A ‘pilgrim faith’ can face suicide

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Two years ago, I wrote about a book I’d heard of through an Irish Jesuit website. It was called “Redemption Road: From Grief to Peace through Walking the Camino de Santiago,” by an Irish Jesuit named Brendan McManus.

Father McManus’s pilgrimage through Spain on the famed Camino was inspired by his desire to overcome the enduring anguish resulting from his brother Donal’s suicide many years before.

I, too, had suffered the loss of a brother to suicide many years ago. I wondered what I would learn about healing through the experiences of this Irish Jesuit. Donal had spent two decades spiraling into depression. My brother William ended his life after one year of crisis following his partner’s death.

I’ve had many friends who have made the 500-mile journey through Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I’d seen the movie, “The Way,” which chronicled a fictional character played by Martin Sheen as he sought healing on the Camino following his son’s death.

So when Loyola Press picked up the book, originally published in Ireland, I ordered it eagerly. I was not disappointed. To anyone suffering guilt about suicide — or any-hard-to-reconcile loss — the book offers a very human look at a priest who walked his own road of regrets and doubt. Father McManus is both humble and very real as he relates his journey to healing.

Whether he’s enjoying a beer with some German hikers, filling you in on the pastries he loved with his café con leche (Spanish coffee with milk), or suffering frustrating leg problems requiring medical attention, he’s down-to-earth. There is no holier-than-thou side to this son of a Northern Ireland farmer.

The book brims over with the spirituality of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. If you love Ignatian spirituality, as I do, you’ll find this enriching. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you’ll be inspired. Every few pages have some short suggestions about discernment, the importance of the daily Examen (a way of reviewing your day and determining God’s presence), and Ignatius’ ideas for dealing with desolation.

I read the book quickly, and then I began to read it again, to savor the Ignatian parts. I felt invited to recognize my own personal pilgrimage.

When my brother died, my mother didn’t want anyone to know it was suicide. She feared the priest would not bury my brother in our Catholic cemetery if he knew. One of Father McManus’s sisters asked, “Is Donal in hell?”

Mercifully, the church provides us a far better understanding of suicide now. We understand that to sin we must have free will, and one in the depths of despair has lost his ability to make rational decisions. As Pope Francis has told us, God’s name is mercy, and both Father McManus and I believe that a merciful God embraces our brothers.

Researching the subject online, I found an Irish mental health clinic that said more young people per capita take their lives in Ireland than in any other country in western Europe.

This clinic, in discussing Father McManus’s book, says that psychiatry is extremely important in the treatment of mental illness, but offers this observation: “Recovery may be deepened by the positive values inherent in a pilgrim faith.”

A healthy spirituality encourages healing. May we embrace our pilgrim faith in freedom and joy and share it when we can. We’re all on this pilgrimage together.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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