RonRolheiser,OMI

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Death

Raissa Maritain, the philosopher and spiritual writer, died some months after suffering a stroke. During those months she lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. After her death, her husband, the renowned philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in preparing her journals for publication, wrote these words:

“At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which as followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. And subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words. In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humor, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvelous smile and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes. To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with what astonishing silent generosity during her last two days, when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed.”  

The emphasis on the last sentence is my own and I highlight it because, I believe, it has something important to say in an age where, more and more, we are coming to believe that euthanasia and various forms of physician-assisted suicide are the humane and compassionate answer to terminal illness.

The case for euthanasia generally revolves around these premises: Suffering devalues human life and euthanasia alleviates that suffering and the ravages of the body and mind that come with that suffering so as to provide a terminally ill person “death with dignity” and death with less suffering. As well, it is argued, that once an illness has so debilitated a person so as to leave him or her in a virtual vegetative state, what is the logic for keeping such a person alive? Once dignity and usefulness are gone, why continue to live?

What’s to be said in response to this? The logic for euthanasia, compassionate in so far as it goes, doesn’t go far enough to consider a number of deeper issues. Dignity and usefulness are huge terms with more dimensions than first meet the eye. In a recent article in AMERICA magazine, Jessica Keating highlights some of those deeper issues as she argues against the logic of those who have lauded Brittany Maynard’s (the young woman who captured national attention last year by choosing assisted suicide in the face of a terminal illness) decision to take her own life as “courageous”, “sensible”, and “admirable”. Keating concedes that, had she not made that decision, Maynard would no doubt have suffered greatly and would in all likelihood eventually been rendered unproductive and unattractive.  But, Keating argues, “she would have been present in a web of relationships. Even if she had fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end.”

That’s half the argument against euthanasia. The other half reads this way: Not only would she have been loved to the end, but, perhaps more importantly, she would have been actively emitting love until the end. From her ravaged, silent, mostly-unconscious body would have emanated an intangible, but particularly powerful, nurture and love, akin to the powerful life-giving grace that emanated from Jesus broken, naked body on the cross.

We too seldom make this important distinction: We believe that Jesus saved us through his life and through his death, as if these were the same thing. But they are very different: Jesus gave his life for us through his activity, his usefulness, through what he could actively do for us. But he gave his death for us through his passivity, through his helplessness, through the humiliation of his body in death. Jesus gave us his greatest gift precisely during those hours when he couldn’t do anything active for us.

And this isn’t something simply metaphorical and intangible.  Anyone of us who have sat at the bedside of a dying loved one have experienced that in that person’s helplessness and pain he or she is giving us something that he or she couldn’t give us during his or her active life. From that person’s helplessness and pain emanates a power to draw us together as family, a power to intuit and understand deeper things, a deeper appreciation of life, and especially a much deeper recognition of that person’s life and spirit. And this, impalpable gift, as Maritain says, emanates from the mystery of pain, non-utility, and dying in which he or she is enclosed.

In our dying bodies we can give our loved ones something we cannot fully give them when we are healthy and active. Euthanasia is partially blind to the mystery of how love is given. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Top Ten Books for 2014

The pressures of work and ministry, unfortunately, limit the time I have available to read as widely as I would like. Still, addicted as I am to books and knowing that without the insight and stimulation that I draw from them I would forever stagnate spiritually and creatively, I scrupulously carve out some time most days to read. As well, given my ministry and personality, I like to read various genres of books: novels, biography, critical essays, and, not least, books on scripture, theology, and spirituality.

Here’s my bias apposite reading: In my freshman year at University, I was introduced to good novels. I realized then how impoverished I’d been without good literature in my life.  Since that time, more than 40 years ago, I’ve never been without a novel lying open somewhere within my reach. Good novelists often have insights that psychologists and spiritual writers can only envy, firing the imagination and the emotional intelligence in a way that academic books often cannot. As well, always lying open somewhere within reach too will be a good biography or a book of essays. These serve to stretch my horizons, as these perennially constrict both my imagination and my heart. Finally, there are theological and spirituality books which, given both my temperament and my vocation, I read with passion, but which also serve as a source of professional development for me.

So given these particular appetites, what are the best ten books that I read in 2014?

Among novels, I particularly recommend these four:

  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. This isn’t just one of the top books that I read this past year, it is, making an exception for the great classics of English literature, for me, one of the best novels that I’ve ever read. This is simply a great book; not quite the Diary of Anne Frank, but a story which moves the heart in a similar fashion.
  • Marilynne Robinson, Lila Robinson picks up some of her characters from Gilead, inserts a lost, young woman named Lila and, through her voice, gives us a near poetry of loneliness and faith. Aside from her emotional depth and perfect prose, Robinson also offers an apologia for the compassion and mercy of God that can help make faith more credible to many of its skeptics today.
  • Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. This is a powerful historical novel about both the evil of slavery and of sexism. Mirroring the Christian story of redemption, good ultimately triumphs, but not before someone has to sweat some blood in martyrdom.  Sue Monk Kidd is always worth reading, but this book stands out, even for a novelist of her caliber.
  • Jhumpa Lahire, The LowlandLike many of Lahire’s novels this story also sets itself within the particular trials of emigrating from India to America, but the flashlight that it shines into human relationships helps lay bare some very universal struggles.

Among biographical essays, two books stood out for me this past year.

  • Trevor Herriot, The Road is How, A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul. The flow of the book follows its title. Herriot does a walking pilgrimage across part of Saskatchewan’s prairies, a land roamed for centuries by the buffalo, and lets nature and desire speak to his soul. The result is a remarkable chronicle, a deeply moral book about nature, human nature, sexuality, faith, and desire.
  • Nancy RappaportIn Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide. In this book, Nancy Rappaport does what all of us should do if we have lost a loved one to suicide, namely, work through that person’s story and find the threads to cleanse and redeem his or her memory.

Among theological and spirituality books, I recommend:

  • James MartinA Pilgrimage. This is Jim Martin at his best, offering a good, balanced, healthy Christology, presented in a reader-friendly way. Scholarship accessible to everyone.
  • Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the DarkShe made the cover of TIME magazine for this book, deservedly. Taylor offers an insight into the dark night of the soul for those who can’t, or won’t, read more technical theological literature.
  • Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, What He Wanted, Who He Was. This is more of a scholarly book, though still pretty accessible to the non-professional. It combines solid scholarship, creative insight, good balance, and committed Christian faith.
  • Christian Salenson, Christian de Cherge, A Theology of HopeChristian de Cherge was the Abbott of the community of Trappist monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996. This book collects his key writings, particularly as they pertain to the question of the relationship of Christianity to other religions, especially to Islam. Faith, it is said, is built upon the blood of martyrs. Future interreligious dialogue can be built on both the blood and the writings of this martyr. An exceptional book, though hardly surprising, given the exceptional faith and character of Christian de Cherge.

May many good books find you in 2015.

