On Despair and Suicide (Speech of St. Nektarios of Pentapolis)

NOTE: The following article is a pamphlet put together by Archimandrite Parthenios, Abbot of the Holy Monastery Odegetrissa:

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On November 20, 1893, St. Nektarios of Pentapolis made a speech in Lamia concerning the serious matter of despair and suicide. Today, because this social problem has alarming dimensions, the enlightened word of the God-bearing Father and contemporary Saint of our Church is very useful and timely.

Despair is a terrible evil and incurable passion that wears the soul of man. It destroys everything healthy in him, delivers him to destruction and pushes him to put an end to his life. The desperate man, though living, is dead because he lost the link with the world and all life’s pleasantries. He thinks that a faster death, rather than a natural one, will remove him from the sorrows and difficulties of life and results in suicide.

The Cause of Suicide

Despair is the cause of suicide and not insanity. Self-murderers are not insane but desperate. The lunatic attempts, even after his rescue, to be killed without premeditating how to die. He never chooses the weapon or means of suicide and is unconsciously driven in its practice because of his insanity.

The suicide of Judas (detail).
The suicide of Judas (detail).

The lunatic is not asking for death, but death is a consequence desperation act. Suicidal men who are saved are healed; they did not attempt another suicide and repented. Therefore, those who are suicidal do not suffer pathologically, but morally. Despair is ethical misconduct. They ignored ethical therapy and when the panic of despair captured them, they committed suicide. Consequently, they are responsible for their actions and have a great unforgivable sin (unless they repent). The medical diagnosis characterizing all those who commit suicide as mentally ill is incorrect.

The Cause of Despair

The causes of despair are many. The main cause is a moral disease of the sufferer. We can divide the morally sick into three categories:

  1. The atheists,
  2. Those weak in faith, and
  3. Those who are overcome by their feelings and faintheartedness.

Execution of Martyrs at Butovo Firing-Range

The Atheists

Those who belong to the first class enjoy their lives as something good, as there are no difficulties. They have a purely materialistic mentality, living without God. Thus, with the first difficulties of life or change of its terms, they are driven to despair and suicide. Of course, this is not a result of insanity. Those who are fully surrendered to the pleasures and goods of this world are also included in the same category. The philosophy of their life resembles that of the Epicureans. But they finally end after a scalable path to suicide, since the constant pleasures of this world bring saturation, saturation brings disgust, disgust brings aversion, aversion brings boredom, boredom brings sadness, sadness brings pain and pain leads to despair, so they put an end to their lives. A group of people in the same category, also occupied by a materialistic mindset, seek to acquire as many goods as possible, considering them as their means of bliss.   They ignored the real and true bliss, God, and worshipping unstable and fluid elements, they failed and were disappointed.

Monastics who leave Geronda Ephraim are compared to Judas who betrayed Christ.

The Weak in Faith

Those people originally living in accordance with divine and human laws, but with the first major difficulties of life, they lose their courage and hope, i.e. God, belong in the second class. Those who lose their courage are deprived of endurance, self-denial and sacrifice on the battlefield—which in this case is nothing more than life itself with its difficulties.

Those who don’t hope in God are insolent, because imprudence is parody of courage. Indeed, it even results in cowardice and pusillanimity. St. Nektarios likens all of them with ripsaspides of warfare and characterizes them as cowards. Namely, suicide is not an act of courage, but cowardice and audacity. It lacks moral courage, since self-murderers do not calculate anything and anyone resulting in their desperate act. Also, this class of suicides do not have the elements of madmen. They are morally sick, who could be treated, if they sought help from God. They are Christians in name, not in essence, since they are ignorant of the grace of Jesus Christ that overshadows all believers, the dispassion and fortitude that should show the Christian about the difficulties of this life. Eventually all who belong to this class, while they start with a superficial faith, they end in infidelity with despair as a consequence.

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The Emotionally Ill

Finally, all those who kill themselves frustrated by human love—whether pure (such as juvenile sex) or illegal and despicable—are classified in the third group.

The heartbreak of young people occurs because of grief for the loss of their erotic idol. This brings misery and the inexperience in life matters gives enormous proportions to the fact, which for frustrated youth are considered most evil. But this is a deplorable delusion, ignorance of the future life, lack of religious education and Christian spirit. In this case, those accountable are not the youth but rather their parents, who didn’t take care to bring up their children properly. Indeed, at the critical moment that their children needed care and advice, they showed negligence or urged them into a disastrous relationship.

Archangel Michael Cemetery at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Archangel Michael Cemetery at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

The second group in this category (adulterers, etc.) have moral corruption as the cause. They are considered violators of God’s commandments; they destroyed their family and the sanctity of marriage before they were brought to suicide. Those who commit suicide because their pride was insulted and those who were not able to overcome unforeseen difficult or unpleasant moments that occurred in their lives are placed in the same category. The common cause is the lack of Christian education and a Christian lifestyle, resulting in a moral slump, misuse of freedom and foreigner mimicry. If they had a Christian education they would not have committed suicide, but would have repented and corrected their lives.

