Category Archives: Christology

Feb 2 – Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – Nunc dimittis & sin’s effect…


-“Simeon’s song of praise”, by Aert de Geider, ~1700-1710, oil on canvas, Height: 94.5 cm (37.2 in). Width: 107.5 cm (42.3 in), Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

Lord, now You may dismiss Your servant. (cf Lk 2:26)
For mine eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared before all people;
To be a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.
-Lk 2:29-32


-by Br Isidore Rice, OP

“We tend to shy away from our sins and weaknesses coming to light. When we hear of someone caught and punished for committing injustice, we might be tempted to think them worse off than those ‘lucky’ evildoers who get off scot-free. Yet, even by the light of his natural reason, Socrates saw through this instinct:

“But in my opinion, Polus, the unjust or doer of unjust actions is miserable in any case,—more miserable, however, if he be not punished and does not meet with retribution, and less miserable if he be punished and meets with retribution at the hands of gods and men.”

Socrates is motivated by the conviction that just actions are healthy for the soul while unjust actions sicken it. Whatever suffering just punishment may bring to the body, it is nothing compared to the misery caused by sin festering in the dark corners of one’s soul. Thus, for Socrates, the path forward for an evildoer is clear:

“[If anyone] does wrong, he ought of his own accord to go where he will be immediately punished; he will run to the judge, as he would to the physician, in order that the disease of injustice may not be rendered chronic and become the incurable cancer of the soul.”

All this is true, but it does not seem particularly hopeful. After all, as Socrates says, the “doer of unjust actions is miserable in any case.” For Socrates, the evildoer is still miserable even while his wrongdoing is brought to light and he receives justice.

But we have a greater light, a light which not only brings us to justice, but brings justice into our hearts. We may be tempted to shy away from this light as well, for, as the prophet says, “Who will endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” (Malachi 3:2).

And yet, this coming light is none other than Jesus, our savior. The presentation of the baby Jesus, carried in the arms of His mother Mary into the Temple, hardly seems like a day that must be endured. Simeon and Anna did not quail in fear when this light was presented. Rather, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they drew near and rejoiced. But, as Simeon prophesied:

“Behold, this child is destined

for the fall and rise of many in Israel,

and to be a sign that will be contradicted

and you yourself a sword will pierce

so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).

This same Jesus will soon hang on the cross between two thieves as a sign of contradiction, with Mary, her heart pierced by a sword of sorrow, at His feet. One thief, seeking merely to avoid punishment for his crimes, falls into the greater crime of blasphemy. The other, accepting justice and hoping for mercy, rises with Jesus. And the good thief is not merely brought to the state of lesser misery offered by Socrates. That very day St. Dismas entered paradise to enjoy the vision of God Himself in the light of glory (Lk. 23:43).

May the same Holy Spirit who led Simeon to encounter Jesus in the Temple and St. Dismas to turn to Jesus on the cross lead us to encounter Him in the Sacrament of Confession. Lord Jesus, give us the grace to open our hearts to your light so that you may burn out all evil lurking there. Let us then hear the wonderful words, “may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins,” so that with Simeon, we may rejoice and pray,

“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32).”

Love, & His peace, which is beyond ALL understanding, His gift He left to us, if only we would avail,
Matthew

The True Vine

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – O my Lord and Redeemer, grant that I may understand the deep intimate ties that bind You to us, whom You have redeemed.

MEDITATION

Jesus is the “one Mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5); however, He did not will to effect the work of our redemption independently of us, but used it as a means of strengthening the bond between Himself and us. This is the wonderful mystery of our incorporation in Christ, the mystery which Our Lord Himself revealed to His apostles the night before His Passion. “I am the true vine; and My Father is the husbandman…. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:1,4).

Jesus strongly affirms that there is no redemption, no supernatural life, no grace-life for one who does not live in Him, who is not grafted onto Him. He points to the vine: the shoots will not live and bear fruit unless they remain attached to the trunk. Jesus wishes to actualize this close connection between Himself and us, a connection which is necessary for our salvation and sanctification. We cannot receive the least degree of grace except through Christ’s mediation, even as the smallest drop of sap cannot reach a branch which is detached from the tree.

Moreover, Jesus declares that, if we abide in Him, we shall not only have supernatural life, but we shall become the recipients of special attention from our heavenly Father, the “Husbandman” of the mystical vine. In fact, our heavenly Father acknowledges us as His adopted children, loves us as such, and takes care of us, precisely to the degree in which He sees in us Christ, His only-begotten, His well-beloved Son. The grace of adoption, then, is wholly dependent upon our union with Christ, a union so close that we form, as it were, a “living part” of Him, as the branch forms a living part of the vine.

COLLOQUY

“O most high and eternal Trinity, Deity, Love, we are trees of death, and You are the tree of Life. O infinite God! How beautiful was Your creature when a pure tree in Your light! O supreme purity, You endowed it with branches, that is, with the faculties of the soul, memory, intellect, and will…. The memory, to recall You; the intellect, to know You; the will, to love You…. But this tree fell, because by disobeying it lost its innocence. Instead of a tree of life, it became a tree of death and brought forth only fruits of death.

This is why, O eternal, most high Trinity, in a sublime transport of love for Your creature, seeing that this tree could produce only fruits of death because it was separated from You, Who are Life, You gave it a remedy with that very same love by which You had created it, grafting Your Deity into the dead tree of our humanity. O sweet, gentle grafting!… Who constrained You to do this, to give back life to it, You who have been offended so many times by Your creature? Love alone, whence by this grafting death is dissolved.