 

Suicide – Reclaiming the Memory of our Loved One

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.

Dying into Safe Hands

It’s hard to say something consoling in the face of death, even when the person who died lived a full life and died in the best of circumstances. It’s especially hard when the one who’s died is a young person, still in need of nurturing and care in this life, and when that young person dies in less-than-ideal circumstances.

As a priest, I have, a number of times, had to preside at the funeral of someone who died young, either as the result of illness, accident, or suicide. Such a funeral is always doubly sad. I remember one such funeral in particular: A high-school student had died in a car accident. The church was over-packed with his grieving family, friends, and classmates. His mother, still a young woman herself, was in the front pew, heavy with grief about her loss, but clearly weighed-down too with anxiety for her child.  After all, he was still just a boy, partly still in need of someone to take care of him, still needing a mother. She sensed how, dying so young, in effect, orphaned him.

There aren’t many words that are helpful in a situation like this, but the few that we have say what needs to be said – even if on that day, when death is still so raw, they don’t yet bring much emotional consolation. What’s to be said in face of a death like this?  Simply that this young boy is now in more-loving, more-tender, gentler, and safer hands than ours, that there’s a mother on the other side to receive him and give him the nurturing he still needs, just as there was one on this side when he was born. No one is born, except into a mother’s arms. That’s an image we need to keep before us in order to more healthily imagine death.

What, more precisely, is the image? Few images are as primal, and as tender, as that of a mother holding and cradling her newborn baby.  Indeed the words of the most-renowned Christmas carol of all time, Silent Night, were inspired by precisely this image. Joseph Mohr, a young priest in Germany, had gone out to a cottage in the woods on the afternoon of Christmas Eve to baptize a newborn baby. As he left the cottage, the baby was asleep in its mother’s lap.  He was so taken with that image, with the depth and peace it incarnated, that, immediately upon returning to his rectory, he penned the famous lines of Silent Night. His choir director, Franz Gruber, put some guitar chords to those words and froze them in our minds forever. The ultimate archetypal image of peace, safety, and security is that of a newborn sleeping in its mother’s arms. Moreover, when a baby is born, it’s not just the mother who’s eager to hold and cradle it. Most everyone else is too.

Perhaps no image then is as apt, as powerful, as consoling, and as accurate in terms of picturing what happens to us when we die and awake to eternal life as is the image of a mother holding and cradling her newborn child.  When we die, we die into the arms of God and surely we’re received with as much love, gentleness, and tenderness as we were received in the arms of our mothers at birth. Moreover, surely we are even safer there than we were when we were born here on earth. I suspect too that more than a few of the saints will be hovering around, wanting their chance to cuddle the new baby. And so it’s okay if we die before we’re ready, still in need of nurturing, still needing someone to help take care of us, still needing a mother. We’re in safe, nurturing, gentle hands.

That can be deeply consoling because death renders every one of us an orphan and, daily, there are people dying young, unexpectedly, less-than-fully-ready, still in need of care themselves. All of us die, still needing a mother. But we have the assurance of our faith that we will be born into safer and more nurturing hands than our own.

However, consoling as that may be, it doesn’t take away the sting of losing a loved one to death.  Nothing takes that away because nothing is meant to. Death is meant to indelibly scar our hearts because love is meant to wound us in that way.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. … It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.  … The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

Struggling to Understand Suicide

Sadly, today, there are many deaths by suicide. Very few people have not been deeply affected by the suicide of a loved one. In the United States alone, there are more than thirty-three thousand suicides a year. That averages out to ninety such deaths per day, about three to four every hour.

And yet suicide remains widely misunderstood and generally leaves those who are left behind with a particularly devastating kind of grief. Among all deaths, suicide perhaps weighs heaviest on those left behind. Why?

Suicide hits us so hard because it is surrounded with the ultimate taboo.  In the popular mind, suicide is generally seen, consciously or unconsciously, as the ultimate act of despair, the ultimate bad thing a person can do.  This shouldn’t surprise us since suicide does go against the deepest instinct inside us, our will to live.  Thus, even when it’s treated with understanding and compassion, it still leaves those left behind with a certain amount of shame and a lot of second-guessing. Also, more often than not, it ruins the memory of the person who died. His photographs slowly disappear from our walls and the manner of his death is spoken about with an all-too-hushed discretion. None of this should be surprising: Suicide is the ultimate taboo.

So what’s to be said about suicide? How can we move towards understanding it more empathically?

Understanding suicide more compassionately won’t take away its sting, nothing will, except time; but our own long-term healing and the redemption of the memory of the one died can be helped by keeping a number of things in mind.

  • Suicide, in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person who dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death, but only because they were already burning to death where they were standing.  Death by suicide is analogous to death by cancer, stroke, or heart attack; except, in the case of suicide, it’s a question of emotional-cancer, emotional-stroke, or an emotional-heart attack. 

Moreover, still to be more fully explored, is the potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since   some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.

  • The person who dies in this way, almost invariably, is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons, like Hitler, who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally our own experience with the loved ones that we’ve lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. More accurately described, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we couldn’t comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound, one which we never clearly perceived while they were alive. Their suicide then no longer seems as surprising.
  • Finally, we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of those who die in this way. God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure in the fact that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and a judgment that intuits the deepest motives of their heart.

Moreover, God’s love, as we are assured of in our scriptures and as is manifest in Jesus’ resurrection, is not as helpless as our own in dealing with this.  We, in dealing with our loved ones, sometimes find ourselves helpless, without a strategy and without energy, standing outside an oak-like door, shutout because of someone’s fear, wound, sickness, or loneliness.  Most persons who die by suicide are precisely locked inside this kind of private room by some cancerous wound through which we cannot reach and through which they themselves cannot reach. Our best efforts leave us still unable to penetrate that private hell. But, as we see in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, God’s love and compassion are not rendered helpless by locked doors. God’s love doesn’t stand outside, helplessly knocking. Rather it goes right through the locked doors, stands inside the huddle of fear and loneliness, and breathes out peace. So too for our loved ones who die by suicide. We find ourselves helpless, but God can, and does, go through those locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.

In Safer Hands than Ours

One of my jobs as a priest is to preside and preach at funerals.  Never an easy task. The deep truths of our faith which can be so consoling at other times often don’t spin their magic when death is still raw. Later on they can do their work; but, at a funeral, the pain is often too all-absorbing for the words of faith to effectively break through and do much in the way of real consolation. Their full effect will take place in a way and in a time that respects the rhythm of human grief.

One sentence of consolation that I do often offer at a funeral is this one: He is now in hands safer than ours. She is now in hands much gentler than our own.

