Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 24, 2010
In response to a listener's question, Fr. Thomas reflects on the phenomenon of suicide. How do we as Christians deal with it?
Hardly a week or two go by when I don’t get a phone call or an email or a note about the issue of suicide, hearing about people who take their own lives. There is a sense in which we can really say that suicide in the Western world, particularly in America, is really almost an epidemic proportion, especially among young people. I read recently that among young people the first greatest cause of death is automobile accidents, and those are often drug-related or alcohol-related. So you have alcohol-, drug-related deaths also having to do with automobile accidents. Then the second one is suicide, that when the young person simply takes her life or his life.
These two are interrelated, because some of the studies show that drug-related and alcohol-related deaths and automobile accident deaths are connected very often to a death-wish, a desire simply to be dead, that the pain of life becomes unbearable, the desires are not fulfilled, the person feels like a loser, there’s a great cause of depression around, anxiety around. Sometimes when you don’t have the actual phenomenon of death, of killing oneself physically, you have other things that can really be related also to a self-loathing that is connected with a desire for self-destruction. For example, you have the practice of cutting. Many people—too many people—young people cut themselves; they’ll get a sharp object and cut themselves. Sometimes they’ll burn themselves, just because of hatred of themselves.
Then there are other ways of killing yourself than actually physically taking your life. Persons can kill themselves when they just give up, give in, give themselves over to a completely total carnal, angry, depressed, despondent life, and as a matter of fact what they are really doing is killing themselves, hating themselves and killing themselves.
But what we want to reflect on now, just for a very few minutes, would be the issue of suicide—actually taking one’s life. Here we have also some distinctions that can be made, because we have now in our society, Western society, physician-assisted suicide, where people decide to kill themselves. Normally it’s the case of physician-assisted suicide is when a person is in terrible suffering and they cannot stand the pain and anxiety of it, the fear of being a burden to other people or spending lots of money or things like this, or simply a sense that their so-called “productive” life is over, they can no longer play the piano or play golf or read poetry or go on vacations or travel, so they might just as well be dead and then not be a burden to the people around them. So the decision is simply made to take one’s own life. They can do it by themselves or assisted by a doctor, a physician, that will help them to take their life.
The euthanasia movement also is very similar to that, where the person doesn’t take their own life, but they ask someone else to take their life and to no longer exist in this world.
Some of that is out of despair, but some of that is out of a strange understanding that the soul is immortal and will go to some heavenly, holy, happy place anyway—well, perhaps not holy, but certainly happy—and that a person can then enjoy everlasting life freed from all the terrors and tortures and pains and sufferings of this world. I think that Islam, of course, has that particular phenomenon, because you have all of these suicide bombers. Every day on the news you hear about some young boy or girl, usually young, both men and women, who simply kill themselves. They kill themselves for a cause. They blow themselves up, with the desire to blow up other people with them.
Sometimes that’s done with the express conviction that they are a martyr for a cause, and that God will bless them for killing themselves and that he will take them into paradise. The popular saying is that if you’re a young man you get 40 virgins in the kingdom of God if you blow yourself up against the infidel or against the heretical Muslim brother who is destroying Islam and not following the Prophet and so on. But we do have that phenomenon of suicide: suicide bombers, suicide terrorists. So that is in our face every single day in American society if we watch the news. That is there also.
So we have many forms, many reasons, many ways in which the phenomenon of suicide is now impacting our life big-time, very—how can you say?—common. But that idea, let me repeat it, about “If I die, I get freed from the sufferings of this world, but I’m guaranteed some kind of life without suffering.” It’s kind of like Platonism: your soul leaves your body and then your soul, which is immortal, goes to some kind of a place where it’s happy forever and contemplates the world of ideas.
In the state of Massachusetts, for example, the Euthanasia Society Movement, the physician-assisted suicide movement, is called the Hemlock Society, because as you may know Socrates drinks the hemlock in [the] Apology for the death of Socrates that Plato wrote. The idea that a noble person will be happy to die and be even ready to die—of course, according to Plato, you weren’t supposed to kill yourself. Other people were supposed to kill you. But you were supposed to be ready to die, or to drink the hemlock, be ready to die in that sense, in a very peaceful, joyful, noble way because you’re going to go to a better place anyway. So this common idea that no matter how you live on earth, no matter what you do, when you die you go to “a better place,” and how often people say that: “Oh, she’s in a better place now. He’s in a better place now.” Even when people kill themselves, you’ll hear people saying, “Well, you know, Joe or Judy was so unhappy anyway, but now they’re at rest and they’re at peace,” or whatever. Among some people there’s this idea that there’s a happy eternity even if you kill yourself.
