A few decades ago, a distant relative here in Melbourne committed suicide. At the time, he was afflicted by a debilitating mental illness that altered his perception of reality. His death was confronting and infinitely traumatising for all of those who knew him and loved him. At his funeral, the priest did his utmost to console his heartbroken family. He ventured to suggest that Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do,” seemed to assure to the deceased, eternal life.
Recent discussion of the Orthodox Church’s position on suicide tends to skirt an often overlooked aspect of its theology – that of oikonomia, or literally “housekeeping”. This is a nuanced approach to aspects of human existence that takes into account the complexity and variables of situations, like the mental state of a person in conjunction with other circumstances, when seeking to apply broad principles into practice. Certainly broad doctrinal positions have been set out on a multitude of issues over the course of the Church’s history, but unlike Western churches, whose approach to moral issues has been prescriptive or proscriptive. The Orthodox Church however, has historically been more cautious in dealing with moral concerns by applying the discretion of oikonomia which has as its primary consideration and guiding principle, the care and love of the person concerned, and what is the best spiritual or pastoral outcome for all involved.
The advantage of applying oikonomia, is that when assessing the conduct or circumstance of a believer, a priest can tailor-make, adapt or forego the application of core beliefs and practices to the specific needs or benefit of that person. Of course, this process requires a priest who is perspicacious and sensitive, but has some type of relationship with the person in question and knows them. (A point which is virtually difficult to cultivate when people are unknown in their local church, avoid contact or rarely attend except for major feasts).
Yet, the disadvantage of clergy having this discretionary responsibility, is the danger to either abuse it, or not exercise it as intended. Historically, owing to politics, social upheaval, isolation, poverty, ignorance and/or bigotry, many priests have not exercised that discretion in the manner required of them.
In the case of suicide, the broad doctrine the Orthodox Church has regard to, is that life is a gift from God, Who is the creator of all life. Accordingly, humanity’s mission is to preserve and enhance that life. As a result, no one is permitted to abrogate to themselves, the right to take away someone else’s life or even their own. Murder or self-murder are thus condemned. Suicide, is considered to be particularly heinous, because when a person destroys his or her life with his or her own hand, they deny to themselves the opportunity for repentance, that is available to murderers of others. According to Christian belief, a person is called upon to repent of their transgression and work constantly to improve themselves throughout the course of their lives, and one of the key objects of the Church is to assist people in working through their problems. For the Church recognises that no person is flawless, or that life is at all easy and perfect, but that when problems arise and confront our being, we should not fear or avoid them, but deal with those troubles and turn them into learning experiences and positives for us to grow. In this view, suicide deprives a person of that difficult opportunity to strive towards a resolution and live a fulfilling life. Refusing such a process of self-examination, growth, insight and repentance is considered particularly prideful and terrible. Consequently, the canons and practice of the Orthodox Church, thus prohibit a Church burial to a person who has committed suicide. Suicide generally is thus considered a rejection of God’s gift of physical life, a failure of stewardship, an unrepentant act of despair, and a transgression of the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.”
In Greece and especially in the villages, it was customary for poorly trained priests to apply the broad principles literally, without exemption, in a narrow interpretation that was totally alien to the humane spirit of the Church, causing trauma to the families of suicide victims, ostracism and a large amount of unnecessary shame. Such insensitive approaches, some of which were transplanted to Australia by Greek migrants and priests echoing their agrarian past are not in keeping with Church teaching.
For in fact, owing to the discretionary application of oikonomia, the Church does take the trouble to understand the individual circumstances behind each suicide. As a result, while the Church condemns the taking of a life, it also takes into account of the fact that spiritual factors, like acedia, defined as spiritual torpor, and physical/mental factors such as depression can severely compromise a person’s ability to reason clearly and act freely. In these situations, notwithstanding the blanket condemnation of suicide, the Church will allow a funeral service to suicide victims whose capacities for judgment and action were found to be significantly diminished, and who thus were not responsible for their actions. Given that most suicides are these days as a result of physical and mental anguish that impact upon a person’s ability to reason, it follows axiomatically that most suicides in the Orthodox Church will be afforded a proper burial.
The corollary of this is that in cases where the deceased held a philosophical view affirming the right to suicide and acted accordingly, then that deceased will be denied an Orthodox funeral service, assuming of course that such a view was not formed owing to depression or other circumstances (IE. coming off life-support), in which case, the application of oikonomia may again override the general principle of adopting a strict stance.
Given that the Orthodox Church’s position on this issue, which has been confirmed much more succinctly by our local Bishop Ezekiel, is more nuanced and humane than is widely thought, as the recent consternation over the Orthodox view of suicide and burial is cause for concern. Calls for the Church “to move with the times,” suggest that (a) the popular appreciation of the Church is of a hidebound, bigoted, medieval institution that bears no relevance to modern life, that (b) the sophisticated, though often inscrutable manner in which the Orthodox Church addresses moral issues is not widely appreciated if it is at all known, and that (c) the public posturings and pronouncements of certain priests are responsible for this state of affairs. The primary focus of the Church and its pastoral ministry in cases of suicide is on the living, the family and friends of the deceased. Those left behind carry a great burden of hurt, guilt, and shame and those that look to the Church and especially to the parish family, for strength and hope regarding the deceased, and for the support and love they themselves urgently need, should find this and not the condemnation and rejection that some have been meted, as a result of ignorance or a lack of effort by a minority of priests who should know better. In the vast majority of cases, they do find the consolation they seek, though it is tragic that the isolated conduct of the few could do so much to create public misapprehension.
While it cannot be doubted that a few within the older generation of priests, many of whom assumed their position in a “state of emergency,” in order to satisfy the urgent need of Greek migrants for religious services, have lacked both the theological and social sensitivity and knowledge to properly administer pastoral care to their parishioners. The same cannot be said of the new generation of priests, mostly graduates of St Andrews Theological College in Sydney, who, conversant with both Greek and Australian social norms, divorced from the village folklore that often clouds Greek migrants’ perceptions of the workings of the Orthodox Church, and engaged in a good deal more social work than is often appreciated. Behind the scenes, these reverend fathers are tackling a host of social problems, such as drug addiction, family breakdown and violence, gender confusion, depression and anorexia that their predecessors would have ever dreamed of. In all cases, the fathers are finding not only that more and more second and third generation Greek-Australians are turning to the Church in times of trouble, but also, that the teachings of the Orthodox Church, carefully considered over millennia, rather than being absolutist, antiquated and irrelevant, are an often unlooked for and constant source of guidance, support and comfort in this post-modern world. And that in fact, our perceptions of the Church are shrouded by our inherited village heritage as well as the overriding western disapprobation of the Western Churches, whose development has been quite distinct from our own. It is hoped that in time, the quiet toiling fathers’ exposition of Orthodoxy will be appreciated, and that incidents such as those which have caused members of our community so much anguish and which fly in the face of Orthodox teaching, are never repeated.