The truth of those words can be particularly consoling when the deceased is a young person, someone whom we feel still needs the hands of an earthly mother and father and whom we would want to trade places with because we feel that he or she is too young to have to leave us and go off in death, alone. That is also true in the case of someone who dies in a far-from-ideal manner, suicide or a senseless accident. Our unspoken fear is always that there should have been more time, that we should have done something more, been more vigilant, been more supportive, and we worry about a loved one departing this earth in so unfortunate a way.  Finally, we have this same anxiety about someone who dies and has had a life that somehow never seemed to be free of extraordinary bad circumstance and frustration, and we wish we could somehow do something to make things better. In each of these cases, nothing can be more consoling than to believe that our loved one is now in far safer and gentler hands than our own.

But is this simple wishful thinking, whistling in the dark to keep up our courage? Fudging God’s justice to console ourselves?

Not if Jesus can be believed! Everything that Jesus reveals about God assures us that God’s hands are much gentler and safer than our own. God is the father of the prodigal son and, as we see in that parable, God is more understanding and more compassionate to us than we are too ourselves. We see too in that parable how God does not wait for us to return and apologize after we stray and betray. God runs out to meet us and doesn’t ask for an apology.  We see too in the stories just preceding the story of the prodigal son how God does not leave us on our own after we sin, to come to our senses and return repentantly to him. Rather he leaves the ninety-nine others and comes looking for us, anxious, longing, and ready to carry us home, in spite of our sin.

Jesus gives us too the assurance that God does not give us just one chance, but seventy-seven times seven chances, infinite chances. We don’t ruin our lives forever by making a mistake or even by making that mistake inexcusably again and again and again. Finally, in St. Paul’s farewell message to us in his Letter to the Romans, he assures us that, even though we can’t ever get our lives fully right, it doesn’t matter because in the end nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love and forgiveness. We are, in this life and the next, in hands far safer and gentler than our own.

God is not a God of punishment, but a God of forgiveness. God is not a God who records our sins, but a God who washes them away. God is not a God who demands perfection from us, but a God who asks for a contrite heart when we can’t measure up. God is not a God who gives us only one chance, but a God who gives us infinite chances. God is not a God who waits for us to come to our senses after we have fallen, but a God who comes searching for us, full of understanding and care. God is not a God who is calculating and parsimonious in his gifts, but a prodigal God who sows seeds everywhere without regard for waste or worthiness. God not a God who is powerless before evil and death, but a God who can raise dead bodies to life and redeem what is evil and hopeless. God is not a God who is arbitrary and fickle, but a God who is utterly reliable in his promise and goodness. God is not a God who is stupid and unable to deal with our complexity, but a God who fashioned the depth of the universe and the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

Ultimately, God is not a God who cannot protect us, but is a God in whose hands and in whose promise we are far safer than when we rely upon ourselves.

 

Some Light-hearted Thoughts on a Very Heavy Subject

Some years ago, a friend of mine was facing the birth of her first child. While happy that she was soon to be a mother, she openly confessed her fears about the actual birth-process, the pain, the dangers, the unknown. But she consoled herself with this thought: Hundreds of millions of women have done this and have somehow managed it. Surely, if so many women have done, and are doing, this – I too can manage it somehow.

I sometimes take those words and apply them to the prospect of dying. Death is the most daunting, unsettling, and heavy topic there is, for all of us, our occasional false bravado notwithstanding. When we say that we are not afraid of dying, mostly we’re whistling in dark and, even there, the tune comes out easier when our own death remains still an abstract thing, something in the indefinite and infinite future. My thoughts here, no doubt, fit that description, whistling in the dark. But why not?  Surely even whistling in the dark is better than denial.

So I like my friend’s methodology for steeling her courage in the face of having to face pain and the unknown: Hundreds of millions of women have managed this, so I should be able to manage it too! And in the case of dying, the numbers are even more consoling, billions and billions of people have managed it, and everyone, including myself, is going to have to manage it. A hundred years from now, every one of us reading these words will have had to manage his or her death.

And so I sometimes look at death this way: Billions and billions of people have managed this, men, women, children, even babies. Some were old, some were young; some were prepared, some were not; some welcomed it, some met it with bitter resistance; some died from natural causes, some died through violence; some died surrounded by love and loved ones, some died alone without any human love whatsoever surrounding them; some died peacefully, some died crying out in fear; some died at a ripe old age, some died in the prime of their youth or even before that; some suffered for years from seemingly meaningless dementia with those around them wondering why God and nature seemed to cruelly keep them alive; others in robust physical health with seemingly everything to live for took their own lives; some died full of faith and hope, and some died feeling only darkness and despair; some died breathing out gratitude, and some died breathing out resentment; some died in the embrace of religion and their churches, some died completely outside of that embrace; and some died as Mother Teresa, while others died as Hitler. But every one of them somehow managed it, the great unknown, the greatest of all unknowns. It seems it can be managed. And nobody has come back from the other world with horror stories about dying (given that all our horror movies about ghosts and haunted houses are pure fiction, through and through).

Most people, I suspect, have the same experience that I do when I think about the dead, particularly about persons I have known who died. The initial grief and sadness of their loss eventually wears off and is replaced by an inchoate sense that it’s alright, that they are alright, and that death has in some strange way washed things clean. In the end, we have a pretty good feeling about our dead loved ones and about the dead in general, even if their departure from this earth was far from ideal, as for instance if they died angry, or through immaturity, or because they committed a crime, or by suicide. Somehow it eventually all washes clean and what remains is the inchoate sense, a solid intuition, that wherever they are they are now in better and safer hands than our own.

When I was a young seminarian we once had to translate Cicero’s treatise on aging and dying from Latin into English. I was eighteen years old at the time, but was very taken by Cicero’s thoughts on why we shouldn’t fear death. He was stoic, but, in the end, his lack of fear of dying was a little like my friend’s approach to giving birth: Given how universal it is, we should be able to manage it!

I’ve long since lost my undergraduate notes on Cicero, so I looked the treatise up on the Internet recently. Here’s a kernel from that treatise: “Death should be held of no account! For clearly the impact of death is negligible if it utterly annihilates the soul, or even desirable, if it conducts the soul to some place where it is to live forever. What, then, shall I fear, if after death I am destined to be either not unhappy or happy?”

Our faith tells us that, given the benevolence of the God we believe in, only the second option, happiness, awaits us. And we already intuit that.

Our Misunderstandings About Suicide

Every year I write an article on suicide because so many people have to live with the pain of losing a loved one in this way. I rarely go for even a week without receiving a letter, an email, or a phone call from someone who has just lost a family member to suicide. In virtually every case, there is a corresponding sorrow that there really isn’t a lot of material out there, religious or secular, to help console those left bereaved. A friend of mine, who through some very dark years has had to work through the pain of losing her husband to suicide, plans one day to write a book to try to offer consolation to those left behind. There is a desperate need for just such a book.

When someone close to us dies by suicide we live with a pain that includes confusion (“Why?”), guilt (“What might we still have done?”), misunderstanding (“This is the ultimate form of despair”) and, if we are believers, deep religious anxiety as well (“How does God treat such a person? What’s to be his or her eternal destiny?”)