Without getting into—and we can’t, obviously, get into all the various reasons why and how people kill themselves, take their own lives, I have been asked—people have written to me about this and asked me to respond about it: How do people, especially Christian, believing people, how do we relate to those who have taken their own life? How do we understand it? How do deal with it? What is actually done? And then, even questions have been asked to me recently, not only about suicide, but about death generally, particularly about those who take their own life: are they somehow still alive in God and can they know what’s going on on earth? In other words, can we relate to those who have died from suicide? How do we understand our relation now to the people who have taken their own lives, and how to we understand their relationship to us?
I would just like to list a few points here that I am convinced are absolutely the Christian teaching. I really believe that what I’m going to say right now is the ancient Orthodox Christian teaching relative to suicide. First of all, we must say that Christians are absolutely opposed to suicide. We Christians believe that no matter how bad our life is, no matter how depressed, no matter how painful, no matter how suffering, we have no right to consciously, freely, purposefully take our own life or ask somebody else to take our life for us or get assisted in simply causing our own self to die. Christian teaching always has been that trampling down death by death and suffering in this world has a supernatural purpose. It has a meaning.
Simone Weil, a wonderful writer, was a Jewish woman who became a Christian, believed in the Gospel, believed in Christ, but never was baptized and actually died at a very young age, in her 30s, as a Jew, in the Nazi period. This Simone Weil had a wonderful sentence where she said, “The essential element of the Christian conviction, the essential beauty, the ultimate truth of the Christian tradition, is that suffering and affliction is not to be explained or to be justified. It has no justification or explanation within the categories of this world. It’s just something alien, and if you don’t believe in anything beyond this world, then you might just as well kill yourself; kill other people, too.” As Dostoyevsky said, “If there is no God and there is no judgment, everything’s possible. What difference does it make if you kill yourself, kill anybody else or anything else? It just doesn’t matter. It has no meaning. It’s senseless.”
But the Christian faith, as Simone Weil says, is that we do not have a supernatural explanation or reasoning for suffering, but we do certainly have a supernatural use, that we believe that the affliction in this world is a necessary element in entering into the kingdom of God. “It’s by many afflictions that we enter into the kingdom,” Holy Scripture says. “Before I was afflicted, I went astray,” the psalm says. We do not idolize or idealize or deify suffering, but Christians really believe that suffering is a part of this life, an essential part of this life. How could you not really hold that view if your main center of your whole conviction is that Christ crucified is the center of everything? The suffering and the passion and the death of Christ is everything. It’s the way we approach reality. It’s how we understand the very center of meaning of life in this corrupted world, namely, that we will have to suffer and that we will have to die and that we will have to go through affliction and through pain.
But we believe that that affliction and pain that we go through, which is a mystery how it happens to any given person, why some people have it and other people don’t—we’ve talked about that on the radio before, and I’m sure we’ll do it again—still there is a great mystery of the human life, the interaction between human freedom and divine providence, and how God providentially uses all of our human activities and behaviors including our lack of control over the universe, like with fires and earthquakes and tsunamis and things like that, as well as the evils that people do to each other: when people torture each other and they kill each other in wars and bomb each other and destroy each other. Christians have to face that squarely and say that’s part of the providential plan of God.
Certainly it would be a Christian teaching that believing in God, trusting in God, loving God with all one’s mind, soul, heart, and strength, loving one’s neighbor as one’s very self including one enemy, in the midst of horrendous suffering is the main Christian testimony to Christian faith. The martyr, the one who suffers martyrdom—that’s what Christians are called to: testimony, martyria. And the quintessential Christian, at least in the ancient world, was the martyr. That’s even how the veneration of saints began, because Christians began venerating those who died with Jesus and for Jesus and for truth and for their brother and for righteousness’ sake.
