Much has been written, talked, tweeted and blogged about the topic of suicide in the past few days. This comes especially strong in the wake of the apparent suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams who was found asphyxiated in his home. Word has it that he had suffered from depression, and that he facing the fact that he had to live life with Parkinson’s Disease. The world has since been mourning the loss of a comedic genius, and this has sparked off much thought and discussion about suicide.
I believe that this is indeed a very important topic that needs periodic reflection and thought, especially in a blog that speaks of things that concern the spiritual life. It may surprise some to know that of all the 250 blog entries since I began writing a weekly reflection in this blog site, one which featured suicide quite a long while ago and how a Church should respond to it, garnered one of the top readership numbers. It does seem to be something that is of deep concern for many out there who are facing uncertainties in life, and would like to have some understanding of how to handle some of life’s unanswered questions regarding this seemingly taboo topic.
The Church has indeed grown and matured in her way of handling deaths of her children who have succumbed to this illness. And it is precisely because it is largely seen to be an illness that has changed the way the Church journeys with the person in his or her death when this appears to be the cause of the end of life as we know it on this earth.
Suicide, to be truly labeled a suicide (derived from the Latin “sui cadere” or to kill oneself) and for it to be a mortal sin has to fulfill the basic three conditions of a true sin. It has to be a grave or serious matter. It has to be committed with a full knowledge of the gravity of the offence. It has to be committed with a deliberate and complete consent of the fact that it is in opposition to God’s law.
With this in mind, not only is it thus rather ‘difficult’ to truly commit a mortal sin, but more importantly, for those who succumb to death through apparent suicides and who have their freedom or knowledge impaired or diminished due to illness (mental or otherwise) are not closed to the saving and mercy of God. It is because of this that the Church still continues, thankfully, to give the deceased who have died through seeming suicides, the dignity of the full Catholic funeral rites accorded to every one of her baptized.
Where can we find solace when someone close to us has ended his or her life in this tragic way? There seem to be two places, one from Scripture and the other from Tradition, which gives us great hope.
Firstly, it helps for us to read the biblical accounts of Jesus appearing before his apostles after his resurrection from the dead. He is able to walk through locked doors and into rooms that are shut. An apparent little detail that Luke just put there? I’m sure there is much more to it than that. Luke is trying to tell us that the resurrection of Jesus has an amazing power to overcome and enter into places of our lives, which we think we cannot let anyone or anything else in. Mental illnesses and depression often gives the sufferer reason to block out so many people – and often it is their nearest and dearest that are left out in the silence. The power of the resurrection gives us all hope that Our Lord does and is able to enter into those locked doors of our lives so that we still have hope amidst the darkness that seem to bind and tie the infirm. And he can do that precisely because he enters it with love, and not judgement, and bears us his saving wounds seen in his hands and his side. These wounds are the doorways through which divine light can enter into the darkened and lonely worlds of those who are suffering in loneliness.
Secondly, Tradition as seen in the Apostle’s Creed has a rather alarming phrase, telling us that Jesus “descended into hell”. That God is willing to descend into hell must give those of us who are the hells of our own a lot of hope. He need not have done that. Yet, his Divine Mercy and love propels him to do the unthinkable so that perhaps even the unsave-able can be offered salvation. The Church Fathers say that Jesus went into Hades to free those who had died before Christ’s salvific death and resurrection opened the gates of Paradise, freeing personalities like Moses, Abraham and of course Adam to bring them to heaven. But the definition of hell has a much broader aspect. Many who are confined to themselves in their inability to hold on to their sanity are also living in hells into which Jesus also wants to descend into and give hope.
All said, it is ultimately the divine generosity and charity of God and his mercy that makes salvation and forgiveness possible. In the incarnation, God not only lived for thirty over years in our world and in our human flesh, but he also witnessed often the vicissitudes of human living in meeting the broken, the sick, the possessed and the dying. The compassion of Jesus didn’t end with his resurrection. He does continue to be the one who has the unique ability to judge with compassion because he also sees the world from the side of the one being judged. This will be Divine Mercy at work, and Jesus is Divine Mercy, writ large.
Finally, we must never forget the words of the Hail Mary, especially where we pray that she will pray for us “and at the hour of our death”. Much of suicide not only is taboo, it is also something that we cannot understand. Mary at the foot of the Cross of Jesus on Calvary gives us something to hold on to in our moments of apparent despair and unclear seeing. She chose to stand under the cross instead of demanding to understand the cross. When we make that choice to stand with Mary there, we too may not have all the answers, but in our action of faith and love just standing there with her, we too will open ourselves up to the mercy of God that is nailed to that cross, and take shelter in the shadow of the cross.