Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Let's Talk About Suicide

Ooh, boy. Well, when I began this new column ‘Gnarly Questions’ last week, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be writing about this week. So why am I writing about suicide this week?

Well, on a small personal note, we received word this week that an old friend of MH for many years took her own life this week. So the subject is much on all of our minds here, obviously with a terrible sorrow for all who loved this person, myself included. So I apologize in advance if I bring a level of emotion to this blog post that I normally try to keep in check.

Actually, no, I don’t apologize for that. Too often we handle the topic of suicide with kid gloves and in consequence are not able to say hard things that need to be said about it, out of a misguided sense of compassion for its victims and its survivors. And I for one am sick of having to tip-toe around the subject in that way.

All the more so because suicide is one of the big topics of our day as well, in Canada at least, and I certainly would have gotten around to it as part of this series.

So let us begin by saying what so often is left unsaid in our discussion of the subject. Namely, suicide is a gravely evil act. It is one of the most evil things a person can do, not only because it involves the taking of a life, but because by the very act of committing suicide a person leaves themselves no chance to repent; it is literally the last choice the person makes, and it is a gravely evil one.

This does not mean that all people who commit suicide go to hell. Of course not, and anyone who thinks the Church says that is wildly deficient in their catechesis. The objective grave evil of the act does not necessarily translate into subjective guilt borne by the person, which depends on their freedom and knowledge. With suicide in particular, people more often than not kill themselves when the balance of their mind is disturbed and they are simply not thinking clearly. We draw a curtain over the whole question of subjective guilt and the state of the person’s soul, leaving that to God who alone can judge the living and the dead, and we pray for His mercy upon all.

But we need to do that, because (let me repeat myself) suicide is a horribly evil thing to do. Our lives are not our own—this is the key thing. Our lives belong to God, and it is for God and God alone to determine the manner and time of our deaths. I realize that for non-believers that is meaningless tripe; I am addressing this blog post to believers.

We have no right to commit suicide. We have no right to dispose of our lives when we see fit. It is an act of arrogating to ourselves the most sacred thing that belongs to God alone, and it is a wicked, wicked thing to do, even if psychic pain and a host of psychological factors mitigate or wholly remove the guilt of the one who does it.

I say this with some force for two reasons. First, it is not said often enough, generally because we are all aware of the terrible suffering and grief those left behind suffer from and do not wish to make it any worse. But by never coming out and saying flatly that suicide is a terribly wrong choice, we run the risk of implying that it is really not so wrong, really quite an understandable decision in this or that circumstance. And in that, we risk being complicit in the deaths of the suicidal.

But most importantly, physician-assisted suicide is coming to Canada whether we like it or not, and it is time for Catholics and all people to form their consciences properly. Suicide is evil—get it straight. It is an evil thing to do, so don’t do it. Do not end your life by committing one of the most evil actions a person can perform. Don’t go to God like that, please.

And the Canadian government, the Prime Minister and his cabinet members, in proposing and enacting this legislation (and let’s be realistic, they are going to push it through no matter what anyone says about it), are doing a wicked, wicked thing. May God have mercy on their souls.

Suicide will become the order of the day in Canadian hospitals. For people who are vulnerable—who are in some physical pain, who are afraid, who are worried about burdening their families, who are depressed in the face of a terminal prognosis—a kindly doctor will show up at their bedside and offer to end it all right now with one injection. It will all be couched in the language of comfort and mercy.

It will be a preying on the weakest and the most vulnerable members of the human community, at their hour of greatest desolation, to tempt them to do something that is monstrously evil that they will have no opportunity to repent of. Rather than accompanying a dying person through the dying process, surrounding them with the love and care of the community, doing everything possible to alleviate their pain, communicating to them with every small act of kindness and service we give them that their life is precious, that they are the most important person in the world right now, that we love them and will not abandon them no matter how hard it gets at the end… instead, we will just show up at their bedside, essentially tell them that the parts of their lives that were worth living are over now, and wouldn’t they rather just kill themselves. This is a moral evil that rises to the level of the demonic, to be perfectly frank, and I will not back down from that strong language.

Look, I know and you know it’s going to be legal in Canada. It’s going to happen and we can’t stop it, seemingly. But we can at least fight it, when it arrives at our own bedsides and the bedsides of the ones we love. We can tell the merchants of death to get the hell away from us and let us die like children of God, uniting our sufferings with Christ and bearing the gift and burden of life until its natural God-given end.