Was Your charity content, having made this union? No, eternal Word, You watered this tree with Your Blood. This Blood, by its warmth makes it grow, if man with his free will grafts himself onto You, and unites and binds his heart and affections to You, tying and binding this graft with the bond of charity and following Your doctrine. Since it is through You, O Life, that we bring forth fruits of life, we wish to be grafted onto You. When we are grafted onto You, then the branches which You have given to our tree bear fruit” (St. Catherine of Siena).

How encouraging it is to think, O Jesus, that my longing to be united to You is not a vain fantasy, but is already a reality! It is a reality because You have willed to graft me onto You as a shoot is grafted onto the vine, so that I live wholly by this union with You. Oh! grant that my soul may become always more closely united to You, and may always be ready to receive the vital sap of grace which You produce in me, Your branch!”

Love,
Matthew

Betrayed with a kiss -Lk 22:48

Mohandas Gandhi was known to read the New Testament every day. A British reporter asked him if he intended to become a Christian. Gandhi replied, “Your Jesus I like. If I ever meet a Christian, I will become one.”

-by Don Steiger, pastor of Dakota Ridge Assembly, Littleton, Colorado

“It has been said that there are two reasons why people do not go to church: They do not know a Christian, or they do know a Christian. Several times through the years I have heard people say they are no longer serving God because someone in the church let them down. Our maturity as Christians is put to the test when people disappoint us. No one has gone through life without such experiences.

Several years after I came to Colorado Springs to pastor Radiant Church a fellowship of pastors decided it would be a good thing to bring our churches together for a united worship service. We secured the city auditorium and invited our congregations to gather for a Sunday night service. The response was terrific and the building was packed when we started the worship. The evening went well up to the conclusion of the service. To my surprise, the pastor responsible for the closing prayer departed from the planned order of service and asked all the pastors to come to the front and face the audience. He then said, “If anyone has a grievance against a pastor come forward and work it out.” Billy Graham would have been envious of the response to this altar call. People got out of their seats and moved toward me and my fellow pastors in what looked like a tidal wave of disgruntled parishioners. A line formed in front of me and one by one I listened to their complaints and responded as best I could. This process probably took an hour or two, but it seemed more like an eternity. After it was all over my wife Loretta said, “Don, I don’t know if you realize it, but you had the longest line.” This distinction was not one I wanted when I entered the ministry. I must admit I left that service wounded by the people I had worked so hard to serve.

The apostle Paul also experienced his share of troubling relationships. In his last recorded words Paul includes a listing of several people who played important roles in his life. Some were positive in their influence and some were negative. His response is instructive as we make our way through the variety of relationships life presents to us.

In 2 Timothy 4:9–22, Paul mentions several people by name as he concludes his last epistle. He is writing from a Roman prison cell facing the possibility of martyrdom. Among the names mentioned is a representation of some of the critical relationships we experience in our Christian walk.

First, there was an adversarial relationship—“Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm” (verse 14, NIV). It may be that this person is the Alexander mentioned in Acts 19:33. The idol makers of Ephesus were losing business because of the influence of the church, and incited the city residents against the Christians and their most visible leader, Paul. Consequently, the Jewish community, for fear of being associated with the church, chose Alexander to speak on their behalf. There is also an Alexander mentioned in 1 Timothy 1:19,20. This man’s faith was shipwrecked and Paul delivered him over to Satan that he may be taught not to blaspheme. It is tough enough when unbelievers oppose us, but when a professing Christian does so it is most disheartening. We do not know much about Alexander or the details of his activity, but Paul said he “did me a great deal of harm … because he strongly opposed our message” (verse 14,15).

Responding to an adversarial relationship requires wisdom and prayer. Loving his enemy, and yet guarding himself against Alexander’s attacks, was a skill Paul had acquired in his walk with God. He taught us “Do not repay evil for evil. … Do not take revenge. … ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17–21, NIV). So in response to Alexander’s opposition Paul said, “The Lord will repay him for what he has done” (verse 14, NIV). He rejected a life of resentment and retribution, and gave his hurt to God. Adopting this perspective will prevent the pollution of our spirit when we are tempted to retaliate. Furthermore, Paul protected himself from unnecessary injury by Alexander. He said, “You too should be on your guard against him” (verse 15). Paul was on guard against Alexander, and he advised Timothy to do the same. Loving our enemies does not mean we allow ourselves to be unnecessarily victimized by them.

Second, there was a broken relationship—“for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (verse 10, NIV). Demas was mentioned by Paul in his letters to Philemon and the Colossians as a fellow laborer. Demas’ action at this time was not a matter of opposition; it was a matter of failure. Demas deserted Paul in one of the most difficult moments of Paul’s life, and chose to pursue the things of the world rather than Christ. His timing could not have been worse for Paul. At this point some would throw up their hands and say, “It’s not worth it.” But Paul remained steadfast in his commitment to Christ and healthy in his attitude. The reality is there will be broken relationships resulting from the sins of others. Some times we are unable to repair the damage and are left with the heartache of a friend who chooses to persist in rebellion against God.

Samuel experienced this kind of pain in his relationship with Saul. He did everything he could to help Saul be the man and king God wanted him to be. Unfortunately, Saul repeatedly disobeyed God, and finally the Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 16:1, NIV). The Lord then sent him to the household of Jesse to anoint David as the next King of Israel. To endure in our Christian faith and service we must be willing to give to God those who have deeply disappointed us and move on.