So suffering and death for the sake of truth, for the sake of righteousness, not killing anybody and first of all not killing your own self, but maybe being killed by others, and ultimately dying even when we’re not killed by others: here, of course, Christians would say even if we’re not killed by others or killed in some spectacular way like a car accident or an earthquake, we will die in any case. We will face disease. So the Christian teaching would be how we suffer, like, say, if we get cancer: how we suffer with that, how we relate to God, how we relate to the people who care for us, how we relate to our brothers and sisters, how we transform that suffering into a victory by our faith in God.
Because every Christian is called by faith and grace to trample down death by death. Every Christian is called by faith and grace to suffer together with Jesus. Every Christian is called by faith and grace to take up their cross and to follow him. Every Christian only enters the kingdom as Christ did: through affliction and patient endurance of all sufferings in this world.
We Christians say that suffering is not to be… Of course, we try to minimize and eliminate suffering as much as we can, especially for other people. When other people are in pain, we try to reduce their pain. We try to help them; we don’t try to harm them. We certainly don’t inflict pain on anybody. But when pain and suffering come to us by whatever means, as Christians, we are commanded to endure that suffering with total trust in God and absolute forgiveness to the people around us and gratitude and joy for life. We really believe that the greatest witness we can make to God almighty and to his Son Jesus Christ is by patient endurance in suffering. By suffering with peace, by suffering “painless, blameless, peaceful,” as we pray in church. And “painless” would not necessarily mean physically painless, but without the agonizing pain of our emotional life and our rejection against God and our kicking against our destiny and all that kind of thing.
Certainly Christians really understand suffering as part of the whole deal, even a central part. We see suffering brought on by human sin, by our loss of control of the universe, our loss of control over our own bodies, our being victimized by the sins of the world and the sins of other people, and corrupted by our relationship with other people’s diseases. We can be born with genetic diseases: no fault of our own, but how we endure that, how we glorify God through that, how we relate to that—that is the ultimate, quintessential Christian witness. Therefore, it is the Christian teaching that we would never kill anybody to put them out of their misery, like you would an animal with a broken leg or something, but we would certainly never do that ourselves.
However, the Christian teaching would also be that there are people who just can’t do it, that there are people who not only are too weak and not faithful enough and not strong enough to endure whatever sufferings they have to go through, but there’s the mental suffering. There’s the emotional suffering. There’s the suffering of anxiety and despondency and depression and self-loathing and just the inability to endure life itself. Sometimes even this is put on people by others also.
For example, suppose a person is struggling with same-sex attraction, that they have a homosexual orientation, and suppose they feel like a freak and a queer, and everybody’s condemning them and saying they’re going to burn in hell and they’re sodomites and this and that. Well, you can understand how a person like that might go out and kill themselves. They feel condemned by God, condemned by their parents, condemned by society, condemned by everybody, laughed at, ridiculed, and we know darn well that a lot of homosexual people are. I mean, Hitler killed them all in the gas chambers, and in America we have terrible crimes, hate crimes, against homosexual people.
There’s a high rate of suicide among homosexual people, especially young people, who don’t feel the love of God and the love of their neighbor and care and compassion for them. So nowadays, practically in dealing with same-sex attraction, people feel that they have two choices: one is to come out and to celebrate the same-sex attraction and say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and it’s marvelous and wonderful and a gift of God, and the other is to hate themselves, to loathe themselves, and to kill themselves, or other people would hate them and loathe them and kill them. Well, those aren’t the choices. Those aren’t the Christian choices.
But we do have to realize that there are some people who are so ill and so crushed by the world that you can understand, according to the logic of this world, why they would kill themselves. In my own pastoral life, I dealt with suicides several times. I can just tell you right now two stories where certainly that was the case. One was an instance of a young woman in her 30s who was my parishioner in one of my parishes when I was a parish priest. She tried to kill herself three times before I became the pastor of the church, and I knew about that. After a while, I found out. The sad thing is that her family was kind of hiding her at home and she never came to church and I hardly even knew she existed until I went to bless the house and discovered this woman there.
She was a beautiful 30-year-old woman, very nice woman, but she was obviously mentally ill. She would periodically want to take her life. Then, once, when it happened she was successful. Once she shot herself through the chest three times, missed every vital organ, and did not die. I remember as a young priest being totally ill-equipped and overcome by having to visit this young woman in the hospital who had just shot herself. She went to a mall, bought a gun, went home, and shot herself. But she survived. But then she was put in a mental hospital.