What needs to be said about suicide? At the risk of repeating what I have been writing year after year:

First, that it’s a disease, something that in most cases takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Second, that we, the loved ones who remain, should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with a purely physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. God too loved this person and, like us, could not interfere with his or her freedom. Finally, we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets our loved one on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, goes through locked doors, descends into hell, and breathes out peace where we can’t. Most people who die by suicide will awake on the other side to find Christ standing inside their locked doors, inside the heart of their chaos, breathing out peace and gently saying: “Peace be with you!”

But I also receive a lot of very critical letters every year suggesting that I am making light of suicide by seeming to lessen its ultimate taboo and thus making it easier for people to do the act:  Wasn’t it G.K. Chesterton himself who said that, by killing yourself, you insult every flower on earth? What’s about this?

Chesterton is correct, when suicide is indeed a despairing act within which one kills oneself. But in most suicides, I suspect, this is not the case because there is huge distinction between falling victim to suicide and killing oneself.

In suicide, a person, through illness of whatever sort, is taken out of life against his or her will. Many of us have known loved ones who died by suicide and we know that in almost every case that person was someone who was the antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the over-proud, hardened, unbending person who refuses, through pride, to take his or her place in the humble and broken scheme of things. Usually it’s the opposite. The person who dies by suicide has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is too sensitive, too wounded, too raw, and too bruised to possess the necessary toughness needed to absorb life’s many blows. I remember comment I once heard at a funeral. We had just buried a young man who, suffering from clinical depression, had committed suicide. The priest had preached badly, hinting that this suicide was somehow the man’s own fault and that suicide was always the ultimate act of despair. At the reception afterwards a neighbor of the man who had died came up and expressed his displeasure at the priest’s remarks: “There a lot of people in the world who should kill themselves, but they never will! But this man is the last person who should have killed himself; he was the most sensitive person I’ve ever met!” Too true.

Killing yourself is something different. It’s how some of the Hitlers pass out of this life. Hitler, in fact, did kill himself. In such a case, the person is not too sensitive, too self effacing, and too bruised to touch others and be touched. The opposite. The person is too proud to accept his or her place in a world that, at the end of the day, demands humility of everyone.

There is an infinite distance between an act done out of weakness and one done out of strength. Likewise there is an absolute distinction between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too proud to continue to take one’s place within it. Only the latter makes a moral statement, insults the flowers, and challenges the mercy of God.

 

Struggling to Understand Suicide

Recently a friend attended the funeral of a man who had taken his own life. At the end of the service the deceased man’s brother spoke to the congregation. After highlighting his brother’s generosity and sensitivity and sharing some anecdotes that helped celebrate his life he went on to say something about the manner of his death. Here, in effect, are his words:

When someone is stricken with cancer, one of three things can happen: Sometimes doctors can treat the disease and, in essence, cure it. Sometimes the medical professionals cannot cure the disease but can control it enough so that the person suffering from cancer can live with the disease for the rest of his or her life. Sometimes, however, the cancer is of a kind that cannot be treated. All the medicine and treatments in the world are powerless and the person dies.

Certain kinds of emotional depression work the same way: Sometimes they can be treated so that, in effect, the person is cured. Sometimes they cannot ever really be cured, but they can be treated in such a way that the person can live with the disease for his or her whole life. And sometimes, just as with certain kinds of cancer, the disease is untreatable, unstoppable, no intervention by anyone or anything can halt its advance. Eventually it kills the person and there is nothing anyone can do. My brother’s depression was of that kind, the terminal kind.

This can be helpful, I believe, for any of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide. All death unsettles us, but suicide leaves us with a very particular series of emotional, moral, and religious scars. It brings with it an ache, a chaos, a darkness, and a stigma that has to be experienced to be believed. Sometimes we deny it, but it’s always there, irrespective of our religious and moral beliefs. Indeed, as part of its darkness and stigma, suicide not only takes our loved ones away from us, it also takes away our true memory of them. The gift that they brought into our lives is now no longer celebrated. We never again speak with pride about their lives. Their pictures come off the wall, photos of them get buried deep inside drawers that we never open again, their names are less and less mentioned in conversation, and of the manner of their death we rarely speak. Suicide takes our loved ones away from us in more ways than we sometimes admit.

And there is no easy answer for how to reverse that, though a better understanding of suicide can be a start.

Not all suicides are of the same kind. Some suicides come about because the person is too arrogant and too hard-of-heart to want to live in this world. But that, I submit, is the exception not the norm. Most suicides, certainly all the cases that I have known, come about for the opposite reason, namely, the person is too bruised and over-sensitive to have the resiliency needed to continue to cope with life. In these cases, and that is the vast majority of suicides, the cause of death can pretty accurately be termed as cancer, emotional cancer. Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly or it can be the end-product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way, it’s involuntary.

As human beings we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but are always both body and soul, one psycho-somatic whole. And either part can break down.

This can be helpful in understanding suicide, though a better understanding will not necessarily mean that the darkness and stigma that surround it will simply go away. We will still feel many of the same things we felt before in the face of suicide: We will still feel awful. We will still feel conflicted and be given over to guilt-feelings and second-guessing. We will still feel uneasy about how this person died and will still feel a certain dis-ease in talking about the manner of his or her death. We will still feel a certain hesitancy in celebrating that person’s life in the manner we would have had the death been by natural causes. We will still go to our own graves with a black hole in our hearts. The pain of a suicide leaves its own indelible mark on the soul.

But at a different level of understanding something  else will break through that will help us better deal with all those conflicted feelings, namely, empathy for and understanding of someone whose emotional immune system has broken down. And that understanding will also bring with it the concomitant consolation that God’s empathy and understanding far exceeds our own.

 

 

 

Dealing with Loss, Grief, and Obsessions

What can we say in the face of deep loss, inconsolable grief, or unrequited obsessions?

As a graduate student in Louvain, I once posed that question to the renowned psychologist, Antoine Vergote: “When you lose a loved one, either through death or because that person dies to you in some other way, what can you do? What can you say to help someone in that situation?”

His answer was cautious, words to this effect: “When someone is grieving a deep loss, there is a period of time when psychology finds itself rather helpless. The pain of death or the pain of losing a deep relationship can trigger a paralysis that is not easy to reach into and dissolve. Psychology admits its limits here. Sometimes I think that the poets and novelists are of more use in this than is psychology. But, even there, they can offer some insight but I am not sure anyone can do much to take away the pain. There are some things in life before which we simply stand helpless.”

That was, I believe, a wise and realistic answer. The death of a loved one, or even just the pain of an unrequited obsession, can bring us to our knees, literally, and, as the author of Lamentations says, leave us with no other option than to “put our mouths to the dust, and wait!”  Sometimes, for a period of time, the pain of loss is so deep and obsessive that no clinic, no therapy, and no religious word of comfort can do much for us.