Third, there was a reconciled relationship—“Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (verse 11). Mark had disappointed Paul on this first missionary journey. Mark was part of the team, and in Acts 13:13 it states that John (Mark) left them. This departure was early on in the journey and was regarded by Paul as a desertion. When Paul and Barnabas discussed plans for their second missionary trip (Acts 15:36–41) Barnabas suggested taking Mark again. Paul refused and they were unable to agree, so Barnabas took Mark and set out on their own missionary effort. Paul then chose Silas to accompany him on his missionary journey. No doubt it brought great joy to Barnabas and Paul when Mark proved himself to be a reliable coworker in the kingdom of God. It must have been a poignant moment when Paul and Mark reconciled. Clearly they forged a trusted friendship as the years went by, so much so that Paul wanted Mark to be present during his time of suffering.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13,14, NIV). Developing a forgiving spirit and a heart for restoration will prevent us from imposing a burden of perfection upon others that neither they nor we can fulfill.

Fourth, there was a faithful human relationship—“Only Luke is with me” (verse 11). For everyone who had let Paul down, several had not. Paul taught us to think on good things. In this text he enumerates some who had brought him heartache, but he also lists the names of others who had consistently strengthened him. In fact, he names more in this category than in the other. He mentions Crescens, Titus, Luke, Tychicus, Priscilla, Aquila, Onesiphorus and his household, Erastus, Trophimas, Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia. For each one who fails us there are many who have not. We tend to respond to the failures of a few by concluding that no one is trustworthy.

Luke stands out as one of Paul’s closest and most trusted friends. Some even speculate that Paul’s statement, “Only Luke is with me,” indicates that Luke made himself a legal slave to Paul so he could enter the prison and minister to him. This seems possible given the record of Luke’s loyal friendship with Paul.

Even the best friendship, however, is flawed by our humanity. Notice what Paul said in verse 16, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” When Paul was taken into a Roman courtroom there was not a single Christian present to support him. Even Luke was not there. Paul felt deserted in his greatest hour of need. What will he do— how will he respond? He could have been overcome with disappointment or anger, but amazingly he was not. He concluded verse 16 by saying, “May it not be held against them.”

Even the most mature saint will sometimes disappoint others. It may not be by grievous sin, but by not meeting their expectations. Being human we sometimes grow weary and cannot do any more in a given situation, or we misjudge what our involvement should be, or the offended party misunderstands us. These human episodes teach us mercy. When we feel disappointed in someone else we should remember that others have been disappointed in us. Hopefully we can respond with the gracious prayer “May it not be held against them.” Jesus gave us the example when on the cross He prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).

Last, there was a faithful divine relationship—“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth” (verse 17). The faithfulness of God is absolute. I think sometimes He allows circumstances to arise in which we feel disappointed in people to test our dependence on Him. Without question, He has designed the body of Christ to be a sustaining influence for every believer, but our dependence on people can reach unhealthy proportions. Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith and when we can look beyond the failures of men and remain faithful to God, we have reached an important level of maturity in Christ that contributes strength to the rest of the Body. How we relate to people should be the result of our relationship with Christ. When our relationship with Christ depends on the performance of people, our faith is in peril.

The moment when Paul felt all had deserted him was a critical moment in his walk with God. It was also a critical moment in his service to Jesus Christ. By not giving in to the disappointment, he experienced the empowering presence of Christ and was able to fully accomplish the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles in a hostile Roman courtroom. If he had given in, his heart would have been deeply wounded and an important opportunity lost.

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ ” (Hebrews 13:5,6).”

Love,
Matthew

Epiphany of the Lord

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – I recognize in You, O little Jesus, the King of heaven and earth; grant that I may adore You with the faith and love of the Magi.

MEDITATION

“He whom the Virgin bore is acknowledged today by the whole world…. Today is the glorious Feast of His Manifestation” (Roman Breviary). Today Jesus shows Himself to the world as God.

The Introit of the Mass brings us at once into this spirit, presenting Jesus to us in the full majesty of His divinity. “Behold the sovereign Lord is come; in His hands He holds the kingdom, the power, and the empire.” The Epistle (Isaiah 60:1-6) breaks forth in a hymn of joy, announcing the vocation of the Gentiles to the faith; they too will acknowledge and adore Jesus as their God: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come…. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising…. All they from [Sheba] shall come, bringing gold and frankincense, and showing forth praise to the Lord.” We no longer gaze upon the lowly picture of the shepherds at the manger; passing before us now is the resplendent procession of the Wise Men from the East, representing the pagan nations and all the kings of the earth, who come to pay homage to the Child-God.

Epiphany, or Theophany, means the Manifestation of God; today it is realized in Jesus who manifests Himself as God and Lord of the world. Already a prodigy has revealed His divinity—the extraordinary star which appeared in the East. To the commemoration of this miracle, which holds the primary place in the day’s liturgy, the Church [formerly added] two others [which She now celebrates separately]: the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, and the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when a voice from heaven announced, “This is My beloved Son.” The Magnificat Antiphon [still] says, “Three miracles adorn this holy day”—three miracles which should lead us to recognize the Child Jesus as our God and King, and to adore Him with lively faith.”