I am writing this blog post with one purpose and one purpose only: to dissuade even one person from choosing suicide in the face of illness, pain, and terminal illness. If I have succeeded in doing that, not only this blog post but my entire five years of blogging will have been worthwhile.

I will write more next week about specific issues around euthanasia proper—for now let us establish that suicide itself is a grave evil and must be resisted at all times. Our lives belong to God; we must not kill ourselves.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - April 25-May 1

This week in Madonna House was marked by one signal event, and that was the arrival from all points of the compass of the local directors of our various MH mission houses.
Every year in May the LDs gather here in Combermere for three weeks of meetings to discuss the present reality of the apostolate with a view to discerning the way forward in the Holy Spirit for our community. And so they came, from as far away as Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Russia to as close as St. Joseph’s house which serves the local community in Combermere.

And they came from a wide variety of houses and apostolates, from the very active soup kitchen apostolates of Edmonton and Regina to the prayer houses of Washington and Raleigh. And they come with a wide variety of backgrounds and apostolic experience—our oldest LD is 90 years old, a pioneer in the community; our youngest made her final promises just a few years ago.

So here we all are, and we began the meeting process with two days of retreat, given by myself and another of the priests. The meetings proper will begin Monday afternoon and continue each afternoon for the next weeks.

Our theme for the retreat days was the Little Mandate, the core words of our MH vocation and spirit that Catherine Doherty our foundress had received in prayer in the 1930s. It is a significant anniversary regarding that Mandate this year. While Catherine received the words in the 1930s, she had always considered them to be God’s own personal words to her, out of which she developed the life and spirit of the community. But in May 1966, at the prompting of some of the MH priests, she brought the words forth to the entire MH family, where they were promptly received as being, indeed, the heart of our way of life.

And so it is the 50th anniversary of that landmark event in our community’s development, and so we returned to those crucial words, never far from any of our thoughts and hearts, please God, to reflect on them together so as to attune ourselves to God’s voice and action at this time.

What else is going on here? The first year applicants returned from their annual vacation, and it was nice to see all their fresh young faces all rested up and ready to go for year two of applicancy. We have a small upsurge in our guest numbers, the men in particular, although (ahem…) there’s always room for more! Lots more! Any young guys out there looking for a bit of apostolic and spiritual renewal and growth? Come on over!

The renovations of our women’s guest dorm continues, which of course means limited bed space for them (there’s still room for a few more, though…), and the renovations of the priest house where I live are almost finished, with the last finish carpentry being done, and the finish electrical and plumbing work the next and final job involved in that large project.

It is spring, and anyone who knows about farming knows that spring is the time for much work on many fronts. The gardeners are busy with greenhouse work, starting many of the plants in that protected environment (it is still freezing at night, of course—this is Canada). Field work preparing the gardens for the major planting is beginning.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, the small Catholic liberal arts college in nearby Barry’s Bay, had its graduation yesterday. One of our priests is the chaplain there and was in attendance along with two of our directors’ general. Several members went on the same day to Toronto to the priestly ordination of a former member of Madonna House who was being ordained for the Toronto archdiocese.

Otherwise, I’m not sure what else to say. Life continues along all its normal lines, in blessed ordinariness. The days have been sunny and warm, Combermere at its most beautiful truly (and no bugs yet!). And in the midst of it all, we hold all of you in our prayers and hearts, and lift up the entire world and all its troubles in prayer to God our loving Father through all we do and are.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The God We Have Been Given, Not The One We Would Make

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God…

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me…
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant,
for I am in distress—make haste to answer me…
I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies…

I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the Lord more than an ox
or a bull with horns and hoofs.
Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.

For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall live there and possess it;
the children of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall live in it.
Psalm 69

Reflection – Well, the psalms are back at it today with lamentation and cries of distress! This is actually only about half of Psalm 69; I have edited it for brevity.

This psalm is distinguished, though, for being one of the psalms applied to Christ in His passion. First there is the ‘zeal for you house has consumed me’, which is quoted in connection with his cleansing of the Temple (John 2: 17), and then the ‘for their thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ of course recalls his sufferings on the Cross.

It is significant that we see in these very human, very plaintive and poignant cries of human suffering and distress, something of the anguish of God expressed in Jesus Christ. It is always the tragic tendency of human beings, in the face of this or that calamity or affliction, of this death or that illness, this impoverishment or that terrible injustice, to conclude that ‘God doesn’t care.’ It is, in its own way, a logical conclusion—if God cares so much about humanity, and about me, then why did He allow this to happen?