I remember, twenty-five years ago, sitting with a friend who had, that day, been rejected by his girlfriend. He had proposed marriage to her and had received a clear and definitive refusal. He was shattered, utterly. For some days afterwards he had trouble simply going through the motions of ordinary living, struggling to eat, to sleep, to work. A number of us took turns sitting with him, listening to his grief, trying to distract him by taking him to movies, without really having much effect in terms of drawing him out of his depression and obsession.  Eventually, of course, he slowly began to emerge from the grip of that over-concentration and, still further down the road, was able to regain his freedom and resiliency. But there was a time during which we, his friends, could not do anything else for him other than to be with him.

What can anyone say to someone who is in the throes of a deep loss or in the grips of an unrequited emotional obsession? We have our stock expressions which are not without merit: Life must go on. Every morning will bring a new day and eventually time will heal things. Remember too you are not alone; you have family and friends to lean on. Beyond that, you have faith. God will help you through this.

All of that is true, and important, but not particularly consoling or helpful during an overpowering period of grief.  I remember writing a series of letters to a woman who had lost her husband to suicide and was totally shattered by that, believing that she would never experience happiness again. Time and time again I repeated the same lines to her: “This will get better – but not right now! Time will heal this, but its rhythm cannot be rushed. You will get better, but it will take time!”

Is there anything practical beyond this that we can offer someone who is in deep grief or in the grip of a bitter emotional obsession?

In 1936, when his sister, Marguerite-Marie, died, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote these words in a letter: “I feel that a great void has opened in my life – or rather in the world around me – a great void of which I shall become increasingly aware. … The only way of making life bearable again is to love and adore that which, beneath everything else, animates and directs it.”

Antoine Vergote suggests that sometimes time, only time, can bring about healing and that in the interim the only real option is to bear the unbearable, to try to get one foot in front of the next, stoically, with patience, holding our pain with as much dignity as we can muster, while waiting for time to eventually work its alchemy, knowing that nothing can short-circuit that process.

But Teilhard suggests there is something that can help make the unbearable bearable, namely, a more conscious, deliberate effort to love and to adore.

How do we do that? Not easily. But we do it when, despite our crippling obsessions, restlessness, frustration, bitterness, and anxiety, we let our generous and noble side be the deepest voice inside of both our sympathies and our actions. When we are driven to our knees by loss and frustration, the best, and only useful, thing we can do is to genuflect in helplessness before a God who can help us and express our affection to anyone who can support us.

 

On Not Running with the Crowd

In the Gospels the word “crowd” is nearly always used pejoratively, so much so that nearly every time the word is used you could preface it with the adjective “mindless”.

Crowds don’t have a mind. They are fired and driven by whatever energy, hype, fad, ideology, or hysteria is current. In the Gospels this energy is called “amazement”. We see numerous instances in the Gospels where Jesus says or does something that surprises the crowd and almost invariably this is followed by the phrase, “and the crowd was amazed”. Rarely is this a good thing.

Why? What’s wrong or dangerous about crowd-energy?

Crowd-energy is dangerous because, most times, it is non-reflective. It simply conducts and transmits energy rather than discerning and transforming it. An apt image for crowd-energy, amazement in the biblical sense, is an electrical cord. An electrical cord simply lets energy flow through it. It’s indifferent as to whether that energy is good or destructive. It’s a pure conduit. Whatever flows into it is exactly what flows out of it.

Crowds tend to work in the same way. They let energy flow through them indiscriminately without discerning whether that energy is good or bad.  For example, we speak of being caught-up in certain energy. Sometimes this can be good, when crowds are caught-up in an energy that is positive, that helps build community. During the past weeks, for instance, many people in the world were caught up in the rescue of the trapped miners in Chile and that shared energy helped create community across national, ethnic, religious, and political lines. We see crowd-energy too as mostly a positive thing around certain sporting events like the World Cup of Soccer, the World Series of Baseball, or a number of tennis events.

But mostly the energy of a crowd is negative, the energy of ideology, fundamentalism, racism, fad, and hype. Crowd-energy is the energy behind a gang rape. It was also the energy behind the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is instructive to look at the crowd before and during the crucifixion. Five days before he was crucified, Jesus entered into Jerusalem and the crowd enthusiastically shouted praise, wanting to make him their king. Five days later, with virtually nothing changed, the same crowd was shouting: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  Crowds are fickle because crowds don’t think. They simply conduct whatever energy is gripping them.  

 In the incident in the Gospels where a woman is caught in adultery and is brought before Jesus by an over-zealous crowd, we see a perfect example of the dangerous, non-reflective energy of a crowd in contrast to the more reflective energy of an individual. The text tells us that a crowd brought a woman to Jesus and demanded that he morally share their intent to stone her to death. But Jesus, in a now-famous challenge, tells them: “Let the person among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” The response: “They walked away, one by one, beginning with the eldest.” A mindless crowd, caught up in the grip of a moral fever, brings a woman to Jesus. But they walk away as individuals, one by one, no longer inside the grip of that amazement.

Amazement, however, must be sharply distinguished from wonder and awe. Wonder and awe are the antithesis of amazement. In amazement, energy flows through you. In wonder and awe, energy stuns, paralyzes, and holds you. A clever quip from comedian, George Carlin, captures the difference. Explaining why he was congenitally skeptical of most “born-again” persons, Carlin famously quipped: “I distrust born-again people because they talk too much. When I was born I was so stunned I couldn’t talk for two years! When someone has a religious experience that is powerful enough to mute them for a couple of years, I will take them seriously!”

And in that lies the challenge: Beware of the energy that emanates from a crowd. Beware of the latest fad. Beware of hype of all kinds. Beware of the cheerleaders of both the liberals and the conservatives. Beware of any crowd who wants to stone someone to death in God’s name.

Think back to the various crucifixions that you have been involved in and recall how, later, in the sobriety and clarity of some different air, you asked yourself: How could I have been so wrong? So cruel? So stupid?  Read accounts in the newspapers and on the internet of young people with decent, good hearts who, caught up in the energy of crowd, cyber-bully someone to the point where he or she commits suicide. Think how, in each case, the various persons responsible eventually walk away, one by one, a lot more sober and reflective than they were when they were caught up on the mindless energy of a crowd.

Then perhaps, more lightly, display some old photos of you showing your various hairstyles and clothing styles throughout the years, and you’ll have all the reminders you need about how fickle and mindless can be the energy of the moment.

A Meta-Narrative of Consolation

Several years ago, I was at a symposium at which we were discussing the struggle that many young people have today with their faith. One of the participants, a young French Canadian Oblate, offered this perspective:

“I work with university students as a chaplain. They have a zest for life and an energy and color that I can only envy. But inside of all this zest and energy, I notice that they lack hope because they don’t have a meta-narrative. They don’t have a big story, a big vision, that can give them perspective beyond the ups and downs of their everyday lives. When their health, relationships, and lives are going well, they feel happy and full of hope; but the reverse is also true. When things aren’t going well the bottom falls out of their world. They don’t have anything to give them a vision beyond the present moment.”