COLLOQUY

“O Jesus, I adore You, for You are the Lord my God. “For You, my Lord, are a great God, and a great King above all kings. For in Your hand are all the ends of the earth, and the heights of the mountains are Yours. For the sea is Yours, and You made it; and, Your hands formed the dry land…. We are the people of Your pasture and the sheep of Your hand” [cf Psalm 95]. Yes, O Jesus, I am one of Your lambs, one of Your creatures; and I am happy to acknowledge my nothingness in Your presence, and still happier to adore You, O lovely Infant, as my God and my Redeemer. O that all nations would acknowledge You for what You are, that all might prostrate before You, adoring You as their Lord and God!

O Lord, You can do this. Reveal Your divinity to all mankind, and just as once You drew the Magi from the East to You, now in like manner unite all peoples and all nations around Your manger.

You have shown me that You want my poor cooperation in order to bring about the coming of Your Kingdom. You wish me to pray, suffer, and work for the conversion of those who are near and of those who are far away. You wish that I, too, place before the manger the gifts of the Wise Men: the incense of prayer, the myrrh of mortification and of suffering borne with generosity out of love for You, and finally, the gold of charity, charity which will make my heart wholly and exclusively Yours, charity which will spur me on to work, to spend myself for the conversion of sinners and infidels, and for the greater sanctification of Your elect.

O my loving King, create in me the heart of an apostle. If only I could lay at Your feet today the praise and adoration of everyone on earth!

O my Jesus, while I beg You to reveal Yourself to the world, I also beseech You to reveal Yourself more and more to my poor soul. Let Your star shine for me today, and point out to me the road which leads directly to You! May this day be a real Epiphany for me, a new manifestation to my mind and heart of Your great Majesty. He who knows You more, loves You more, O Lord; and I want to know You solely in order to love You, to give myself to You with ever greater generosity.”

Love & epiphany of Him,
Matthew

Jan 3 – Most Holy Name of Jesus, “Every knee shall bend!” -Phil 2:10

The Irish are particular with the name of Mary, too. Traditionally, no Irish girl-child would be named Mary. However, this custom loosened and variations, in Gaelic, such as Moire’, which means “star of the sea”, meaning, similar to the North Star, by which sailors are ever guided at night, Mary guides to Jesus. Or, Maire’, yet still, Muire’, even today, traditionally reserved ONLY for the Blessed Mother, in Gaelic.

Ave Maris Stella
Dei Mater alma
Atque semper Virgo
Felix coeli porta.

Sumens illud Ave
Gabrielis ore,
Funda nos in pacem,
Mutans Hevae nomen.

Solve vincla reis,
Profer lumen coecis,
Mala nostra pelle,
Bona cuncta posce.

Monstra te esse matrem
Sumat per te presces
Qui pro nobis natus
Tulit esse tuus.

Virgo singularis,
Inter omnes mitis,
Nos culpis solutos,
Mites fac et castos.

Vitam praesta puram
Iter para tutum,
Ut videntes Iesum
Semper collaetemur.

Sit laus Deo Patri,
Summo Christo decus,
Spiritui Sancto,
Tribus honor unus.

Amen.

Hail, o star of the ocean,
God’s own Mother blest,
ever sinless Virgin,
gate of heav’nly rest.

Taking that sweet Ave,
which from Gabriel came,
peace confirm within us,
changing Eve’s name.

Break the sinners’ fetters,
make our blindness day,
Chase all evils from us,
for all blessings pray.

Show thyself a Mother,
may the Word divine
born for us thine Infant
hear our prayers through thine.

Virgin all excelling,
mildest of the mild,
free from guilt preserve us
meek and undefiled.

Keep our life all spotless,
make our way secure
till we find in Jesus,
joy for evermore.

Praise to God the Father,
honor to the Son,
in the Holy Spirit,
be the glory one. Amen.


-by Br Josemaria Guzman-Dominguez, OP

“…Many Anglophone Christians find (the) Latino custom (of naming boy infants Jesus) peculiar and are even discomfited by it. They might ask, “How is it that faithful Christians would name their son with the Name above every other name? Wouldn’t this open the floodgates to pronouncing the Holy Name in vain? And isn’t it too great a burden, too high an expectation, for a small boy to bear the name by which we are to be saved?” These are fair questions. Indeed, we should revere the Lord’s Name, and we should be careful not to misuse it. And certainly, we would not want any ordinary person to be led to think that he needs to save the world, or that all our sins rest on him, or much less that he is the Only-Begotten Son of God!

Does that mean some Latino parents are mistaken in naming their son Jesús? I don’t think so. Look at this sentence again and reflect on it: “When he was baptized, he was named Jesús.”

When we ponder these words, we can see that, in a way, they apply to any Christian. As St. Paul puts it, “through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Through the grace given in baptism, each Christian is brought into Christ; each receives the Spirit of adoption, becoming a son or daughter of God; each is named Jesús.

In baptism, a soul is transformed into the image of Jesus. Beyond the day of baptism, God calls every Christian to become ever more intensely an image of Jesus, the perfect Image of the Father. But this imitation of Christ is not one that keeps Jesus as a model in the distance. No, it is a most intimate movement of conversion, which if left unimpeded by sin, changes every aspect of one’s being. By grace, a Christian can reach union with Jesus and say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me.”

