Binding and Loosing


Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. These words of Jesus apply not just to those who are ordained to ministry and administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but to everyone inside the body of Christ. All of us have the power to bind and to loose.

What is this power? How do we bind and loose each other on earth in a way that engages heaven?

One part of this allows for some easier explanation. Here’s an example:  If you are a member of the Body of Christ and you forgive someone, Christ forgives that person and he or she is loosed from sin. Likewise, if you, as part of the Body of Christ, love someone and remain connected to him or her, that person is connected to the Body of Christ and through you (biblically) touches the hem of Christ’s garment, even if he or she is not explicitly confessing that. That is one of the incredible gifts given us in the incarnation.

But what about the reverse? Suppose I refuse to forgive someone who has wounded me in some way; suppose I hold grudges and refuse to let go of the wrong that another has done to me, am I binding that person in sin? Does God also refuse to forgive and let go because I refuse to forgive and let go? How does the Body of Christ work regarding the “binding” part of the power that Jesus gave us?

This is a difficult question, though a couple of preliminary distinctions can shed some light on the issue.

To begin with, the logic of grace – and grace, like love, has a logic  – only works one way. In grace, just as in love, you can be gifted beyond what you deserve, but the reverse is not true. The algebra of undeserved grace works only one way. Love can give you more than you deserve, but it cannot punish you more than you deserve. God gives us the power to set each other free, but not the same kind of power to keep each other in bondage.

Second, in this life, as C.S. Lewis used to say, hell can blackmail heaven, but this is not true in the other realm. Thus, while we can hold each other captive, psychologically, and emotionally, on this side, God does not ratify those actions.

When we bind each other here in this world by refusing to forgive each other, that refusal does not bind God to do likewise. Put more simply, when I hold a grudge against someone who has wronged me, keeping him constantly aware that he has done wrong, I am keeping that person tied to their sin – but God isn’t endorsing this. Heaven will not go along with my emotional blackmail.

These distinctions though provide only an ambience for an understanding of this. What does it mean to bind a person?

The Christian power to bind and loose is the power to bind and loose in conscience, in truth, in goodness, and in love. When I refuse to forgive another, when I hold a grudge, I am acting not as the Body of Christ, nor as an agent of grace, but precisely as part of the very chain of sin and helplessness that Christ was trying to break. When I act this way, it is I who need to be loosed from sin since I am acting contrary to grace. My non-forgiveness may well bind another person emotionally, keeping her bound in that way to her sin, but it is the very antithesis of the power that Christ gave us.

Biblically, we bind each other when, in love, we refuse to compromise truth and when we refuse to give each other permission to take false liberties and make bad choices. Thus, for example, parents bind their children when they, lovingly but clearly, refuse to give them permission to ignore Christ’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. We bind a friend when we refuse to give him our approval to cheat in his business in order to make more money. A friend binds you when she refuses to bless your moral compromises.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, we see Henry VIII literally beg Thomas More to bless his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry appeals to their friendship, appeals to their shared humanity, and tries to morally bully Thomas by telling him that his refusal to approve is timidity and arrogance. Yet Thomas refuses to approve. He binds Henry in conscience and Henry knows he is bound. In the end, he kills Thomas for his refusal to compromise and give permission, to (biblically) loose him.

Ever since God took on concrete human flesh, grace has a visible human dimension. Heaven is watching earth – and is letting itself be helped by the best of what we do down here, but not bound by the worst of what we do down here.

Losing a Loved One to Suicide


New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote an article about a lifelong friend who died by suicide. In describing his friend and his descent into a suicidal illness, Brooks sheds some needed light on how we still have a long way to go in our understanding of suicide. (New York Times, February 9, 2023)

His friend, Peter, seemed a most unlikely candidate to die by suicide. He had a wonderful marriage, two loving sons, a warm circle of friends, and a fulfilling career as a doctor within which he took a lot of satisfaction in helping others. He was also physically healthy, active and athletic. Yet, at point, he began sink into a crushing depression before which all the love in the world stood helpless. Eventually, he took his own life.

What Brooks highlights in documenting his friend’s journey should be required reading for everyone. What does he highlight?

First, that in most cases, suicide is an illness. People don’t choose to sink into this kind of depression any more than people choose to have cancer, diabetes, or a heart condition. They are hitwith an illness, and they cannot will themselves out of it any more than someone with a major physical illness can cure himself or herself through simple willpower and attitude. You don’t just will your way out of a suicidal depression. Moreover, suicidal depression is not something that any of us, as outsiders, really understand.

Second, the depression is horrible, the ultimate nightmare. Note how William Styron describes his own depression in his memoir, Darkness Visible, “I experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can only describe as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible.” Then, the suffering is compounded by the fact that part of the anatomy of the disease (most times) is that the person undergoing it finds it impossible to articulate what the pain exactly consists of. Hence, they are alone inside it, unanimity-minus-one, and with that aloneness comes the overpowering feeling that one is doing a favor to family and friends by removing oneself through suicide.