Then one Sunday when her family brought her home, they went to church, left her home; when they came back home, they called me up. I get a call when I walked in my house after Liturgy, saying, “Father, Father, come over! Our sister”—it was the lady’s sister; let’s call her “Lucy”; that wasn’t her name—“Lucy has taken her life!” So I went there and the woman was hanging. I had to proceed to call police and coroners and whatever else.
But she wrote a suicide note quoting the beatitudes: “Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” Then she wrote that she wanted to be with her mother, that her mother had died and she wanted to be with her mother, and she thought that by taking her life she would go and be with her mother. Flannery O’Connor has a story about that, of a little boy who wants to be with his mother, and they tell him that his mother is up in heaven, and he gets a telescope and looks, tries to find her. Then one day they go up into the attic where his telescope is, and they find him dead. He took his own life because he wanted to be with his mother. That was exactly the case with this mentally ill young woman: she wanted to be with her mother.
Then when I investigated further, I could understand, humanly speaking, what the pathos was between this girl and her mother. I won’t go into it on the radio, but all I can say is it was a very complicated story which had to do with her mother and her mother’s behavior and her father and the next-door neighbor-man and all kinds of stuff. There was a very difficult, very convoluted, very unhappy situation of this girl’s mother. I can just simply say that perhaps one or two of her children were from her neighbor and not from her very bad husband that she had who was an alcoholic and beat her and so on. So it was a terrible, terrible story. In any case, you could see why this person would be moved to take her own life, and even to do so with a prayer, even quoting the beatitudes.
Another instance that I had in another one of my parishes was where there was a mentally ill woman who was very, very devoted to her husband and was with her husband and couldn’t do anything practically without her husband. And then her husband died, and then she was left alone, and her kids were far away from home and didn’t seem to care about her much. Sixteen days after her husband’s funeral, she took her own life. I also found her hanging. I went to visit her to help her to straighten out her affairs. The house was locked, the phone wouldn’t answer, I called the police. The police turned their head in the opposite direction while I broke through the cellar door, because they didn’t want to see me breaking and entering, and then I got myself into the house and found her dead.
You can see why a person can be so messed up, so wounded, so bruised, so whatever, why they would take their own life, and that kind of madness probably could even be ascribed to suicide bombers in the Islamic world today. People are just gone crazy, and the demons rage and they conquer, they win, which leads some people to take their own lives.
Here I think we have to then make another point, a very important point in my opinion, and that is that none of us have any right or competence to judge the eternal destiny of anyone under any circumstances, including even a person who takes their own life. It is not—I want to say this again—a Christian teaching as far as I understand Eastern Orthodox ancient Christianity that people who commit suicide are necessarily condemned to hell. You cannot say that.
You cannot say that about anybody, because we don’t have the right to judge anything. God judges everyone. God knows why people do what they do. God alone reads the hearts of people. God alone will exercise mercy and judgment as he sees fit. And it is the Christian teaching that God has mercy on absolutely everybody. God does not withhold his mercy from anyone; that’s the Gospel. That’s the Christian Gospel. The Christian Gospel is that God has mercy on everyone no matter what. He has mercy on sodomites. He has mercy on suicides. He has mercy on Jews. He has mercy on Gentiles. He has mercy on every possible kind of sinner. God shows mercy on everyone, and through the blood of Christ, everyone is forgiven. That would be the Gospel.
The Gospel would also be that judgment is based on whether or not we accept the mercy of God. We don’t know who accepts the mercy of God. We do teach—it is a Christian teaching—that the final judgment of a person is when they stand before God, whether or not they accept the divine mercy, whether or not they repent of their sin. So we would say that everyone has a chance to convert in death. They have a chance to convert when they see the risen and glorified Christ. They have a chance, ultimately, finally, to fall down before him and say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and not to reject him and not to reject their own life. So I’m very convinced, personally, that we have no right to say and pronounce judgment on anybody. We have no right to say that this person is lost and has gone to hell.
