being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.



addendum: further to the last

ps. If you read to the end of this piece by David Brooks in the New York Times today, you’ll find that this human task of reflecting God’s love and attention to the world is not only the random thought of a Catholic theologian. The mother of Kennedy Odede told him something similar. It isn’t because God is busy, though, that we bear this responsibility. When we fulfill this calling, to show forth God’s likeness, we also are changed.

Thursday of the 13th week in ordinary time

Today’s Mass readings begin with the well-known narrative of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. After yesterday’s account of Hagar’s banishment and the threat to the life of Abraham’s other son, I wonder a little about his regard for his children. I know, I know, God has looked after those children. But I can’t help reading these passages as a mother. I would absolutely refuse to sacrifice any child, mine or not.

I say that. But how often do the daily distractions keep me from attending properly to my children? Do I really listen? Do I treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve?

No. Not always. So maybe instead of judging Abraham as a bad parent, I ought to ask for grace to be better at it myself.

Darkness and light

Eternal Father, through your Word
you gave new life to Adam's race,
And call us now to live in light,
new creatures by your saving grace.
-Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal (quoted on Universalis)
Today is the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. I have come to appreciate him lately because of Audrey Assad's rendition of his “Lead, Kindly Light.” The play of darkness and light in the hymn reminds me that although I, too, live often in darkness, even my darkness is as light to God.
So as I make my way through shadows, I am encouraged. May it always be the Light of God that leads me.
Bl John Henry Newman, pray for us.

why God can do that with stuff–a postscript

The day after my Corpus Christi post I was thinking about ‘stuff’. It’s not exactly a technical term, is it? But it serves an important function in the account of sacraments I was sketching there. God can do that with stuff–change it completely without making it appear as anything other than what it was before–because God is already sustaining everything that is. I realized this morning how much I owe my understanding of sacraments and sanctification to John McDade’s essay on the incarnation. He borrows Peter Geach’s phrase to describe the presence of God in the world: ‘God sustains the world as a singer sustains his song.’ Thanks also to McDade (and to his reading of Aquinas) I think about sacraments and sanctification together with the incarnation and transfiguration. God has a way with creatures that allows them to be creatures, and yet to be wholly alive only as God’s creatures.

If God is already so intimately present to us, already keeping us in being from moment to moment, it doesn’t make much sense to think of ourselves as somehow competing with God for ‘control’ of our lives. The breath of God enlivens us, makes us who we are. I am who I am because of the mysterious interaction of God’s life and the human being–body and soul–who appears and thinks and speaks in the world. God transforms me–just like the Eucharistic elements–without violence.

I thought about this all in a different way as I read the account of Transfiguration that JK Rowling gives in the first Harry Potter book. (I admit to being a decade and a half behind with this. I am a loyal citizen of Narnia, and somehow it felt like treason. Now, I have to attend to the world of Harry Potter because of my children.) Hermione remarks that she’s looking forward to Transfiguration, which she glosses as (something like) how to turn something into something else. No, I thought (I might even have said it out loud…) that’s not really what transfiguration is, at least not as I remember and celebrate it on the 6th of August. That’s not why it is my favourite of the Luminous mysteries. And it isn’t why I connect transfiguration with holiness and the sacraments. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, his disciples see him as Jesus. The point is not that he’s suddenly something other than what he was before; rather, his identity becomes clearer to them as a result of his being temporarily, blindingly bright. So, I think, it is with us as God transforms us into the image of Christ. Our identity in God becomes clearer, even as we remain recognisably ourselves.

I’m told that Rowling’s account of Transfiguration becomes more nuanced as the series goes on. Guess I’ll  just have to keep reading.

worth pondering

Why I love George Eliot:

‘The human mind has at no period accepted a moral chaos; and so preposterous a result was not strictly conceivable. But we are frightened at much that is not strictly conceivable’ (Middlemarch). 