Why do we desire to be called by the Lord’s name, to be baptized into his mystery? The words of Richard Rolle give some incentives. “The name of Jesus,” he says, “purges your sin and kindles your heart; it clarifies your soul, it removes anger and does away with slowness. It wounds in love and fulfills charity. It chases the devil and puts out dread. It opens heaven, and makes you a contemplative.”

In this life, only some of us, perhaps oddly, will actually be called Jesús. However, the fact that there are such men can remind us of our common Christian vocation. If by grace we live the life of Jesus, in the end our true name will be known. We will all be named Jesús because we will be perfectly one with him. For “we shall see his face, and his name shall be on our foreheads. And night shall be no more; we will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light, and we shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:4-5).”

Love,
Matthew

Abiding in Christ

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – O Jesus, teach me not only how to live with You, but how to live in You, to abide in You.

MEDITATION

On the evening of the Last Supper Jesus said: “Abide in Me and I in you” (John 15:4) and shortly afterward He instituted the Eucharist, the Sacrament whose specific purpose is to nourish our life of union with Him. When Jesus comes to us, He does not depart without leaving on our soul “the impress of grace, like a seal pressed on hot wax … which leaves its impression after it has been removed. Thus the virtue of this sacrament, the warmth of divine charity, remains in the soul” (St. Catherine of Siena). Jesus said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and what will I but that it be kindled?” (Luke 12:49), and where will He light the fire of His love if not in the soul of the communicant who has the great privilege of giving Him hospitality? Each time we approach the Eucharistic table, Jesus, through the power of this Sacrament, rekindles in us the fire of His love and leaves the imprint of His grace; by this love and grace, we remain spiritually united to Him. Even if we do not think of it, this reality is accomplished and is, of itself, very precious. However, Jesus wishes us to be aware of it, that we may live our union with Him in its fullness. Note that in speaking of our union with Himself, Jesus always presupposes our action before His own: “He that eateth My Flesh … abideth in Me and I in Him,” “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 6:57 – 15:4); not that our action is the more important—for Jesus always precedes us with His grace, without which any union with Him would be impossible—but He would have us understand that we shall be united to Him in proportion to our correspondence with grace. Each Communion, of itself, brings us a new grace of union with Christ and therefore offers us the possibility of greater intimacy with Him, but we will live this union only according to the measure of our good will and our interior dispositions.

COLLOQUY

“O Jesus, unite my heart to Yours, and consume everything in it that is displeasing to You; unite all that I am to all that You are, that You may supply for everything I lack. Unite my prayers and praises to those You address to Your Father from the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, so that Your prayer may supply for the deficiencies of mine.

In order to make myself like You, Who on the altar are obedient to every priest, good or bad, I will obey promptly and will put myself in the hands of my superiors as a victim to be immolated, so that dying to all my own wishes, inclinations, passions, and repugnances, I can be disposed of by my superiors as they see fit, without showing any repugnance. And as Your life in the Blessed Sacrament is completely hidden from the eyes of creatures, who see nothing but the poor appearance of the bread, so I shall strive, for love of You, to live so hidden that I shall always be veiled under the ashes of humility, loving to be despised, and rejoicing to appear the poorest and most abject of all.

In order to be like You, Who are always alone in the Blessed Sacrament, I shall love solitude and try to converse with You as much as possible. Grant that my mind may not seek to know anything but You, that my heart may have no longings or desires but to love You. When I am obliged to take some comfort, I shall take care to see that it be pleasing to Your Heart. In my conversations, O divine Word, I shall consecrate all my words to You so that You will not permit me to pronounce a single one which is not for Your glory…. When I am thirsty, I shall endure it in honor of the thirst You endured for the salvation of souls…. If by chance, I commit some fault, I shall humble myself, and then take the opposite virtue from Your Heart, offering it to the eternal Father in expiation for my failure. All this I intend to do, O Eucharistic Jesus, to unite myself to You in every action of the day” (cf. St. Margaret Mary).

Love,
Matthew

The Truth & the Life

-by Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne, 1627-1704, “Meditations for Lent”, Saturday after Ash Wednesday.

“I AM the truth and the life” (cf. John 14:6). I AM the Word that was “at the beginning,” the word of the eternal Father, His concept, His wisdom, the true light that enlightens every man (John 1:9). I AM the truth itself and consequently the support, the nourishment, and the life of all who hear Me, the One in Whom there is life, the same life that is in the Father…It is when we possess the truth, that is to say, when we know it, when we love it, when we embrace it that we really live…

Come then, O Truth! You Yourself are my life, and because You come close to me, You are my way. What do I have to fear? How can I be anxious? Do I fear that I will not find the way that leads to truth? The way itself, as St. Augustine said, presents itself to us; the way itself comes to us. Come then and live by the truth, reasonable and intelligent soul! What light there is in the teaching of Jesus!

Let us love the truth. Let us love Jesus, Who is the truth itself. Let us change ourselves so that we may be like Him. Let us not put ourselves in a condition that will oblige us to hate the truth. The one who is condemned by the truth hates and flees it. Let there be nothing false in one who is the disciple of the truth. Let us live by the truth and feed ourselves with it. It is for this that the Eucharist is given to us. It is the body of Jesus, His holy humanity, the pure grain that nourishes the elect, the pure substance of truth, the bread of life, and it is at the same time the way, the truth, and the life.

If Jesus Christ is our way, let us not walk in the ways of the world. Let us enter into the narrow gate through which He walked. Above all, let us be mild and humble. Man’s falsehood is his pride, because in truth he is nothing, and God alone IS. This is the pure and only truth.”

