Have you ever felt such a profound sense of hopelessness or pain to the point of wishing you were dead?
Like there was no running away from the black cloud hovering over your head; that you were so worthless and unimportant that if you died, right now, you believe the people around you wouldn’t notice (or perhaps, would be better off)?
Being subject to all forms of excruciating pain–physical, spiritual, emotional–knowing it won’t, can’t, get any better.
It doesn’t even need to get to the place of suicidal thoughts (it’s a long way from wishing to doing something about it), but the silent prayer escapes your lips, “Lord, if I go to Heaven now, will this suffering go away? Why not take me now, Lord…Heaven sure sounds like a nice place.”
I don’t think that’s what St. Paul meant when he told us to “seek the things that are above.” And shouldn’t Heaven be a destination, not an escape?
If you’ve been following the liturgical readings the last couple of days, then you would have met two people who said this very prayer. Tobit, his eyesight inexplicably taken away from him, found himself a mere shadow of the upright man he used to be (with everyone feeling obliged to tell him so, including his wife).
Lord, command me to be delivered from such anguish; let me go to the everlasting abode; Lord, refuse me not. For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life, and to hear these insults! –Tobit 3:6b
Then, in a different, faraway location, a girl named Sarah is hurt over the words of a member of her family’s household, accusing her of strangling her husbands (all 7 of them, each having fallen dead on the wedding night). She has been through much heartache (think widow 7 times over), and these accusations, well, they were the last straw.
The girl was deeply saddened that day, and she went into an upper chamber of her house, where she planned to hang herself. But she reconsidered, saying to herself: “No! People would level this insult against my father: ‘You had only one beloved daughter, but she hanged herself because of ill fortune!’ And thus would I cause my father in his old age to go down to the nether world laden with sorrow. It is far better for me not to hang myself, but to beg the Lord to have me die, so that I need no longer live to hear such insults.” –Tobit 3:10
As the story goes, they both didn’t die (you’ll have to read the rest of it yourself; it’s a beautiful story). But this story got me thinking: can I ever ask for death? If the pain was too great, if the suffering was too much to bear, could I just appeal to God’s mercy that He end it all, that He draw me into His Heavenly Presence where the pain and suffering cannot follow me? In the midst of the pain, God is still the perceived end, so would it be such a big deal to ask for the end to come just a little bit sooner?
Because I’ve had moments like those. They aren’t a lot, and I wasn’t at my best (obviously), but I’ve had them.
Reading Fr. James Martin’s book My Life With The Saints (highly recommended reading) that same day, I began reading about the Ugandan Martyrs from the late 19th century. (As an aside, I promptly straightened up as I recognized their story from a homily I had listened to just 2 nights before, the day after their feast day, making my chance reading of their story the 3rd time I’ve encountered them in the last 5 days. When saints seem to want to get your attention, you listen!) Standing up against the kabaka (king) of the Baganda tribe for his rampant pedophilia, 45 Christians (22 Catholics, 23 Anglicans) were martyred. They were first forced to march to their place of execution (a good eight-mile walk under the African sun), shackled and bound by ropes, then once there, were made to wait for a week (how’s that for added torture). Instead of praying to “just get it over with,” these saints stayed true to their word that they would remain Christians until death–praying, singing hymns, reciting the Angelus and rosary, as well as morning and evening prayers, even grace before meals! These martyrs had already moved me by their courage as well as the depth of their faith (despite most of them having been baptized just a few days before), but there was one bit of information that just shook me to the core.
[Charles Lwanga] was wrapped tightly in a reed mat, a yoke was hung on his neck, and he was thrown onto a pyre…His companions were killed in the same gruesome fashion. Aylward Shorter writes, “As the flames rose, their voices could be heard praying and encouraging one another.” The last words of the young [14-year-old] Kizito were “Goodbye, friends. We are on our way.”*
Heaven so close, so deserved, and yet the words spoken did not beg for death, but rather, prayed for the courage and strength to glorify God even in life’s final moment.
What will my final moment on earth be like?
By God’s grace, I hope to be as resilient as the Ugandan Martyrs, never giving up, even in the face of suffering. To make myself available to my Master, not asking to be relieved of my duty, but to continue fighting the good fight until the end.
And while life eternal is still my divine aspiration, life on earth continues to be my divine commission.
*Lifted from Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s “My Life With The Saints”