Moreover, in the face of suicidal depression, medicine and psychiatry can be helpful but they are limited in effectively treating this kind of depression.

What should we do when we are dealing with someone who is undergoing this kind of paralyzing depression? In trying to answer that, it can be helpful to start with the via negativa – what shouldn’t we do?

Brooks shares some of his sincere, but ultimately misguided, efforts to reach his friend. For example, he reminded Peter of all the wonderful blessings he enjoyed and how blessed his life was. Later he realized that “this might make sufferers feel even worse about themselves for not being able to enjoy all the things that are palpably enjoyable.” As well, we should not ask the person if he is thinking of hurting himself. The person is already hurting so badly that everything inside of him wants only to stop the pain, and suicide is perceived as the only means of doing that.

What should we do? Brooks is clear: “The experts say if you know someone who is depressed, it’s OK to ask explicitly about suicide. The experts emphasize that you’re not going to be putting the thought into the person’s head. Very often, it’s already on her or his mind. And if it is, the person should be getting professional help.” Experts also agree that we should take the risk and ask the person openly if he or she is thinking of suicide. If the person isn’t thinking about suicide, he or she will forgive you for asking; but if he or she is thinking of suicide and you are too timid to ask, your timidity might stand in the way of saving that person’s life. 

Brooks points out that despite all the work that has been done in medicine and psychology in recent years, suicide rates today are 30 percent higher than they were even twenty years ago and one in five American adults experiences mental illness.

My own life has been much affected by suicide, the suicide of relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, classmates, former students, and trusted mentors. In my experience, in every one of these deaths, the person who died was a good, honest, gentle, sensitive, and over-sensitive soul who, at a point in his or her life, was too bruised, too full of pain, and too overpowered by illness to continue to live. Each of these deaths also left behind a tragic sadness that was massively compounded by our lack of understanding of what really caused this person’s death.

In his assessment of his friend’s suicide, Brooks says that in the end “the beast was bigger than Pete; it was bigger than us.” It still is. Simply put, we are still a long way from understanding mental health and its fragility.

Waiting for the Angel to Come


The night before he died, Jesus struggled mightily to accept his Father’s will. The Gospels describe him in the Garden of Gethsemane, prostrate on the ground, “sweating blood”, and begging his Father to save him from the brutal death that awaited him. Then, after he finally surrenders his will to his Father, an angel comes and strengthens him.

This begs a question: where was the angel when, seemingly, he most needed it? Why didn’t the angel come earlier to strengthen him?

Two stories, I believe, can be helpful in answering this.

The first comes from Martin Luther King Jr. In the days leading up to his assassination, he met angry resistance and began to receive death threats. He was courageous, but he was also human. At a point, those threats got to him. Here is one of his diary entries.

“One night towards the end of January, I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nig.., we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached a saturation point.

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.

In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.

‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  Now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before.” (Strive Toward Freedom)

Notice at what point in his struggle the angel appears.

In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy shares this story. As a young woman, along with the man she loved, she had been somewhat militant in her unbelief. Indeed, their reluctance to enter the institution of marriage was meant as a statement of their non-acceptance of traditional Christian values. Then she conceived a child and its birth was the beginning of a radical conversion for her. The joy she felt holding her baby convinced her that there was a God and that life had a loving purpose. She became a Roman Catholic, much to the chagrin of the man she loved, the father of her child: he gave her an ultimatum: if you have this child baptized, our relationship is ended. She had the child baptized and lost that relationship (though they continued as friends). However, she now found herself a single mother with no job and no real vision or plan as to where to go now in life.

At one point, she became desperate. She left the child in the care of others and took a train from New York City to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In her autobiography,she describes how she prayed that day, how desperate her prayer was. Like Jesus in Gethsemane and Martin Luther King in Montgomery, her prayer was one of raw need and helplessness, of an admission that she no longer had the strength to go on. Essentially, she said this to God: I have given up everything for you and now I am alone and afraid. I don’t know what to do and am lacking strength to carry on in this commitment.

She prayed this prayer of helplessness, took the train back to New York, and not long after found Peter Maurin sitting on her doorstep, telling her that he had heard about her and that he had a vision of what she should now do, namely, to start the Catholic Worker. That set the path for the rest of her life. The angel had come and strengthened her.

Notice at what point in these stories the angel makes its appearance – when human strength is fully exhausted. Why not earlier? Because up to the point of exhaustion, we don’t really let the angel in, relying instead on our own strength. But, as Trevor Herriot says, “Only after we have let the desert do its full work in us will angels finally come and minister to us.”