Every year a discussion about the startling rise in suicide rates during the holidays makes national news. More often than not, the cause is relegated to mental illness, stress, or family situations. While all of these may be true, they betray a purely materialist view of the human person. Mental illness in itself is a tremendous Cross for those who carry it. All illness has a bodily and a spiritual dimension. That’s why Christ gave the Church the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a very real need for physical treatments, but we live in an age that focuses on the body and ignores the spirit. Far too often we ignore the needs of our neighbors. Whether it is the deepening darkness leading to the winter solstice or a heightened awareness of one’s loneliness due to the holidays, people who struggle with mental illness, family problems, stress, or a whole plethora of other issues find themselves undone this time of year. What are we doing to help them?
Do we truly see our neighbor?
I find that one of my greatest shortcomings in social gathers is that I cannot remember people’s names. This is a shortcoming, because it means that I do not stay present and truly focus on each person I meet at an event. In fact, it may take me many meetings to remember the name of a person. I am so self-absorbed that I cannot focus for a couple of minutes to remember a person’s name. It also means that I am not listening to everything else they are telling me. I am not seeing my neighbor. I do not see Christ in them either. It’s impossible to see either if I am not fully present in charity.
Everyone suffers at some point in their lives. For some people suffering is chronic and is a lived affliction. My own father has suffered with chronic illness ever since he had rheumatic fever at 7 years of age. He has lived with intense pain for 53 years. The level of his suffering over the years has only been revealed to me as an adult, since he tried to keep it from my sisters and me as children. While he would not want attention to be drawn to him, I have to wonder if people have cared to notice this Cross in their brother in Christ? Would I have noticed if he were not my own father? Chronic illness is inherently lonely, but often we fail to notice its effects in the person sitting or standing beside us. The Mystical Body is called to walk into the joys and sufferings of their neighbor. Pope Saint John Paul II in Novo Millenio Inuente explains:
A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.
If we are truly committed to walking as disciples of Christ, then we will step into the Crosses of our neighbor, rather than flee. This requires great courage, charity, and the forming of habitual action.
The dangers of rugged individualism.
Western culture is more connected than in any previous age, and yet, it is the loneliest. People spend hours “communicating” in social media, but still feel a lack of connection to the people around them. We are constantly told that individualism is the highest form of freedom. We are our own gods and we do not need our neighbor to succeed. The problem with this largely American—and now being exported—idea is that it betrays human nature. Ontologically, at the very depths of human nature, we are social beings. We are made to enter into communion with the Divine Persons and our neighbor. Christ calls us to love God and our neighbor. Catholicism is not a private affair. The individual and the worshipping community—the Mystical Body—are inextricably linked to the Glorified Christ. Jesus does not tell us to go it alone and make our own way. When our neighbor suffers and when our neighbor rejoices, we are called to enter into deeper communion with them.
Failing our neighbor.
Oftentimes we want to make excuses for our distance from the pain of others. I have experienced the abandonment of friends and brothers and sisters in Christ during the intense periods of suffering in my life, from mental illness to recurrent miscarriage to secondary infertility. I try to view it charitably. I fail at times. I make excuses for people when deep down I know this is not how the Mystical Body is supposed to function. In reality, we all need to stop making excuses for ourselves and our shortcomings in this department. We need to be praying to God for the grace and strength to truly love our neighbor and grow in communion with them.
We can chalk the suicide rates this time of year–or any time of the year–and the deep loneliness of so many, to “disease, situation, and suffering”, but we ignore the spiritual dimensions of human nature when we do this to our neighbor. We ignore our responsibility in charity to reach out to them by ignoring the deep suffering of people this time of year and throughout the year.
Responding to our neighbor this Advent and Christmas.
We walk through Advent during the darkest time of the year. This is also the loneliest and most difficult time of the year for so many. Do we reach out to the mentally ill, lonely, separated, difficult, fringe, and suffering this time of year and throughout the rest of the year? I can tell you from personal experience, we do not have to look far to find these people. They are sitting in the pews next to us at Mass and they are living in our communities. They are in nursing homes, our own neighborhoods, and churches. They are the elderly, widowed, separated or divorced, mentally ill, single mother, the teenager locked in their room, the cancer ridden, the homeless, and the list goes on and on. Imagine for a moment what it is like to be a single mother homeless at Christmas, or the newly diagnosed cancer patient, the person ravaged by bi-polar disorder, or the grieving, or the lonely person with no family or friends.
Christmas is always celebrated under the shadow of the Cross. Our neighbors, and often we, know this reality in our own lives. Many people will gather to celebrate the Christmas season in families filled with anger and discord, spouses will have separated, parents will have died, depression will strengthen its icy grip, illness intensifies, and far too many people around us do not know authentic love. The lonely know the Cross cast over the Manger. Are we ignoring them to our own and their detriment?
All of us live busy lives. We have our own sufferings to endure. We have vocations God has called each one of us to for our own sanctification and the sanctification of those around us. Part of the path to holiness, however, is turning outside of ourselves into communion with our neighbor. Being a disciple of Christ requires charitable action. Our faith cannot remain internalized or it will wither. If we want to truly become saints, then we must be willing to see our neighbor as they are and as they are made imago Dei. If we pay attention, the Holy Spirit will show us the loneliness of our neighbor in need of a loving response on our part. We must be willing to draw deeper into their Cross and bring them deeper into the loving embrace of our Triune God through the communion of the Mystical Body.
Will we spend the remainder of our Advent and the upcoming Christmas season isolated from our neighbor? Will we justify the astonishing suicide rates of this time of year with a materialist nod or will we reach out to the suffering people we come into contact with in our community? Do we see our neighbor? Pain is often hidden in the eyes, but we have to consciously look and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit in reaching out to others. Do we see the pain of others in social media? It is there, even if we are separated by continents. It is a sure sign of loneliness if someone posts all day, every day in social media. Something is missing.
We are the Mystical Body and it is time to enter into the sufferings and the joys of our neighbor so that we may all enter more deeply into the love of the Divine Persons. We cannot increase our communion with God if we remain indifferent to our neighbor. This Advent and Christmas season, let’s make a concerted effort to reach out to the lonely and the suffering. The hope is that it will begin the habit of reaching out to others all year.