Love,
Matthew

Jn 18:38 & the Dictatorship of Relativism

“I have known many men who wished to deceive, but none who wished to be deceived.”St. Augustine, Confessions


Br Jordan Zajac, OP

“Fake news” has become big news in recent months. How could the proliferation of deliberately fabricated articles be a good thing?

It’s in the outcry against fake news, coming from both liberal and conservative corners. The clamoring is good the way a person’s recognizing the symptoms of a serious illness is good. Those symptoms alert him that things are not the way they ought to be. Similarly, the concern over fake news affirms that what gets reported as factual should indeed, uh, you know, conform to reality.

This assertion shouldn’t require a robust defense. And yet…

Ours is a world where various ideologies seek to distort—and the dictatorship of relativism strives to corrupt—the truth and its integrity. Contrary to St. Augustine’s observation above, some of our contemporaries do indeed “seem to want to be lied to.” And therefore, any defense of the existence of some objective truth—the truth that we all have the natural capacity, desire, and right to know—is a great thing. Remember, “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016. But even in this post-truth era, when veritas seems to have been taken off the menu, we do not stop hungering for it. “[T]he absence of truth,” Robert Cardinal Sarah asserts, “is man’s real poverty.” We would starve without it.

Another reason why fake news has proven so unsettling is because it draws attention to a simple but seldom-considered reality: we rely heavily on the testimony and authority of others to arrive at the truth.

We certainly prefer to find truth by means of personal verification: Let me see it with my own eyes. Or better yet, I’ll run some experiments. Then I’ll have certitude.

Nevertheless, there are limits to how much can be found out by personal verification. I cannot, for example, verify the precise month, day, and year I was born. I was there, of course, but I have to accept the testimony of others that it happened when and where it happened. I can’t be certain, strictly speaking. All I can do is rely on the strength of others’ testimony. I have to trust.

We accept many more truths on the basis of witnesses and testimony than we do on personal verification. “Nothing would remain stable in human society,” St. Augustine observes, “if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.” Indeed, it would be impossible to live a functional human life without accepting anything on the basis of another’s word.

Another word for this assent to others’ testimony is faith.

We all live by faith.

Faith is often misconstrued as believing in something in the face of evidence to the contrary, or in something for which evidence cannot be provided. But essentially faith involves giving assent based on some intellectual process. When we defer to another with expertise or believe a person’s testimony, do we do so unthinkingly? On the contrary, we do so critically. Reason helps us weigh, evaluate, interpret, and explain what we believe and why. Faith and reason are not only compatible, but they work together all the time. By them we are properly conformed to reality. By them we form our convictions.

As Christians, our conviction is that the fullness of truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. Faith in Him is a gift (CCC §153), but at the same time God has supplied various signs and aids to faith: Scriptural testimony, Tradition, the Church’s apostolic foundations, her survival and spreading, the holiness of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, the intelligibility of doctrine, miracles, answered prayers, beautiful liturgy, the sacraments. All of these testify, in different ways, to the truth of the Faith. God has spoken the truth to us, and therefore we can have faith in supernatural realities.

The early Church saw her fair share of fake news. The chief priests, for example, put their own spin on the truth of the Resurrection. St. Matthew exposed this false narrative (the chief priests “can’t even lie plausibly!”, remarked St. John Chrysostom), subsuming it into his proclamation of the good news.

Increased sensitivity to falsehood is a good thing. If truth-seeking leads to Truth-seeking, as far as today’s fake news is concerned, it will have actually been great news indeed.”

Love & His Truth, He is Truth,
Matthew

Historical Jesus

case4jesus-brant-pitre

Brant-Pitre-Author-Photo-266x400

-Brant Pitre is a professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of the bestselling book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (2011) and Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Every Told (2014). Dr. Pitre is an extremely enthusiastic and highly sought after speaker who lectures regularly across the United States. He has produced dozens of Bible studies on both CD and DVD, in which he explores the biblical roots of the Catholic faith. He has also appeared on a number of Catholic radio and television shows, such as Catholic Answers Live and programs on EWTN. He currently lives in Louisiana with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children.

Are the Gospels historically accurate, and can they be trusted?

Many modern scholars believe that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, that they were not authored by disciples of Jesus, and that they were written too late in the first century to be based on reliable eyewitness testimony.

The Case for Jesus JacketIn The Case for Jesus (on sale Feb. 2), Dr. Brant Pitre, bestselling author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, taps into the wells of Christian scripture, history and tradition to ask and answer a number of questions about the origins and validity of the Gospels and one big question: Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?

“Confusion about who Jesus claimed to be is everywhere and it’s spreading,” writes Dr. Pitre. “In fact, the idea that Jesus never claimed to be God may be more widespread today than ever before in history.”

In The Case for Jesus, Dr. Pitre offers compelling reasons for concluding that the four Gospels are first-century biographies of Jesus, written within the lifetime of the apostles, and based directly on eyewitness testimony.

The findings outlined in this book, which includes an afterword by Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry, have the potential to pull the rug out from under a century of skepticism toward the apostolic authorship and historical truth of the traditional Gospels.

“This book will prove to be a most effective weapon in the arsenal of Christian evangelists in their struggle against the debunking and skeptical attitudes toward the Gospels that are so prevalent, not only in academe, but also on the street, among young people who, sadly, are leaving the Churches in droves,” writes Bishop Barron.