Sometimes the Church Fathers do that in certain cases. For example, you read in the lives of saints about heretics who finally die and persecutors, and the saint says they’re going to get what’s going to come [to] them from God and so on. Sometimes I think that’s pedagogical so that we would learn and not be sinners ourselves and behave accordingly, but I really don’t think that we have the right to make a kind of dogmatic, theological judgment that any human being can pronounce judgment on anybody else. The Lord Jesus Christ can do that. He said about Judas, “Better that that man was never born. Better that he never came into the world.” But even there, that’s Jesus Christ speaking; that’s not you or me. And maybe the Lord Jesus Christ wants to teach all of us—certainly he does—that we can be lost. We can not repent. Judas, after all, went out and hanged himself. Sometimes people think that’s a proof that if you hang yourself, like these two women I just mentioned, then you’re certainly going to burn in hell forever—but who knows the motivation?
In Dostoyevsky novels, you have guys like Stavrogin in the novel The Possessed, Demons, who cold-bloodedly killed himself. They played with a little boy with a ball, they have a nice lunch, and then they go and kill themselves—out of pure defiance against God, because they don’t want God and they don’t want light. Well, you could say, abstractly, yes, such a person will burn in hell forever, but even then it’s not for us to say that. It’s only for God to say that.
So we cannot say who is saved and who isn’t. I mean, there can be bishops and priests who serve Liturgy every day, and they may find themselves in hell. Jesus says that in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “Many will come to me and say, ‘We did miracles in your name. We cast out demons in your name. We prophesied in your name. We spoke on Ancient Faith Radio in your name. We listened to Ancient Faith Radio in your name. We went to Divine Liturgy in your name. We did all this,’ ” and he’ll say, “Depart from me, you evil-doer. I do not know you.” Because our hearts could be corrupted. We could be proud, vain, judgmental, not really loving, not really merciful.
Only God knows all that, so we have no right to pronounce any judgments, none whatsoever: neither on ourselves nor on anybody else, and that’s why we Orthodox Christians would never hold: “I know I’m going to heaven. I know that I have my square yard of space in the promised land. I know that I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior and therefore I am saved.” That is baloney! That is just plain baloney. Or it’s half baloney, because we could say, “Yeah, as far as God is concerned, I am saved,” but as far as God is concerned, everybody is saved. As far as God is concerned, even a sodomite and a suicide could repent and be saved—but that’s up to God. God alone knows that. I don’t know that, but I can never dare to say who is saved and who is not saved, including my own self.
All the saints bear witness to this. The holiest saints, when they were dying, like Sisoes in the desert, said, “Pray for me, brother. I have not yet begun to repent. Pray that God would have mercy on my soul. Pray that God would forgive my life.” This is our attitude to God. We don’t presume anything. Oh, we presume the goodness and mercy of God, but we do not presume that we have accepted it, that we really have accepted it and believed it, ebcause if we did, then we would love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, we would love our neighbor including our worst enemy as ourselves, we would never judge anybody for anything, and we would be a perfectly holy, deified man. Well, I’m not one, and I don’t think you are, either. Therefore we have no right to judge anything. Nothing. And the saints do not do that. They do not do that.
Having said that, that God alone judges, then the question can be raised and must be raised: If that’s the case, why is it that historically, canonically in the Orthodox Church, we do not perform the regular funeral service on a person who has committed suicide? Why was it the practice that a suicide person was not buried with the rite of the Church? The same way that a person who [apostatized], or a person who never came to church—for example, we have people who never come to church; then they die and they’re brought in church and are given the funeral of the Church as if they were communicants, as if they were believers. This is a total blasphemy.
Once I had a family in one of my churches, and their father died, and they wanted me to do the funeral. I said, “Well, I’ll come to the funeral home and I’ll read some psalms, and I’ll do a prayer, and I’ll bury your father.” They said, “No, no! We want a church funeral! We want to bring him in church!” And I said to them, “But you know darn well that your dad was an atheist, and a belligerant atheist.” Their dad used to walk by the front of our church, spit on the lawn, and say, “Neya Boha! There is no God!” he used to say in [the] Slavic language. “There’s no God!” and spit, and make fun of the man who was cutting the lawn of the church: “Why you do such stupid things? There’s no God.”
Then the guy drops dead, and the kids want to bring him in church, probably because they want to put on a show or they want people to think or they hope that God will bless them, and when I said to them, “I can’t bring your dad into church.” I asked them, “Suppose your dad woke up in the middle of the funeral and saw me standing there with vestments and a [censer] and a cross over him and an icon screen in front of him.” They said, “Oh, we wouldn’t want to think of that, Father. He’d get up and scream and curse and run out of the church.” I said, “Then why do you want to bring him in? Let’s be honest. Let’s respect his actual life. Let’s respect his words, his deeds, and let God judge him.”