Cemetery at Holy Protection Monastery (PA)
Cemetery at Holy Protection Monastery (PA)

Treatment of Suicides by the Church

Today the issue of the funeral services for suicides is considered timely, since there are cases where priests refuse to bury them, thus creating tension between relatives of the self-murderer and the Church. Of course, most of the time funeral services for suicides occur according to dispensation. However, which of the two should happen? Following the steadfast tradition of the Church, St. Nektarios prohibits funerals for suicides, highlighting two important arguments. Firstly, the Church has prohibitions on funerals for suicides. Also, there is no special service for suicides. Indeed, in relation to the funeral service, St. Nektarios correctly observes that when the usual service is read for self-murderers, then the Church sins. It sins because it lies towards God, before the people, and indeed inside the holy Church.

Cemetery at St. Anthony's Monastery (AZ)
Cemetery at St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ)

False, because the service assumes that the dead man was a faithful man and servant of God and that God “called His servant” to the next life. But none of these things are true. He who commits suicide is neither a believer nor a servant of God because the act of suicide proves unbelief and disobedience to God’s will. Also, God did not call the self-murderer, but rather he ended his own life, whose ruler is only God who gave it. The Church has a mandate to bury those falling asleep in the Lord and the funeral service is only for them, which is in accordance with the life and faith of the one buried. Saint Nektarios observes that whoever believe that the Church should not be so harsh and strict towards the living relatives but rather give them consolation and relief by burying self-murderers are ignorant of the serious reasons why the Church refuses—even though the Church always has love and consolation and is grieved about the evil that occurs to one of her children. This evil binds the Church and prevents her from every action.

Funeral at Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)
Funeral at Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)

This attitude of the Church is not vindictive and punitive, but benevolent and healing for the dead and their living relatives. This should explain the Church in its pastoral care for all. The soul of the dead person and of the living relatives are burdened bear via funerals for suicides. This is because the sanctuary of the Church is profaned with the lies told before God (“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the Lord,” etc.).

Hieromonk Joseph (SA) performing the funeral service at Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)
Hieromonk Joseph (SA) performing the funeral service at Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)

Conclusions Suicide is a heinous act and it is condemned by the Church and society. It is an act that leads to demoralization and despair and an act of cowardice, selfishness and diseased egotism.

1

According to the high principles of the Gospel, the Church is not permitted to bury suicides. And his relatives should not seek to make funeral and memorial services with fraud (medical certificate that the self-murderer was insane – psychopath). And of course, doctors should not become accomplices in the fraud.

2

The Church, with her strict attitude towards suicide—which the relatives of the deceased must understand and accept—stigmatizes the practice and prevents others who probably be pushed into the act like a preventive medicine. But it mainly protects the sanctity of the sacraments and the sacred space of the Temple from the profanation that burdens the soul of the dead and of the living relatives and priests.

3

The radical therapy of evil will come with Christian education and a spiritual life within the framework of the Gospel’s teaching. Our participation in the sacramental life of the Church and our spiritual struggle is the best treatment of moral corruption and the despair that leads to the horrific act of suicide.

Cemetery at Panagia Vlahernon Monastery (FL)
Cemetery at Panagia Vlahernon Monastery (FL)

Sources:

  1. Αγίου Νεκταρίου Πενταπόλεως, Περί αληθούς και ψευδούς µορφώσεως, Γραφή περί αυτοκτονίας, Εκδόσεις Ν. Παναγόπουλος, Αθήνα 1989.
  2. Κ. Σταυριανός : «Απόγνωση και Αυτοκτονία» θέσεις και απόψεις του Αγίου Νεκταρίου, Περιοδικό Θεοδροµία, Τεύχος 5, έτος 2000.

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 NOTE: In the early Church, the Fathers had conflicting views on suicide. Though the majority of Fathers did not accept any excuse for suicide, some Fathers did accept female suicides if it was to prevent rape.

St. Ambrose of Milan taught that “suicide is preferable to losing one’s virginity.” (De virginibus 7:32).

St. John Chrysostom also accepted suicide for women who were attempting to protect their purity. In his sermon on the Virgin-Martyr Pelagia–who threw herself off a roof–suicide is victory over the enemies of God and the Devil himself. In the case of Sts. Domnina and her two daughters, Bernike and Prosdoke, St. John excuses and lauds St. Domnina for killing her two daughters to preserve their purity. St. Domnina then committed suicide.

For more information on the conflicting views of early Orthodox Patristics on suicide, as well as the contemporary view, see:

http://suicideintheorthodoxchurch.tumblr.com/