This psalm—but more importantly, the real historical event to which it points of the suffering and death of God in Jesus Christ—is the answer of God to the question of ‘do you care?’ It is not the answer we were looking for. We wanted God to say, “Well, of course I care, and so now I am going to instantly take all your sufferings away.”

He will in the end (such is our Christian faith) do just that (cf Rev 22), but for reasons of his own inscrutable Divine Wisdom, here and now He chooses to show His caring not by removing our sufferings but by entering into them Himself in the only way He could—by becoming a human being with a human body and a human soul—and transforming suffering from within.

Why He went this route, He has not really chosen to explain to us Himself. Philosophers and theologians have done yeoman’s service on His behalf, but I’m not sure He ever asked them to do it, to be honest. In my own personal spiritual life, whenever I have asked God plainly why this or that suffering has come to me or to those who I love, the only real answer I get from Him is ‘Trust me’, and I think that is the best one of all.

At any rate, and I say this with all reverence and faith, this is the God we have been given, not the God we would make up for ourselves. A God who does indeed fully intend to end human suffering, to wipe every tear away in the final state of things, but who here and now does not do that, but rather enters into it to share it and shape it and make it the royal road to the kingdom. Psalm 69 and the other psalms that are taken up into the Passion narratives bear witness to this, and this is their abiding value in our Christian tradition.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek

Our Thursday journey through the Mass has now taken us deep into the Eucharistic Prayer, on the far side of the Consecration. And so we come to this little gem of a prayer:

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

What’s this about, and what has it to do with us and how we are to live our lives? I will leave aside the repeated prayer that God look with kindness open our offering and accept it—this aspect of things has been well covered in this commentary already. And last week I covered the whole reality of Jesus Christ the holy sacrifice, the spotless victim.

So why do Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek barge in here? What have they to do with what we are doing on this altar? And why these particular three, when the Old Testament is filled with examples of men offering various sacrifices to God? Why not Noah or Jacob or Elijah or David or Solomon?

To get that question out of the way, Abel was the first one recorded to make a acceptable sacrifice to God (Gen 4:4), Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac (which God did not ultimately ask him to make) shows that God desires not merely this or that offering from us but faith and trust (Gen 22: 1-19), and the offering of Melchizedek, the mystery man, of bread and wine (Gen 14:18) has always been seen (and indeed is developed at length in the letter to the Hebrews) as an type of Christ and his priestly offering.

The three together root the sacrifice of the Mass, what we are doing here and now this day on this altar in this church, with this whole unbroken line of humanity, all flesh coming before God to seek communion with Him. We are so often such petty little creatures, wrapped up in our own problems and concerns, living like ants who cannot see anything beyond the immediate near horizon.

At this moment of the Mass we are called to know ourselves as part of the vast body of humanity, extended through time and space, a single entity made by God and for God, seeking God, at times rebelling and running away from God, yet perpetually returning to the source who made us, who loves us, and who desires us to enter this offering of love and communion.

By calling us out of the here and now and reminding us of our spiritual ancestors the Church calls us to solidarity with all humanity. I would suggest that this especially means being mindful of our solidarity with those members of humanity who may be outside the immediate body of believers, the Catholic Church, or even of the whole Body of Christ that are the Christians spread throughout the world.

All people, whether they know it or not, are called into this communion. Furthermore, all people of good will are striving one way or another for this communion, although they may call it by very different words and understand it quite differently. But anyone who is sincerely striving for the good, the true, and the beautiful is essentially bringing their goods to the altar of God hoping that He will find it acceptable, whether they would put it that way themselves.

We know that it is only in the offering of Christ that this hunger and thirst for the good, the true, the beautiful, for communion in love and the final transcendence of our humanity into divinity is realized. But we also know that our God is a merciful God and that He looks with great pity and tender concern on every human being He has made, and that the whole action of His grace in every human heart is ordered towards making that person’s life-offering one with the Life-Offering of the Son.

And so this little moment of the Eucharistic Prayer which we may wonder at, not think too deeply about, and then move on from, in fact calls us to a profound solidarity with every human being on the face of the earth, a deep prayer that the Lord will find us all acceptable in his sight, and that all flesh will at last come into the Temple of God and make to Him the sacrifice pleasing to Him, which is our faith and union with Jesus Christ.