They said, “Oh, you think he’s going to burn in hell!” I said, “No, I don’t know if he’s going to burn in hell or not. Only God knows why he went by the church, spit, and said, ‘There is no God.’ I don’t know why. God alone knows. God’ll judge him.” But then I tried to make the point to them that Church services, sacraments, are for people who express faith, who are there freely, voluntarily, who believe it, so that when you say the prayer over them, you’re not lying to God. When you say, “Give rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant,” well, the person should be a servant of God. When you say, “O thou who lovest Christ,” in a prayer, then it’d better be a person who at least appeared to love Christ. If you say, “You have received the broken body and spilled blood,” and you read that at the funeral service, then it’s got to be a person who actually did it and who loved it and who believed in it, however sinful they may be, but they still professed faith. They were members.
This is the canonical point. The canonical point is this: the Church only exercises jurisdiction over those who profess to be its members, and those outside, they don’t judge at all; we don’t judge at all. In fact, the Apostle Paul put a man out of the Corinthian community—read the Corinthian letters, especially I Corinthians. A guy was sleeping with his father’s wife. They put him out of the community, but St. Paul didn’t say, “And we condemn him to hell.” St. Paul didn’t say that. He said, “We deliver him to Satan for a while so that in the end his soul perhaps might be saved.” And it did turn out, actually, that that man did repent, and then St. Paul said that they ought to receive him back in repentance.
In any case, excommunication from the Church is not a punishment or a pronouncement of eternal damnation. If the bishops and priests have to put someone out of communion, they are not even putting the person out of communion. They are simply pronouncing the fact that the person has put themselves out of communion, that they are no longer in communion, because you can’t be in communion if you don’t believe what the Church teaches. If you’re a heretic, you put yourself out of communion. A heretic is not just a mistaken person; it’s a person who professedly teaches against the teachings of the Church and claims that this is the truth. Well, anybody who does that can’t have the sacraments of the Church, and that’s even how the churches became divided.
The churches became divided when one church said about another church, “You’re not following the Gospel. You’re not faithful to God. You’re not keeping the faith.” You’ve got to keep the faith, and there is a faith. There is an objective faith. There’s the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and there is the apostolic faith. There is the faith of the Gospel. There isn’t any other gospel. So the rites and sacraments of the Church are for those who believe these things, struggle to do them, and repent in tears when they fail. That’s what a Church member is, so the sacraments of the Church, including a funeral, are for those people.
What about the suicide? The teaching here, I think, would be pretty clear. If a person takes his or her own life, it means that by that very act they have put themselves out of the communion of the Church and have to deal with God directly. In other words, the Church doesn’t have jurisdiction over that person any more, because a suicide is, definitely, a demonic act. It’s a sinful act. Now, the person may not be very culpable. The person may be emotionally distraught. The person may be mentally ill. The person may be just too weak. The one person who wrote the beatitudes, she had holy Communion about two weeks before she died, and when I gave her holy Communion, she took it very nicely and said that she wanted it. She wasn’t against God or anything; she was just all messed up.
I could make certain judgments about her, and in fact in the instances of the two women I mentioned, we did bring them to the church building and we did have a funeral service, but the funeral service was modified. If you follow technically the book, the book for the Orthodox priest would say for a suicide or anybody else that you don’t know their state before God, you put on your stole and you sing, “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal,” you do the Trisagion, and you sing, “With the souls of the righteous,” and you sing, “Memory eternal,” and you put them in the ground, but you don’t have the full service as you would.
That’s what the rule is now. My opinion—and here I’m going to give you my opinion—is that the Orthodox Church should draw up a service for suicides. Besides having a prayer service for the weeping and the grieving—I’ve done that in my life, that the families of people who have taken their own lives, we had special services for the family, asking God to assuage their grief and to dry their tears and to express faith and trust in God that maybe in ways known to God himself that person might be saved, to pray for their salvation and so on—but we cannot assume that they are condemned forever to hell. That is not our opinion.