In The Case for Jesus, Dr. Pitre asks and answers a number of questions, including:

-Who wrote the four Gospels? Were they really anonymous?
-What do we make of the so-called “Lost Gospels”?
-Are the Gospels fact or fiction? Folklore or biography?
-Did Jesus really claim to be God?
-Did Jesus fulfill the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah?
-Why was Jesus crucified?
-What is the evidence for the Resurrection?

Advance Praise for The Case for Jesus:

“Thanks to Dr. Pitre’s magnificent book, you will now be equipped to make the case for Jesus and the veracity of the Gospel to even the most ardent skeptics.” —Jennifer Fulwiler, author of Something Other than God

“The Case for Jesus topples the naive skepticism that too often dominates the study of the Gospels…” —Mary Healy, Sacred Heart Major Seminary

“A robust and rock-solid case for Jesus. The sensationalistic claims of super-sceptics are exposed as a sham as Pitre provides a meticulous presentation of the evidence about the reliability of the Gospels, who Jesus thought he was, and what he means today.”—Michael F. Bird, Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia

——————————

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene… Luke 3:1

Some people claim that Jesus Christ never existed. Allegedly the life of Jesus and the Gospel are merely myths fabricated by the Church. This claim rests mainly upon their belief that there is no historical record of Jesus.

This lack of secular reports should not be too surprising for modern Christians. First, only a small fraction of the written records survived those twenty centuries. Secondly, there were few, if any, journalists in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Thirdly, the Romans saw the Jewish people as merely one of many ethnic groups that needed to be tolerated. The Romans held the Jewish people in low regard. Finally the Jewish leaders were also eager to forget about Jesus. Secular writers only took notice after Christianity became popular and began to disturb their lifestyle.

Even though early secular reports on Jesus may have been rare, there are still a few surviving references to Him. Not too surprisingly, the earliest non-Christian reports were made by the Jews. Flavius Josephus, who lived until 98 A.D., was a romanized Jewish historian. He wrote books on Jewish history for the Roman people. In his book, Jewish Antiquities, he made references to Jesus. In one reference he wrote:

About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, who did good deeds and whose virtues were recognized. And many Jews and people of other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. However, those who became his disciples preached his doctrine. They related that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Perhaps he was the Messiah in connection with whom the prophets foretold wonders. [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII 3.2]

Even though several different forms of this particular text have survived through the twenty centuries, they all agree with the above cited version. This version is considered to be the closest to the original – the least suspected of Christian text-tampering. Elsewhere in this book, Josephus also reported the execution of St. John the Baptist [XVIII 5.2] and St. James the Just [XX 9.1], even referring to James as “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.” It should be noted that the past tense in the clause, “Jesus who was called Christ,” argues against Christian text-tampering since a Christian would prefer to write instead, “Jesus who is called Christ.”

Another Jewish source, the Talmud, makes several historical references to Jesus. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Talmud is “the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis of religious authority for traditional Judaism.” Although not explicitly referred to by name, later rabbis identify the person as Jesus. These references to Jesus are neither sympathetic to Him or His Church. Also these writings were preserved through the centuries by Jews, so Christians cannot be accused of tampering with the text.

The Talmud makes note of Jesus’ miracles. No attempt is made to deny them, but it ascribes them to magical arts from Egypt. Also His crucifixion is dated as “on the eve of the Feast of the Passover” in agreement with the Gospel (Luke 22:1ff; John 19:31ff). Similar again to the Gospel (Matt. 27:51), the Talmud records the earthquake and the tearing in two of the Temple curtain during the time of Jesus’ death. Josephus in his book, The Jewish War, also confirmed these events.

By the beginning of the 2nd century, Romans were writing about Christians and Jesus. Pliny the Younger, proconsul in Asia Minor, in 111 A.D. wrote to Emperor Trajan in a letter:

…it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery, or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and meet again to take food… [Pliny, Epistle 97]

Special attention should be made to the phrase, “to Christ as a god,” an early secular witness to the belief in Christ’s divinity (John 20:28; Phil. 2:6). Also it is interesting to compare this passage with Acts 20:7-11, a biblical account of an early Christian Sunday celebration.

Next the Roman historian, Tacitus, who is respected by modern scholars for historical accuracy, wrote in 115 A.D. about Christ and His Church:

The author of the denomination was Christ[us] who had been executed in Tiberius time by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. The pestilent superstition, checked for a while, burst out again, not only throughout Judea…but throughout the city of Rome also… [Tacitus, Annals, XV 44]

Even with disdain for the Christian faith, Tacitus still treated the execution of Christ as historical fact, drawing connections to Roman events and leaders. (cf. Luke 3:1ff)

Other secular witnesses to the historical Jesus include Suetonius in his biography of Claudius, Phlegan recording the eclipse of the sun during Jesus’ death and even Celsus, a pagan philosopher. It must be kept in mind that most of these sources were not only secular but anti-Christian. These secular authors, including the Jewish writers, had no desire or intention to promote Christianity. They had no motivation to distort their reports in favor of Christianity. Pliny actually punished Christians for their faith. If Jesus were a myth or His execution a hoax, Tacitus would have reported it as such. He certainly would not have connected Jesus’ execution to Roman leaders. These writers presented Jesus as a real historical person. Denying the reliability of these sources in connection to Jesus would cast serious suspicion on the rest of ancient history.