In essence, what he is describing might be called “the peace that this world can give us.” In his farewell discourse, Jesus contrasts two kinds of peace: a peace that he leaves us and a peace that the world can give us. What is the difference?

The peace that the world can give to us is not a negative or a bad peace. It is real and it is good, but it is fragile and inadequate.

It is fragile because it can easily be taken away from us. Peace, as we experience it ordinarily in our lives, is generally predicated on feeling healthy, loved, and secure. But all of these are fragile. They can change radically with one visit to the doctor, with an unexpected dizzy spell, with sudden chest pains, with the loss of a job, with the rupture of a relationship, with the suicide of a loved one, or with multiple kinds of betrayal that can blindside us. We try mightily to take measures to guarantee health, security, and the trustworthiness of our relationships, but we live with a lot of anxiety, knowing these are always fragile. We live inside an anxious peace.

As well, the peace we experience in our ordinary lives never comes to us without a shadow. As Henri Nouwen puts it, there is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life so that even in our most happy moments there is something missing. In every satisfaction there is an awareness of limitation. In every success there is fear of jealousy. In every friendship there is distance. In every embrace there is loneliness. In this life there is not such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy. Every bit of life is touched by a bit of death. The world can give us peace, except it never does this perfectly.

What Jesus offers is a peace that is not fragile, that is already beyond fear and anxiety, that does not depend upon feeling healthy, secure, and loved in this world. What is this peace?

At the last supper and as he was dying, Jesus offered us his gift of peace. And what is this? It is the absolute assurance that we are connected to the source of life in such a way that nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever sever – not bad health, not betrayal by someone, indeed, not even our own sin. We are unconditionally loved and held by the source of life itself and nothing can change that. Nothing can change God’s unconditional love for us.

That’s the meta-narrative we need in order to keep perspective during the ups and downs of our lives. We are like actors in a play. The ending of the story has already been written and it is a happy one. We know that we will triumph in the end, just as we know that we will have some rocky scenes before that ending. If we keep that in mind, we can more patiently bear the seeming death-dealing tragedies that befall us. We are being held unconditionally by the source of life itself, God.

If that is true, and it is, then we have an assurance of life, wholeness, and happiness beyond the loss of youth, the loss of health, the loss of reputation, the betrayal of friends, the suicide of a loved one, and even beyond our own sin and betrayals. In the end, as Julian of Norwich says, all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well.

And we need this assurance. We live with constant anxiety because we sense that our health, security, and relationships are fragile, that our peace can easily disappear. We live too with regrets about our own sins and betrayals. And we live with more than a little uneasiness about broken relationships and loved ones broken by bitterness or suicide. Our peace is fragile and anxious.

We need to more deeply appropriate Jesus’ farewell gift to us: I leave you a peace that no one can take from you: Know that you are loved and held unconditionally.

Good Books That Found Me This Year

An old adage says that the book you need to read finds you. I believe that, though obviously the book likes a little help from its reader who needs to be combing bookstores, listening to friends, and watching reviews. Then the right series of accidents can conspire to place that book in your hands.

What books found me this year? Here are the ones that touched me most:

Among novels
• Jhumpa Lahiri’s three novels, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesakes, and Interpreter of Maladies, exhibit great emotional intelligence and help lay bare the anatomy of the heart, marriage, and family life.
• Anne Michaels’, The Winter Vault, is dark story, but the best writing I’ve encountered this year. Prose bordering on poetry.
• Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s, Monsieur Ibrahim, is a tiny book, but its second story, the letter of a young boy dying of cancer, is an exceptional read.
• Alice Munro’s, Too Much Happiness, is a collection of short stories that are mostly dark and take strange twists, but Alice Munro has, I believe, no equal in short-story writing. The pages turn themselves.
• Sebastian Barry’s, The Secret Scripture, will tax your patience as you wait for the suspense, but its writing, in line with a long tradition of great Irish pieces in this genre, makes up for its slow pace.
• Joanna Trollope’s, Friday Night, is a lighter, airplane read, but with more emotional intelligence than most books in this category.

Among essays and biography
• David Oliver Relin’s & Greg Mortenson’s, Three Cups of Tea, is the story of a genuine hero who is trying to teach us that the answer to terrorism is education and friendship not war.
• Carrie Fisher’s, Wishful Drinking, is a great piece of wit and an answer to self-pity.
• Robert Moore’s, Facing the Dragon, Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, finally puts on paper the essential insight of a great thinker.
• Kevin Rafferty’s, Fragments of a Life, is an unpretentious autobiography of a great churchman who uses his own life to write a remarkable chronicle of Roman Catholicism from 1950 – 2008.
• Raymond Brown’s condensed scriptural commentaries for the major seasons of the year: The Crucified Christ in Holy Week; A Risen Christ in Eastertime, A Coming Christ in Advent, are remarkable, readable little books that synthesize for the non-professional scholar the insights of one of the great biblical scholars of our time. They can be reread many times.
• Joan Wickersham’s, The Suicide Index, Putting My Father’s Death in Order, is the memoir of a daughter trying to come to grips with her father’s suicide. Well-written and helpful to anyone who has experienced something similar.
• Trevor Herriot’s, Grass, Sky, Song – Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. This is a book about birds, but really, more deeply, about life, morality, and our future. Moral challenge written as it should be written.
• Jim Wallis’, The Great Awakening, Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, articulates signs of hope within our culture, particularly the coming together of two things, justice and faith. According to Wallis, our generation’s Dorothy Day, the Left are finding Jesus and the Right are finding the poor. This bodes well for the future. Wallis at his best, if not always at his briefest.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith, is a remarkable memoir of a woman ministering in the church and facing all the innate complexities of that. A first-rate, mature account that doesn’t blame and doesn’t self-pity. A good read for anyone ministering in the church or involved in a healing profession.
• Barbara Brown Taylor’s, An Altar in the World – A Geography of the Faith, is one of the better books about “getting into the present moment”. She gives some good, balanced directives about how to get into the present moment and, just as importantly, on how to turn that everyday experience into a sacrament.

Heavy Academic Reading
• Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age, is a huge book, not recommended for airplane reading. The faculty at our school is studying it over the course of this entire year. This is a history of ideas that traces the roots of our secular consciousness both in terms of the disenchantment of our previous consciousness and the positive building of a humanism that can pretend to supplant faith. Very heavy but worth the effort.

I leave you with a sample of Anne Michael’s writing: “Only real love waits while we journey through grief. That is the real trustworthiness between people. In all the epics, in all the stories that have lasted through many lifetimes, it is always the same truth: love must wait for wounds to heal. It is this waiting that we must do for each other, not with a sense of mercy, or in judgment, but as if forgiveness were a rendezvous. How many are willing to wait for another in this way? Very few.”

