human spirit and for some it’s been more than they could handle. Most of us have been raised to think of suicide as the ultimate despair, the final and unforgivable sin. A true suicide could be this, but almost all actual suicides have little to do with sin and despair. We used to think that they had. Suicide, it was argued, was an act of despair, a refusal to hope, an irrevocable closing of oneself to forgiveness and new life. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, suicide is the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take an oath of loyalty to life. A person who commits suicide, he contended, defiles every flower for refusing to live for its sake.
Chesterton would be correct if people did in fact commit suicide out of despair. Normally, they don’t. Their propensity for suicide is, in most cases, a psychological illness, a terminal disease which is no more sinful or indicative of despair than are cancer, high blood pressure and heart attacks. We are creatures of body and soul – either can break down. Some die from physical cancer, high blood pressure or heart attacks. Others die from emotional cancer, emotional high blood pressure and emotional heart attacks. In both cases, the death is not freely chosen. In both cases, there is no despair. Normally too we see Judas’ death as the prototype of despair. Poor Judas! He betrayed Jesus and then was unable to accept forgiveness and so took a rope and hanged himself – and Jesus himself commented that it would be better for him if he had never been born. To Judas, we contrast Peter who also betrayed Jesus. Peter, however, was able to accept forgiveness. Unlike Judas who despaired, Peter went out, had a good cry, accepted Christ’s forgiveness and became the rock upon which the church was founded.
But such an interpretation, regardless of how deeply it is enshrined in Christian piety and popular tradition, is simplistic and, in the end, itself despairs of the compassion of God. First of all, Christ’s words that it would be better for Judas if he had never been born, were written by the apostles (who out of hurt pronounced their own very human judgement on Judas). More importantly, the dynamics involved in accepting forgiveness and love are far more tied up with how much unconditional love we have been given than they are with virtue and faith. If, when we are little children, those around us love us in such a way that we have a sense that we are lovable even when we make mistakes and if those around us give us the sense that love does not have to be earned or merited, then we will grow up to be persons who are able to accept forgiveness as Peter did.
Perhaps the difference between Peter and Judas was not so much that Peter loved Jesus more, but that Peter had come from a more loving home, that he had had a better mother, and that he had been given more unconditional love (as a free gift). Because of this he could accept forgiveness. Looked at humanly, Judas despaired and Peter didn’t. I doubt, however, that such an assessment is correct. If it were then love and eternal life would be only for the lucky and the strong. But God’s compassion and understanding is not so limited as is ours. One of the articles of our creed is that Christ descended into hell. Among other things, this teaches that, by dying as he did, Christ loves us in such an unconditional way that he can descend into our private hells. His love contains such empathy and compassion that it can penetrate all the barriers we construct out of hurt and fear and enter right into our despair and hopelessness. After the resurrection, we see Christ, time and again, going through “closed doors” to breathe the spirit of peace and love upon huddled, frightened and miserable disciples.
He still descends into hell, entering closed hearts, to breathe peace and love in places where there is huddling in fear and hurt. Our ability for compassion and empathy and unconditional love is limited. When we meet certain barriers, we are helpless and can go no further. But God’s compassion can go through closed doors and closed hearts. It descends into hell. Most suicide victims are trapped persons, caught up in a private emotional hell which is an illness and not a sin. Their suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man whose clothing has caught fire might throw himself through a window. They are not, on the other side, met by our human judgements, but by a heart, a companion, a love and a Mother whose understanding and tenderness is beyond our present imagination. She descends into their hell, holds them to her breast and breathes the spirit of peace and love over their fear and hurt. Then finally they experience that unconditional love and tensionless peace which eluded them during their lives on earth.