A little over three weeks have passed since the tragic death of Robin Williams. Although most of us did not know Mr. Williams personally, many of us have felt moved by his work. As an actor and comedian, he made us laugh, made us feel; sometimes he made us think. In passing, his decision to take his own life has made us talk. We are talking somewhat reluctantly about suicide and mental illness. My hope and prayer is that Mr. Williams’ tragic death will remind the church to listen.
Talking about suicide or mental illness isn’t often a comfortable conversation. I’ve written a few blogs recounting my own journey though social anxiety and depression. After reading one of them, a well- intentioned family member informed me that I should stop writing about such “dark topics.” For him it must have been easier (and perhaps less embarrassing) to have the world discussing the brighter parts of my life. After all, is Christianity all about the God of Joy, Consolation and Peace?
It’s a reasonable temptation, but God knows that for every dark path I have traveled, there are many more crossing down the same road. God knows there are good people sitting beside me in the parish who are traveling down roads that are far worse. I want my brothers and sisters to hear the message it was hard for me to hear back then. I want them to hear that they are not alone. I want them to hear that the darkness won’t be with them forever. I want them to hear that whatever they are going through, Christ has suffered too, and Christ will walk with them through whatever trials they are going to face.
In my darkest moments I felt like no one was ready to hear about what I was going through. My life was dark and depressing, and anyone I talked to was going to feel depressed and would want to stop listening. I felt like it would have been unfair to share my burdens with those around me because my burdens were too heavy to carry. My loneliness made me depressed. My depression made me withdraw. My withdrawal made me alone.
That’s why I believe it’s vital for the church to reach out to the mentally ill. They deserve to know they are not alone. They deserve to know we are here to listen. They deserve to know that they are loved. And I don’t think this is just a “good Christian idea”; if you ask me, this is crucial to the very definition of “The Church.”
1 Corinthians 12:25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care
for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it;
In other words, if we are not sharing our hearts and lives with those suffering, as Mr. Williams was so clearly suffering, we are NOT Christ’s body. If even one among us is walking down that dark path, then the body of Christ walks with him. If we choose not to talk about mental illness, if we decide not to give our same care to those who are suffering from it, then bluntly we have no business calling ourselves the Catholic Church.
It is the Catholic Church that prays out our lamentations together during the liturgy of the hours, not because we believe these rote prayers are magical incantations, but because with God’s help the Church longs to be one. Whenever we pray, we know that someone somewhere is joyful. Whenever the Church prays our exaltations together, we are one with him. But also always there are those among us who suffer. Whenever the Church laments together, we are united with them.
We could not know, and will never truly know, how Robin Williams must have suffered, but we, the body, have prayed for him. We, the body, walk with Robin and his family. That is what it means to be Catholic.
It is the Catholic Church that anoints the sick, not because we believe it is a magic spell that will cure their suffering. We anoint the sick because we believe illness (including mental illness) brings Christ closer to you. We believe whoever suffers on this earth shares in Christ’s suffering, so we anoint the sufferers as kings. We anoint them with the kingship of Christ. We do not condemn Robin Williams for his suffering; we exalt him for the load he must have carried. To the least of the body we give the greatest honor. That is what it means to be Catholic.
But it’s not enough to simply spiritually care for those that suffer. If our Catholicism is to have flesh, then we are called to tangibly care for the mentally ill as well. That sounds like a tall order. If anyone close to Robin Williams could have taken his pain away, surely he would have done so. But there is one simple thing which we can all do for those who suffer. We can listen, and listening can be profoundly healing.
Every Christian should develop some basic listening and comforting skills. A good listener is emotionally open and attentive. A good listener focuses on the person being listened to and does not try to interrupt with his own experiences. A good listener does not provide unsolicited advice or judge the person he is listening to. This crucial skill should not be left to a few selected people (professionals and clergy). It is an implied job of every Christian. There are some handy guides online on listening to someone who may be hurting. For more serious matters there are also online guides for talking to people who may be suicidal.
I can’t help but put in a plug here for the Stephens Ministry. Stephens Ministry is a non-denominational national ministry of lay people who spend time dedicated to listening to other parishioners who are going through tough times. Stephen Ministry recipients may be struggling with anything from a job loss, to the death of a loved one, or an unexpected pregnancy.
It is a simple ministry that lives out the call to share our burdens in a tangible and effective way. If you are a parishioner at my parish (Saint Ignatius Martyr Austin), you can join the Stephens Ministry by contacting Dolores Martello [firstname.lastname@example.org]. If you are a member of another parish, consult your parish directory. If your parish does not already participate in the Stephens Ministry, I challenge you to consider bringing the Stephens Ministry to your parish. Their website will get you started.
My challenge to you this post is to listen to those who are suffering around you. We are the body of Christ and when any member of our body is suffering, together we are called to share his burden together.