A few days ago, a correspondent commented on the post about suicide and euthanasia. Here is what he said:
I have worked with people in deep anguish either from physical pain or absolute hopelessness and depression. They say "I pray for relief, and God does not give it, I can tolerate no more." How can I say to them, "This is an opportunity for cross bearing and repentance, it will be worse for you if you end your life now,” when they have reached their limit. I grieve for them and pray that God gives them some relief. I‘m not sure that I could, in their place, bear their suffering either. It is easy to give theoretical answers, “You are rejecting the gift of life that God gave you and don’t trust His Providence enough.” If I, in empathy to their pain, can understand and see how they could succumb to hopelessness and despair, feel compassion for their suffering, and not be sure that I could stand it myself, how could God not respond by easing their suffering so that they can bear it (of course sometimes He does)? If God does not seem to answer the prayers of some desperate people and they continue to feel abandoned what can we say to them?
A most poignant query. Here is my response:
The point of "Morbid Fragments" was not about what should be said to desperate people in deep anguish. It was rather about what should not be said.
There are extreme points of shocking pain and despair where the giving of any theoretical answer will be hollow at best, and maybe even damaging.
But even at these extremities, the sufferer cannot wreak self-destruction while assuming he has consent from his friends. This consent may be only implied. It may be from close friends and family -- say, in one case, where the family of an accused pedophile left the house for two days after purchasing at WalMart a "strong enough" clothesline.
Or, more likely, it may be passive, even from the Church itself, whose ordained representatives -- "apostles" sent to the existential trials of others (like the "helpers" of Job) -- often assume that compassion and dogma are mutually exclusive.
I strongly believe, from personal experience with my own professional (secular psychiatry) failures and more successful pastoral (Orthodox clergy) interchanges, that one may bring the comfort and compassion of the Church, while expressing the simple truth that self-destruction, even in desperation, is still sin.
In those few successes I didn't give theoretical answers, but instead I prayed, discussed the Gospel and even dogma, and simply stayed. I found that as the situation became more intense, the needs of the sufferer became more primitive, and less sophisticated, so that the worst of my suicidals needed simply a friend at best.
And there have been times where the sufferer needed to know, clearly, what was expected by Heaven of him. "This is your cross," I have said, without any hint of theory, "and this is given to you for some mysterious participation in redemption." I have also said, baldly, that suicide will bring no relief, only exaggeration. I always thought that a suicidal ought to know this at the least, since he already knows quite a lot of information about his pain, and even about possible exits and the legalities thereof.
(I had been constrained in psychiatry, mainly because the profession doesn't, officially, permit any talk about the soul. In my present position, psychology is not censored or truncated.)
God may not have eased these extreme sufferings in the next hour or day, but in every case, He eased them all into repose. This repose took the form of an alleviation of at least the most acute agonies, even an emergence from a depressive trough. Or the repose took the form of the final one, what the gentiles call "death," but we call sleep for the penitent. A suicide, in these extremities, would have only hastened death by a few days or weeks at most, and at what horrible cost.
I am sure that if you asked a friend of mine, who reposed after a long hellish bout with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), whether he is glad that he remained steadfast to the end ... and if you asked him this today, where he is, I am sure that he would say, today, that he is simply glad -- and that gladness made the years of suffering worthwhile, and true.
Every suicide, and every suicidal ideation, and every suicidal thought (include in this category every sin and passion, every logismoi and fantasia, because suicide is where sin will take you) is essentially a question of theodicy. Suicide is an ultimate complaint against Divine Providence. When I suffer (my lack of real anguish in my life is embarrassing here, to even compare with the Martyrs), I carnally tend toward anti-prayers like "I don't like this moment" or "I don't like this place" and "It shouldn't have been me." And I lurch into the fantasia of "it should have been" and "God You're wrong for letting me be." The whole philosophical tradition of theodicy is predicated on our disagreements with Providence: it is the ancient existential complaint rooted deep in the antichrist vocation of suicide.
But no adequate reasoning can be made of the moral ambiguities of this life, in this life: resolution happens only in the shade of the River of Life, under the healing leaves. The first concern of Christians is for peace and repentance in this life, and for the blessing of salvation. If that is not the case (a rubric, I suspect, that obtains in many bio-ethical discussions), then Christians are forced to speak of what they do not know, and they are forced, rhetorically, to shut the treasure chests of their heart (which is a common occurrence with Christians who try to accommodate modernity).
Christianity is all about proclaiming the Gospel in extremity. The Gospel is contaminated when it is confined by rhetorics of theodicy. The Gospel must be free and revolutionary -- not "liberated" in an accommodationist sense -- but free in the scandalous sense of experiencing the beauty of the Trinity and the fellowship of Jesus Christ in the depths of every trial. Our greatest, most historic proclamations of the Gospel, our most dynamic rhetorics of peace, are made in the profoundest depths of suffering.
Compassion, prayer and anointing are Sacraments that must always violate determinisms (which are always symptomatic of Christianity lapsed into intellectual cowardice) and scandalize modernistic sensibilities (Christianity must always offend certain fraternities in the agora and on Mars Hill) ... and, if not done in a mere "theoretical" manner, this Unction is always sufficient grace for every desperation.
It is better to pray than to philosophize with someone in pain. It is better to read the Gospel and dogma than to read, to the dejected, the texts of modern complaint. It is better to apply the ecclesial oil of the Good Samaritan to the sufferer, than to drink with the wounded man the koolaid of Kevorkian and Sartre, Singer and Fletcher.
A priest who does this can do this only insofar as he himself is a man of prayer and virtue. One can speak of peace insofar as he is a witness of peace.
Priests are not meant to answer questions of theodicy (a subject that cannot escape its bourgeois roots), because when it comes to justice, he knows, more than any, that salvation is the most unjust thing of all.