St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested that we read scripture by picturing ourselves in its scenes. It’s a fruitful insight, because God’s word aims to accomplish more than just communicating information. It seeks to transform us. But who can picture him or herself praying with the Prophet Elijah, “Enough, Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kgs 19:4)?
Most of us, most of the time, would write off that prayer as hyperbole. But what if one truly has grown weary of life and no longer wishes to live? What if one has felt for some time—for we should never plot our course on the basis of passing emotions—that one has outlived one’s self? What can be learned by acknowledging Elijah’s lament as one’s own?
An immediate distinction should be drawn between desiring death and contemplating suicide. The first is a real, though thankfully rare, spiritual state. The second is a form of pathology. Wanting to die can overtake psychologically healthy people. It can come in response to the death of another, the loss of a career, the weight of long illness, the weariness of being lonely for too long. A healthy person might well long for death in such a situation, but the one who fears suicide is suffering from a pathology, one which needs the attention of professionals. Self-preservation is the strongest of instincts, even in humans. If we fear that we are capable of acting against it, if others notice this, we need the help of medical and psychological professionals.
Having distinguished illness from world-weariness, what comfort is there for the one who genuinely wants to die, but who knows that suicide is not an option? Is it possible that Jesus himself left a solace, if not a remedy, in the form of a well known prayer, one that assumes an illumined intensity in the face of desolation? And, as it came from his lips, there can be no greater surety of entrance into his personal spirituality. We call that prayer the Our Father.
I am not saying that Jesus composed the prayer because he also suffered from world-weariness, that he wanted to die. Only that Christ’s words contain depths unknown until we are ready for them. So ponder the prayer of Jesus in the light of Elijah’s lament, “Enough, Lord! Take my life.”
Our Father. The one who is hurting must imitate the wounded toddler and run to the parent who loves away the pain. An adult in torment will contract into his own body, even more away from others, but a child takes the pain to the parent. We must do the same.
Who Art in Heaven. This world does not exhaust the realms of the real. One who no longer wants to live must verse herself in the promise of another world. Imagining this alternative is not fantasy. It is the God-given gift of our human nature. Of all the creatures on earth, only we can distinguish what is from what might be, from what someday will be. Awareness of another world illumines the true nature of this one.
Hallowed Be Thy Name. Blessing another’s name is a Semitic way of giving thanks. But how can we be grateful in such a season? A person of faith believes that life, in all its facets, is meaningful, even though we concede that some sorrows will defy all sense until we stand before the very face of God. In the meantime, we bless the name of the one who never acts but in love, though that cross-stitched, seared charity so confounds our comprehension.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done on Earth As It Is in Heaven. Life has to be lived outside of self. In good times and in bad, we must look toward God and others, towards the arrival of the kingdom, the coming-to-be of something larger than one’s own project. The world-weary must still surrender to something larger than self. That which is lost, whose very absence makes one long for death, had to be surrendered. God promises fulfillment at end, and we must attend. We are closer to heaven when we desperately long for it than when we are sated with the happiness of this world.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. The prayer is literal and metaphorical. We must still care for the body, see to its sustenance, its recreation, its rest. Our souls may well want to die, but the body was made for this world, and God commands us to care for it, to reverence it until the end.
The bread for which we pray is also the nourishment that the soul must have: the little thoughts, remembrances, hopes and fantasies that keep it alive. The one who wants to die should immerse himself in a book, tend a garden, care for a pet, learn to bake, humbly polish shoes. We were created to be purposeful. In the face of meaninglessness, we must give ourselves over to the little projects that breathe a sense of purpose.
And Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us. St. Ignatius taught that, in the face of misery, we should ask how much of it is self-created, due to the selfishness of sin. Do we now pray for death because the life we lived was Godless, despite its veneer of religiosity?
And Lead Us Not into Temptation but Deliver Us from Evil. If our consciences cannot charge us, Ignatius tells us to trust the hands that fashioned us, that even now strengthen our sinews through adversity. Now the great task is fidelity in the face of misery and meaninglessness. St. John of the Cross insisted that only naked faith, faith without the security of reasons, truly unites the soul to God. Jesus himself went down into utter darkness, refusing to sunder his hope in the God whom he called Father. Despair is the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, because the one who buckles refuses to suffer the torment of hope and closes in upon the self. This is the great evil from which only fervent prayer can save.
For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory. Our story seems finished. No twist of plot has appeared to make it meaningful. Like Hamlet, we want to say, “the rest is silence.” Instead, the prayer of Jesus rises to a crescendo. We are small chapters in a writing so much the larger. God’s story is rightly ordered, like a kingdom. God has power to fulfill the promise. And the glory, when revealed, will be God’s, and it will flood the soul, the one now sighing for death, with life unimaginable.