That is the meaning behind the canonical practice of not doing the regular funeral service for a suicide or for other people who are clearly out of the Church. The reason for not doing the services: they have put themselves out of communion with the Church by their act, and that act has to be honored. But only God can analyze it or evaluate it. Only God will know what to do with that person. But it would be very good and very helpful, I feel, that if we had a service in the service book, more elaborate than we have now—which now it simply says the Trisagion and burial; that’s all it says—but suppose we added a few psalms.
Suppose we added some appropriate readings from holy Scripture. Suppose the prayers actually said, “Have mercy, O Lord, on your creature who has taken her own life. Have mercy, O Lord, on your creature who has taken his own life. Be merciful, we beg you to show mercy on this person in ways known to yourself, O God. If it be possible according to the multitude of your mercy, have mercy and save the soul of this servant who has committed suicide.” And put it right up front. Say it openly. Don’t play games. Then I think God would bless that and honor that, and it would be really very nice if, I don’t know, the Standing Conference of Bishops in America or somebody could put together a service that the priests would be directed to use in case of suicides, which would simply recognize that a suicide has taken place and that the person has taken their own life and that objectively this is a sinful act, it is missing the mark, it is not what people ought to do, but that we could still ask God’s mercy and still give some comfort to the grieving family who are filled with probably guilt themselves that they didn’t treat this person properly or whatever else.
Even in the instances of suicides I’ve been involved with, the families often are very guilty. In the case where the young woman took her life while her sister and brother-in-law were in church, they probably said, “Why did we go to church? We should have stayed home with her. We shouldn’t have left her alone. Oh, we’re guilty; we’re guilty.” On that particular suicide, I’ll never forget. I was totally crushed, because I knew this person, because I’d visited her many times, at the hospital and at home. In fact, I even arranged for her to be put into the hospital because her family didn’t want to do it. I said, “You’ve got to do it.” But in any case, I was there, totally crushed, and the doctor, a wonderful doctor—I think he was a Roman Catholic man; he had a German name—he came to me and he said, “Father, can I talk to you?” I think he was a Roman Catholic. I said, “Sure.” He said, “You’re a young guy. You’re a young fellow,” he said to me. I was 25, I think.
He said, “This is going to happen to you a lot, so I want to tell you something right now, Father. You’re not responsible for this. You can pray, you can come, you can do what you do, but people do what they’re going to do, and when people are determined to take their own lives, sooner or later, they’re going to do it, if that’s what their mindset is. And you can try to protect, you can try to defend, you can try to preach, you can try to convert, but you’re not God.” He said, “You’d better learn that right now, because you’re young: You’re a priest, but you’re not God.” That’s what he told me. I’ll never forget this man; I love him. And he gave me a great lesson in life. He said, “But your task is still to do everything you can, and your task is to pray to God for everyone’s soul, and your task is to help the grieving people to handle these horrible things that happen in this fallen world. But you’re not God. Always remember that: you’re not God. You’re God’s servant, but you’re not God.”
So we do have the practice—and in the Orthodox Church there was even the practice of not burying the suicides in the consecrated ground. That was a practice, too. Unbaptized babies, people who weren’t communicants: they had a special part of the cemetery. My own opinion is that that’s probably not that necessary. God knows what ground is which ground, and you can bless it and not bless it, and if you can bless a well and a cow, you can certainly bless a burial place for a person who commits suicide. You don’t withhold blessings and prayers for those people, but you do not pronounce judgment and you do not pronounce a Church service as if they were believers, as if everything was just fine, because it’s not fine. It’s not good, and that has to be recognized.
But I want to make it very clear: my conviction is that the withholding of a regular Church funeral and a regular Church burial for a suicide—or for anyone else who was outside the Church, for that matter—is not a condemnation. It’s not that the Church judges them to hell. It’s not because the Church believes that they are eternally lost and damned. That is not the teaching. I’m convinced of it. That is not the teaching. The teaching is: we have no jurisdiction to act. The Church deals with those inside. That’s what St. Paul said in the Corinthian letter: God judges those outside; we have to pronounce a certain judgment on ourselves inside.
In fact, in II Corinthians, he says about six times in the last chapter: Test yourself, try yourself: are you a believer? Are you following God? Are you keeping the faith? We have to do that all the time in our life, and try not to fall away, try not to [apostatize], try not to sin. But when you have an egregious sin that’s pretty obvious, a sinful act like suicide or like leaving the communion of the Church or something once you’ve been in it, then that’s God’s business. That’s not the Church’s business any more.
