Visiting a friend the other day, he told me that a close relation of his had recently committed suicide. It was a heartbreaking story. Then, when I got home, I received an email from another friend, telling me that his train had had to be re-routed, causing much delay, because of “a suicide on the line.” Another backstory here, of despair and desperation.
I reflected that suicide – along with the relentless secular push for legal euthanasia and the “right to die” – is an act that strikes at the very heart of our Christian faith: Christ tells us, “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly”. There is also diabolical activity often going on in the background, hidden yet relentless. I recall reading an account by a young Russian atheist living in St Petersburg who, along with friends, had unwisely dabbled in the occult; it led the group to constant temptations to suicide that were only overcome when, on impulse, they fled into a church and begged to be released from their mental and spiritual torments.
The other day I also happened by chance to pick out a volume of Seneca from a pile of books at home. I knew that the ancient Roman author of essays, letters and plays, had been the tutor to the Emperor Nero in his youth and that later, such is the fickleness of tyrants, had been compelled to commit suicide by cutting his veins (the usual imperial form of execution.) Seneca remarked, in the Stoic fashion of his attitude to life and death, “Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel. After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor.”
Tacitus’s sombre account of Seneca’s death tells us that it was slow and painful; that to hasten it Seneca also drank poison; and that his cremation “was without ceremony.” In practice his death was very different from the way he expressed it in one of his letters: “What is however a great thing is to die in a manner which is honourable, enlightened and courageous.” As a pagan, Seneca did not lack courage, but his thoughts on death show how extraordinarily transformative Christianity was for the classical world: here were people who rejected suicide out of hand, who reverenced the body and who loved life, yet who joyfully underwent martyrdom for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, when they saw no alternative in their witness to the love of God.
We have moved from a pagan, to a Christian and now (in the West at least) to a post-Christian world, where euthanasia is encouraged and where jumping in front of a train is an inconvenience for commuters. What will we, who profess the Christian faith, do about this? How will we convince our despairing society that life is a gift; that we come from God and must return to him when he calls us; and that, as Shakespeare put it in Act V of Hamlet, “There is much providence in the fall of a sparrow”?