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A conversation with a Quaker: sacraments, suicide and Dorothy Day

Was Mother Teresa depressed and did Jesus commit suicide?

By on Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Dorothy Day: a saint for sinners (Photo: CNS)

Dorothy Day: a saint for sinners (Photo: CNS)

I had an interesting lunchtime conversation with my Quaker friend, S, yesterday. She is drawn to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker in the US, whose Cause for sainthood is currently being promoted. S tells me there are four foundational tenets of Quakerism: to promote peace, simplicity, equality and Truth. Day was an unwavering pacifist, an unpopular stance to take during the Second World War; her own life was one of utmost simplicity, shared with random homeless people who happened to fetch up in the office of the Catholic Worker; she believed we are all equal in the eyes of God; and as a convert she followed Truth into the Catholic Church. It seems she was also a Quaker without knowing it.

I recommended S to read The Long Loneliness, Day’s autobiography, commenting that she was a fine writer. “Well she would have been – she was a journalist,” replied S. “Not all journalists are fine writers,” I replied enigmatically. I think what I meant by this is that some journalists – such as Dorothy Day or George Orwell – combine moral indignation and verbal eloquence to a degree that transcends the daily round in Grub Street.

Day is a saint for sinners. An early affair led to an abortion – something that she deeply regretted all her life. It also made her determined to give life – and the supernatural life begun at baptism – to her only child, Tamar, the fruit of a relationship with the socialist and anarchist, Forster Batterham. The baptism of her daughter led Day into the Church and caused a permanent estrangement from Batterham, though she never stopped loving him. S listened to all this sympathetically. “She was looking for good magic,” she told me. “The Sacraments aren’t magic,” I responded.

The conversation moved to Mother Teresa. “She suffered from severe depression,” S said. I disagreed: “She suffered from a dark night of the soul which is a spiritual state not a psychological one.” S could not see the difference: “If she had been properly diagnosed and then prescribed medication, she could have had a happier life,” she maintained. “But she was able to hide her personal sense of abandonment by God from everyone but her confessor, and she taught her nuns always to smile as they worked in the slums; that’s hardly a depressed life,” I argued. “Ah, people often smile when they are feeling suicidal,” S replied knowingly. “Mother Teresa was not suicidal!” I protested.

The conversation moved to suicide. “Jesus committed suicide on the Cross; he deliberately chose death when he could have kept his head down and survived,” S told me. “To lay down your life out of love for your friends is different from suicide,” I replied, adding a rather random example: “When Gerard Manley Hopkins was nursing victims of typhoid fever in the Dublin slums he did not intend to die.” “But he deliberately exposed himself to deadly germs, knowing the likely result? That’s suicidal,” S said emphatically.

S only has an hour’s lunch break from her job so we had to break off our talk at this point. I can see we will need a long conversation of many lunch breaks before we make common ground on some subjects.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if S agrees with Chesterton on the nature of suicide?

    Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin.
    It is the ultimate and
    absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal
    to take the oath of loyalty to life.
    The man who kills a man, kills a
    man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned
    he wipes out the world.
    His act is worse (symbolically considered) than
    any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults
    all women.
    The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is
    not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones
    of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if
    not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by
    not stealing it.
    He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its
    sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is
    not a sneer.
    When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall
    off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a
    personal affront.
    Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for
    the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for
    But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of
    things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the
    burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in
    Mr. Archer’s suicidal automatic machines.
    There is a meaning in burying
    the suicide apart. The man’s crime is different from other crimes —
    for it makes even crimes impossible.

    …but comparing a martyr with a suicide?

    GKC Continues:

    Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr.
    A martyr is a man who
    cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own
    personal life.
    A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything
    outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.
    One wants
    something to begin: the other wants everything to end.
    In other words,
    the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or
    execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he
    sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.
    suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere
    destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.

    Nuff said really – nothing to add; except quakers really get on my thrupennies with their denial of the reality around them; and the inherent Truth in Christ – and all the consequences it demands from us all.

  • Jim

    Note that your Q is a sample of just one.  As a Quaker myself, and knowing many others, I’d say most are not so judgmental. I was a little appalled at her facile summary of Mother Theresa. And many Quakers are drawn to mystical as opposed to psychological explanations.  Her notion that running risks is “suicidal” also seems bizarre.
    I’d add justice to the 4 Quaker tenets you’ve listed above.  There are a number of Quaker testimonies though, so those 4 or 5 are just a beginning list.

  • Guest

    I don’t quite agree with Chesterton on his analysis of suicide, because it’s not really “refusal” so much as an “inability” to live. I agree that willingness to die is not the same as suicide though. 

  • QuakerChristian

    Chestertons view that suicide is worse than murder is both evil and disgusting. I thank God everday I am not a Catholic.