I wonder if we are any closer to a period in which ‘a moral chaos’ might be regarded as acceptable, or whether we are no longer certain what constitutes moral order, so that a moral chaos might just appear as ‘business as usual’? I wonder.


Good Friday

The Easter triduum has begun: last night we went (as a family!) to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Although the liturgy is not ideally suited for toddlers, the foot washing was fascinating. What on earth was fr Ben doing? The children were intrigued. Even the little one–restless as she often was–managed to be quieter than usual. But the most astonishing performance among the children was Thomas’s. Serving on the altar during Holy Week for the first time, he was more still and attentive than ever before. The book, resting against his head, barely moved–even during the intercessions. His eyes were frequently fixed, wide with wonder, on what was going on in front of him. Maybe it was in part because he was the only kid up there, serving with two liturgically-minded adults, and with lots to do.

Today’s liturgical event will be of a very different character: our Faith and Light group organise the Stations of the Cross. Now it will be Anna’s turn to take part in the action as we move around the church this morning. The liturgy is abbreviated, and simplified; there is that tinge of joy even in the midst of a solemn occasion, which is one of the hallmarks of Faith and Light as it is of L’Arche. We will remember the cross of Christ and be aware of our own brokenness, and in the midst of it will be aware that sorrow does not have the final word. My reflection on the Good Friday readings centres on the cry of Jesus from the cross, as Mark’s gospel has it–a more traditional, I suppose, Good Friday meditation.

But now my toddler calls, and it is time to go.

Thursday of the fourth week of Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a golden calf and worshipping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.'”
Exodus 32
Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes only from God?”
John 5
Someone brought a hermit who was a leper some money and said, “Take this to spend, for you are old and ill.” He replied, “Are you going to take me away from Him who has fed me and given me what I need?” He would not accept it.
* * *
There is more here, in the passage from Exodus, then I have seen before. I have always thought of this episode in the history of Israel as a turning away from God, the true God. But they still recognise God’s actions as being the mark of their God. God has forbidden the marking of idols–this is “the way…pointed out to them.” And the temptation to make an idol always seems inscrutable to us. How will that possibly help?
I suppose the question is, what do the Israelites want from their idol? I am not a biblical scholar, but I suspect that the general answer “security” would answer the question. The Israelites have experienced the care of God. They know that God has brought them out of the land of Egypt. So they maintain that this One, the One who has accomplished these things ian the past is their God. So far, so good. But where is God now? And what is Moses up to on that mountain?
Waiting on God’s next move is a difficult process, and it is in the times between those moments of security in God’s providential love that the tempation to fashion a golden calf strikes. We experience a need to know exactly what God will do; we look for some leverage, some way to influence God, so that God will intervene on our behalf—even if that intervention is as simple as one of those small, ordinary graces that reassure us of God’s presence with us.
The trouble is, God is not offered as an object to be known by us, nor is God a big vending machine. We can neither know God completely, so as to know God’s mind or predict God’s next move, nor can we calculate the necessary sum and offer to God the ‘price’ for the miracle we require, big or small. The golden calf, being an object presented for view, offered the Israelites a concrete measure of ‘presence’: Where’s God? Right here. Here is a God we can see, who can ‘hear’ us and ‘receive’ our worship. Idols of this kind are a known quantity: they require sacrifice and worship before they will respond to our petitions.
Idols give us something to do.
Waiting on God is hard. God seems absent, uncaring, or just too busy to bother with us. And yet we need God. As the Psalmist writes, “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42.1). These are the words of a soul in exile, and we often experience the same sense of distance form God on our journey to the new Jerusalem. We want milestones, a map—a GPS, even. How much longer? We want to know, want to navigate, to know how long the wait will be. It’s the Psalmist’s next sentence: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?”
Lent is about the waiting. We know that Jesus has redeemed us, has made the way back to “the face of God” possible for us. And we struggle to believe it. To participate fully in the church’s observance of this penitential season, we concentrate on the waiting, we focus on the suffering that accompanies anticipation, and we hope, gain strength, for all the moments of exile along the way.