Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

6 comments on “Saved by Hope

  1. Pam H. says:

    BXVI: “It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness…” But at times, the more we seek love and support from others, the less we are loved and supported by others, even if we pray while seeking. I suppose we are only to look for them from God? But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it comes from Him either. Difficult, in dark moments, to trust when we feel nothing.

    • It’s a great point, Pam. It’s true that it’s different for each person, or unique, as the relationships, friends, family, faith community we have access to in those times can look so different. Those who suffer and reach out sometimes find strong support, other times people keep distance and avoid out of fear, being too busy to bother, or some other reason. A person I know who recently fell into misfortune has been embraced by family, another I know has been embraced by their Christian small faith community, but yet another finds herself isolated and rebuffed largely because her situation is extremely controversial and, it seems, frightened people around her off. But there would be a near endless iteration of other responses. For me, the moral-spiritual exhortation for those in darkness is best targeted, as were God’s lengthy diatribes in Job, toward the friends of the sufferer — to exhort them to love the suffering one and support them in every way possible, that they will allow and invite. It seems that Matthew 25’s Last Judgment is almost entirely about not the fate of the one who suffers misfortune but those who failed to rally to his/her aid. As for prayer and God, so much to say. Simply, clinging to God through all the traditional means of prayer, sacramentals and sacraments is a must in allowing God to lift our spirits from the dust. Also, being aware of how the cycles of consolation and desolation work is helpful; esp having a good informed guide. Fr Tim Gallagher’s books are fabulous on this, e.g. The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. I would also take Ona’s comment below yours here seriously: Iain Matthew’s book, Impact of God, is a superb reflection on the way to God in darkness and, I think, one of the best English language interpretations of St John out there. Also, and this is a really different track, but a comment I have shared here before that Mother Teresa once shared is profoundly insightful to me, “If you have no hope, find another without hope; give him hope and you will discover hope.” The old matushkas at my dad’s Russian church used to say something similar in this proverbial comment: “If you’re down, pick someone else up.” Though that’s never an entire response to inner darkness, we in the West often forget that other focused responses to personal woe should always be bound up to choosing love even in the dark. Henry Nouwen has a neat book on that: Adam: God’s Beloved. It’s a “wow” read, I think. Thanks for reading here and writing. Always great to hear your thoughts. Hope that helps, Pam. God bless. Dr. Tom

  2. Ona says:

    I find it inspiring to hear stories of regular people who can find such deep hope and faith in times of difficulty. Of course the saints can! That’s why they are saints. It’s encouraging to hear stories about “the rest of us.” And of the need for silence in crisis not necessarily being a problem at all, but sometimes being a place of healing: that was helpful to hear. @Pam – there’s a beautiful book called The Impact of God, by Iain Matthew. There we go with another saint: St. John of the Cross in this case. The book has a focus on discovering the wisdom that is being revealed in times that feel dark, when we feel abandoned, and so on. I might have heard about the book here on Dr. Neal’s blog. It’s a treasure, in any case. I’ve read it more than once. Highly recommended.

  3. Evie says:

    In suffering…only Christ is our comfort. All else falls short. No one else knows. Beautiful reflection and I copied some of your quotes for my own inspiration and reflection. Thanks Tom.

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