So the refusal of the service and the sacraments of the Church and the refusal of the burial was not a pronouncement that the person’s going to hell. Not at all. It was a, in fact, very humble statement of saying: We can’t do anything here because this person has in fact done an act that has separated them from the communion of the Church. Even though this one woman, I said, had holy Communion two weeks before, but still the fact that she hanged herself says now God has to deal with her; the Church can’t deal with her any more. And certainly it cannot deal with her as if she were a good, faithful communicant of the Church, because that act shows that she was in the power of evil, that the devil won somehow in her life. The devil was victorious, but God can defeat the devil.
We have to see, in a sense, the humility of the Church. The Church is humble. The Church doesn’t pronounce judgment. The Church only deals with its own. When people are not its own, the Church does not pronounce judgment. For example, sometimes people say to me, “Fr. Tom, what do you think about the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church?” or “What do you think about what the Episcopalians are doing, or the Lutherans, or anybody—[Swedenborgians] or Jews or [Muslims] or whatever?” I think our answer has to be: That’s not my business. That’s God’s business. My business is to be faithful to the Gospel as I understand it, and within the Church, minister to people who also accept and claim to believe in that Gospel, and that we do it according to the Scriptures and the sacraments and the services and the saints and the councils of the holy Church, that we try to keep the faith of the Church, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, the faith that we keep and the faith that we celebrate in our sacraments, and the faith that our saints lived by. That we have responsibility for, but anything else we don’t have responsibility for.
The minute a person commits suicide, we don’t have responsibility for that person. They’re in the hands of God, and it would be really good if we had a nice service, in church, that we could use in cases of suicide that would clearly make that point. We have it already, but it’s very minimal: Trisagion and burial. That’s what we have now.
One more point, a little point: One of the people who wrote to me asked, “What about relationship with the dead?” Well, that’s another topic, but I would say just for now, just to say a sentence: yeah, we do believe that all the dead are in the hands of God, including suicides. We believe that they are raised by the Christ who has harrowed Hades and destroyed Sheol and raised the dead already. The dead, the graves are already… Christ has already descended into death. Death is no more. Christ God is risen, as we sing in church. So we believe that all the dead are in the hands of God, and we do believe that they are aware, they are conscious, they are alive, and those who have done good and done the mercy of God and repent of their sins will be with Christ, and those who have not will be torturing themselves and trying to kill themselves forever. There’s a sense in which eternal hell is an attempt at eternal suicide that you can’t pull off.
I knew one guy who wanted to kill himself, “But it’s not fair,” he said, “that God keeps us alive. I really want to be non-existent. I want to be dead. And who is God to keep me alive?” I said, “Well, God is God. Why don’t you surrender to life? Then maybe you could be okay,” I said to this guy at Columbia University once in New York. I said, “Why do you want to be completely annihilated. He said, “Because I do.” He was a defiant rebel against life itself. But God will know what to do with him. I don’t know whether he ever killed himself or not. I didn’t know him; he came to a talk I gave, and he was not a member of the Church. I don’t even know what his spiritual, theological life was.
In any case, it’s God’s business. It’s God’s business, and we believe, ultimately, and trust in the mercy of God. And that mercy is given to everybody, and they just have to accept it. Some people may reject it, and hell is the eternal rejection of life. It’s like an unending suicide—that’s hell. Whereas everlasting life is like an unending resurrection, an unending entrance into life, an unending affirmation of life.
But in this world, it’s very confused. We cannot pronounce judgment. Only the Lord pronounces judgment. Our only task is to be faithful to the Gospel as we understand it and not to lie about it. So if a person takes their life, we don’t want to lie about it. They’ve done it, so we commend them to God, we pray for their soul, we recognize the demonic, sinful character of the act, but we know that God himself will deal with that person and we won’t. But we also can know that that person is alive in God right now, one way or the other, so we can still pray for them, we can relate to them, we can ask God to have mercy on them, and perhaps even we can straighten out some of the problems that we had with them, because with God it’s never too late. We could enter into a relationship with the departed even now, even though they’re departed this life, but we’ll talk about that some other time.
But about suicide, it is a demonic act. Christians are forbidden to take their own lives, but when a person does take their own life, the Church has to recognize that as a fact, but still hope and trust somehow in the inscrutable, unsearchable mercy of God.