Những cuốn sách đã gặp tôi trong năm 2009

Một câu châm ngôn xưa nói rằng quyển sách bạn cần đọc sẽ tự tìm đến bạn. Tôi tin điều đó, dù rõ ràng là các quyển sách cần sự giúp đỡ nhỏ từ phía người đọc, họ cần cần lục lọi trong các tiệm sách, nghe bạn bè giới thiệu và theo dõi điểm sách. Và rồi những chuỗi ngẫu nhiên kết hợp lại sẽ đưa quyển sách đến với bạn.

Quyển sách nào đã tìm đến tôi năm nay? Đây là những quyển gắn kết với tôi nhất:

Trong số tiểu thuyết.

Ba quyển tiểu thuyết của Jhumpa Lahiri, Trái đất xa lạ (Unaccustomed Earth), Người trùng tên (The Namesakes), và Thông dịch viên của các Bệnh tật (Interpreter of Maladies), cho thấy một thông tuệ xúc cảm lớn lao giúp bóc trần cơ chế của tâm hồn, hôn nhân và đời sống gia đình.

Mái vòm mùa đông (The Winter Vault) của Anne Michaels, một câu chuyện u ám, nhưng là tác phẩm hay nhất tôi đọc trong năm nay. Ở đó văn xuôi bao bọc lấy thơ. 

Ông Ibrahim (Monsieur Ibrahim) của Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, là một quyển sách nhỏ, nhưng phụ truyện của nó, bức thư của một thanh niên chết vì ung thư, là một truyện đặc biệt.

Quá nhiều hạnh phúc (Too Much Happiness) của Alice Munro, là tập hợp những truyện ngắn, phần lớn u ám, gợi lên những dằn vặt lạ lẫm, nhưng tôi nghĩ không ai bì kịp bà trong thể truyện ngắn. Các trang sách tự nó lật qua.

Huyền kinh (The Secret Scripture) của Sebastian Barry, sẽ bắt lòng kiên nhẫn của bạn nín thở, nhưng tác phẩm này được viết theo truyền thống lâu đời của thần thoại Ailen, nên đã tô điểm thêm cho tiết tấu chậm rãi của nó.

Đêm thứ sáu (Friday Night) của Joanna Trollope là một tác phẩm nhẹ nhàng, thuộc loại đọc bỏ túi, nhưng lại mang một thông tuệ xúc cảm cao nhất trong số này.

Trong số khảo luận và tiểu sử.

Ba chiếc tách trà (Three Cups of Tea), của David Oliver Relin và Greg Mortenson, là câu chuyện về một vị anh hùng chân thật nhằm dạy chúng ta biết, đáp lại chủ nghĩa khủng bố phải dùng giáo dục và tình bạn chứ không dùng chiến tranh.

Ham muốn rượu chè (Wishful Drinking), của Carrie Fisher là một tuyệt phẩm về sự dí dỏm thông minh và lời đáp đối với tật tự thương hại mình.

Đối mặt với Con rồng, Đương đầu với bệnh vĩ cuồng về truyền thống thiêng liêng và cá nhân (Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity) của Robert Moore, cuối cùng đã viết lên trang giấy bản chất thiết yếu của một nhà tư tưởng lớn.

Mảnh vỡ cuộc đời (Fragments of a Life), của Kevin Rafferty, là tự thuật khiêm tốn của một người cống hiến vĩ đại cho giáo hội, đã dành cả cuộc đời để viết nên một biên niên sử xuất sắc về Giáo hội Công giáo La Mã từ năm 1950 đến năm 2008.

Các quyển chú dẫn Thánh Kinh súc tích cho các mùa chính trong năm của Raymond Brown: Đức Kitô chịu đóng đinh trong Tuần thánh (The Crucified Christ in Holy Week); Đức Kitô Phục sinh trong mùa Phục Sinh (A Risen Christ in Eastertime), Đức Kitô đang đến trong mùa Vọng (A Coming Christ in Advent), là những quyển sách nhỏ xuất sắc, tổng hợp các hiểu biết sâu sắc dùng cho đại chúng của một trong những học giả Kinh thánh lớn của thời đại chúng ta. Những quyển này đáng để đọc đi đọc lại nhiều lần.

Mục lục tự vẫn, đặt lại thứ trật trong cái chết của cha tôi (The Suicide Index, Putting My Father’s Death in Order), là hai hồi ký của Joan Wickersham trong nỗ lực cố thấu hiểu việc cha cô tự vẫn. Bút pháp hay và có hiệu quả giúp cho những ai đã có những trải nghiệm tương tự.

Tác phẩm của Trevor Herriot, Cây cối, Bầu trời, Ca hát – Hứa hẹn và hiểm họa trong thế giới của loài chim đồng cỏ (Grass, Sky, Song – Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds) là một trong những quyển sách hay nhất tôi đã đọc năm nay. Đây là quyển sách về loài chim, nhưng thực sự, nó sâu sắc hơn, nói đến cuộc sống, luân lý, và tương lai chúng ta. Thách đố luân lý phải được viết ra như vậy.

Sự bừng tỉnh lớn lao: Phục hồi Niềm tin và Chính trị trong Thời Hậu Quyền Tôn giáo ở Mỹ (The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America) của Jim Wallis, nói rõ những dấu hiệu hy vọng trong nền văn hóa chúng ta, đặc biệt sự gắn kết của hai điều, công bình và đức tin. Theo Wallis, Dorothy Day của thế hệ chúng ta, cánh tả tìm kiếm Thiên Chúa, cánh hữu tìm kiếm người nghèo. Điều này báo trước một tương lai tốt lành. Wallis sẽ hay hơn nếu không luôn quá ngắn gọn.

Rời bỏ Giáo hội, Hồi ký về Đức Tin (Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith) của Barbara Brown Taylor là hồi ký của một nữ thừa tác vụ trong giáo hội và đối diện với những phức tạp bẩm sinh của giáo hội. Một đánh giá chính chắn và trưởng thành không khiển trách và tự thương hại. Một quyển sách hay cho người làm mục vụ trong giáo hội hay đang làm mục vụ hòa giải.

Bàn thờ của Thế giới – Bản đồ địa dư Đức tin (An Altar in the World – A Geography of the Faith) của Barbara Brown Taylor, là một trong những quyển sách hay về “thâm nhập vào thời điểm hiện tại”. Bà đưa ra những chỉ dẫn cân bằng tốt đẹp về việc làm sao thâm nhập vào thời điểm hiện tại, và, một điểm quan trọng, làm sao để nâng những kinh nghiệm sống thường ngày thành hy lễ.

Tác phẩm chuyên sâu

Thời đại Thế tục (A Secular Age) của Charles Taylor, là một quyển sách lớn, không phải loại bỏ túi đọc qua đường. Chuyên ngành của chúng tôi đã học tác phẩm này suốt năm qua. Đây là câu chuyện tìm lại dấu vết gốc rễ của ý thức thế tục ở cả hai nghĩa, sự tan vỡ ảo mộng của ý thức chúng ta trước đây và, một cấu trúc xác thực của chủ nghĩa nhân văn có tham vọng thay thế đức tin. Rất khó đọc nhưng đáng để cố gắng đọc.

Tôi ghi lại cho bạn một mẫu văn của Anne Michael: “Chỉ có tình yêu thật mới chờ khi chúng ta đi trong sầu khổ. Đó là điều đáng tin thật sự trong lòng mỗi người. Trong mọi anh hùng ca, mọi chuyện kể đã đi suốt bao đời, luôn luôn có cùng một sự thật: tình yêu phải chờ đợi những vết thương để được chữa lành. Đợi chờ này, chúng ta phải thực hiện cho nhau, không phải với lòng thương hại, hay phê phán, nhưng trong tha thứ, nơi chúng ta gặp nhau. Có bao nhiêu người sẵn lòng chờ đợi theo cách này? Số đó quá ít ”

In Pursuit of Innocence

Annie Dillard once wrote this about innocence: Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit’s good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: single-mindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills, wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains.

One of the deepest underpinnings for morality and spirituality is innocence, if not its achievement certainly its desire. Just as a healthy child longs for the experience of an adult, a healthy adult longs for the heart of a child. To lose the desire for innocence is to lose touch with one’s soul. In fact, to lose one’s innocence is to lose one’s soul. To lose entirely the desire for innocence is one of the qualities of being in hell.

What is innocence?

Dillard describes it as the soul’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. For her, innocence is the gaze of admiration, love stripped of all lust, something akin to what James Joyce describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when his hero, young Steven, sees a half-dressed girl on a beach and instead of being moved by sexual desire is moved only by an overwhelming wonder and admiration.

The late Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, suggests that, in the end, innocence is chastity and chastity is more than merely a sexual concept. For Bloom, there needs to be a certain kind of chastity in all of our experiencing, that is, we need to experience things only if and when we can experience them in such a way that we remain integrated. Simply put, we lose our innocence when we experience something in a way that “unglues” us, that breaks down our wholeness in some way. And we can become unglued in many ways – moral, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or erotic.

Bloom suggests that today most of us lack chastity and have already become somewhat unglued. This, he suggests, manifests itself not just in spiraling rates for suicide, emotional breakdown, and drug and alcohol abuse, but, and more commonly, in a certain deadness that leaves us “erotically lame”, without fire in our eyes, and without much in the way of the sublime in our hearts and in our dreams.

But adult innocence isn’t exactly the natural innocence of a child. For an adult, innocence can no longer be naiveté but needs rather to be something that might better be called second naiveté. It is post-critical. We must distinguish between childishness, the spontaneous innocence of a child which has its roots in lack of experience and naiveté, and childlikeness, the post-critical posture of an informed, experienced adult who again has taken on the wonder of a child.

How did Jesus define innocence? He identified innocence with two things: having the heart of a child and having the heart of a virgin: Unless you have the heart of a child you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of heaven can be compared to 10 virgins waiting for their bridegroom.

For Jesus, the heart of a child is one that is fresh, receptive, full of wonder, full of respect, and which does not yet contain the hardness and cynicism that calcify inside us because of wound or sin. For him, the heart of a virgin is one that can live in patience in the face of inconsummation without demanding the finished symphony. It is innocent because it can live without breaking healthy taboos, knowing that, as a child, many of the things that it deeply desires cannot be had just yet. The child’s heart is one that still trusts in goodness and the virgin’s heart does not test its God.

In her novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence describes a woman, Hagar Shipley, who, one day, after overhearing a child call her an old hag, examines herself in a mirror and is horrified by what she sees. She scarcely recognizes her own face and what she sees frightens her. How can one, imperceptible to one’s own self, change and become so different, so cold, so lifeless, and so devoid of freshness and innocence? It can happen to all of us and it does happen to many of us.

If we have ceased being the type of person with which the child within us can make easy friends, then perhaps it is time to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares, single-mindedly, crashing over creeks, keening in lost fields, driven by a kind of love.

Too-bruised to be touched – One of the causes of Suicide

The poet, Hafiz, wrote a poem nearly 700 years ago entitled, We Should Talk About This Problem. In it, God addresses a wounded soul:

There is a Beautiful Creature

Living in a hole you have dug …

And I often sing, but still, my dear,

You do not come out.

I have fallen in love with Someone

Who hides inside of you.

That’s God’s feeling, and perhaps ours too, when someone is in a suicidal depression. Few things can so devastate us as the suicide of a loved one. There’s the horrific shock of losing a loved one so suddenly which, just of itself, can bring us to our knees; but, with suicide, there are other soul-wrenching feelings too, confusion, guilt, second-guessing, religious anxiety. Where did we fail this person? What might we still have done? What is this person’s state with God?

What needs to be said about this? First, that suicide is a disease and generally the most misunderstood of all sicknesses. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Second, we, those left behind, need not spend undue energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with any sickness, we can love someone and still not be able to save that person from death. God loved this person too and, like us, could not, this side of eternity, do anything either. Finally, we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets this person on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors and touch what will not allow itself to be touched by us.

Is this making light of suicide? No. Anyone who has ever dealt with either the victim of a suicide before his or her death or with those grieving that death afterwards knows that it is impossible to make light of it. There is no pain like the one suicide inflicts. Nobody who is healthy wants to die and nobody who is healthy seeks to burden his or her loved ones with this kind of pain. And that’s the point: This is only done when someone isn’t healthy. The fact that medication can often prevent suicide should tell us something.

Suicide, in most cases, is an illness not a sin. Nobody, who is healthy, willingly decides to commit suicide and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone willingly chooses to die of cancer and cause pain. The victim of suicide (in most cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her psyche and in his or her bio-chemistry. Suicide, in most cases, is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself off a high building because one’s clothing is on fire.

Many of us have known victims of suicide and we know too that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness, and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too-bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide know that the problem is not one of strength but of weakness, the person is too-bruised to be touched.

I remember a comment I over-heard at a funeral for a suicide victim. The priest had preached badly, hinting that this suicide was somehow the man’s own fault and that suicide is always the ultimate act of despair. At the reception afterwards a neighbour of the victim expressed his displeasure at the priest’s homily: “There are a lot of people in this world who should kill themselves,” he lamented, “but those kind never do! This man is the last person who should have killed himself because he was one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met!” A book could be written on that statement. Too often it’s the meek who seemly lose the battle in this world.

Finally, we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide. God, as Jesus assures us, has a special affection for those of us who are too-bruised and wounded to be touched. Jesus assures us too that God’s love can go through locked doors and into broken places and free up what’s paralyzed and help that which can no longer help itself. God is not blocked when we are. God can reach through.

And so our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide are now inside of God’s embrace, enjoying a freedom they could never quite enjoy here and being healed through a touch that they could never quite accept from us.