Now these ancient secular writings do not prove that Jesus is the Son of God or even the Christ, but that is not the goal of this tract. These reports show that a virtuous person named Jesus did live in the early first century A.D. and authored a religious movement (which still exists today). This Person was at least called Christ – the Messiah. Christians in the first century also appeared to consider Him God. Finally these writings support other facts found in the Bible surrounding His life. The claim that Jesus never existed and His life is a myth compromises the reliability of ancient history.”

Love,
Matthew

Who needs Jesus? Really. Really? Really!!

Savior_jesus

I DO. As someone who suffers from MDD – Major Depressive Disorder, diagnosed in 1994, having had three major episodes, only medication and therapy having prevented more, and told I should expect at least six in my life, and takes daily meds and weekly therapy, I can relate. The experience is of excruciating emotional pain, laying on the couch not wanting to breathe, feeling the ground fall away from underneath your feet, moaning and writhing in a recliner at your in-laws. You just want the pain to stop. You don’t care how. You lose all perspective on how any decision you make will affect others. You just want the pain to stop. You don’t care how.

“The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and He helps me. (He does.) My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise Him.” -Ps 28:7

Don’t take symptoms lightly. Get help. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that suicide rates in the U.S. spiked between 1994 and 2014. While women are less likely to kill themselves than men, their rate of suicide jumped by 80 percent over this period. But not all women are at risk.

A study released this week by JAMA Psychiatry, an American Medical Association journal, reported that “Frequent religious service attendance was associated with substantially lower suicide risk among U.S. women compared with women who never attended religious services.” To be exact, the researchers studied approximately 90,000 nurses, mostly women, and found that Catholic and Protestant women had a suicide rate that was half that for women as a whole.

Of the nearly 7,000 Catholic women who went to Mass more than once a week, NONE committed suicide. Overall, practicing Protestant women were seven times more likely to commit suicide than their Catholic counterparts, suggesting there really is a Catholic advantage. Indeed, the 2015 book, The Catholic Advantage, substantiates this finding.

Today, those without a religious affiliation have the highest suicide rates, illustrated most dramatically in San Francisco: someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death every two weeks. It is not the faithful who are waiting in line to jump—it’s the non-believing free spirits.

On a related note, Gallup released a survey yesterday (6/29/16) that shows approximately 9 in 10 Americans believe in God. But as we learned from the JAMA Psychiatry study, only those who regularly attend religious services are less likely to commit suicide.

In other words, mere belief, and amorphous expressions of spirituality, aren’t enough to ward off the demons that trigger suicide. And no group is more at risk than atheists.”

Freakonomics – Suicide

Internet Broadcast

-by Stephen J. Dubner

“Suicide rates in the U.S., they’re the highest they’ve been in 30 years.

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “The Suicide Paradox (Rebroadcast).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

There are more than twice as many suicides as murders in the U.S., but suicide attracts far less scrutiny. Freakonomics Radio digs through the numbers and finds all kinds of surprises.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
* * *
Today we are playing an episode from our archives — an important episode, called “The Suicide Paradox.” We first put this out in 2011. Now, five years later, suicide rates in the U.S. have risen to their highest in 30 years, with suicide a particularly pressing problem in the military. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.
* * *
DAN EVERETT: There won’t be a word for college or professor, but I can say, “Tíi kasaagá Paóxaisi. Ti kapiiga kagakaibaaí.” And that just means, “my name is Paoxaisi, and I make a lot of marks on paper.”

Dan Everett is a college professor — a linguist. Off and on for the past 30 years, he’s lived with a tribe in the Amazon called the Piraha.

EVERETT: I originally went to the Piraha as a missionary to translate the Bible into their language, but over the course of many years, they wound up converting me, and I became a scientist instead and studied their culture and its effects on their language.
The Piraha live in huts, sleep on the ground, hunt with bows and arrows. But what really caught Everett’s attention is that they are relentlessly happy. Really happy.

EVERETT: This happiness and this contentment really had a lot to do with me abandoning my religious goals, and my religion altogether, because they seemed to have it a lot more together than most religious people I knew.

But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have. It’s a story about something that happened during Everett’s early days with the tribe. He and his wife and their three young kids had just finished dinner. Everett gathered about 30 Piraha in his hut to preach to them:

EVERETT: I was still a very fervent Christian missionary, and I wanted to tell them how God had changed my life. So, I told them a story about my stepmother and how she had committed suicide because she was so depressed and so lost. (For the word “depressed” I used the word “sad”.) So she was very sad. She was crying. She felt lost. And she shot herself in the head, and she died. And this had a large spiritual impact on me, and I later became a missionary and came to the Piraha because of all of this experience triggered by her suicide. And I told this story as tenderly as I could and tried to communicate that it had a huge impact on me. And when I was finished everyone burst out laughing.
* * *
EVERETT: When I asked them, “why are you laughing?,” they said: “She killed herself. That’s really funny to us. We don’t kill ourselves. You mean, you people, you white people shoot yourselves in the head? We kill animals, we don’t kill ourselves.” They just found it absolutely inexplicable, and without precedent in their own experience that someone would kill themselves.
In the 30 years that Everett has been studying the Piraha, there have been zero suicides. Now, it’s not that suicide doesn’t happen in the Amazon – for other tribes, it’s a problem.

EVERETT: And as I’ve told this story, some people have suggested that, well it’s because they don’t have the stresses of modern life. But that’s just not true. There is almost 100 percent endemic malaria among the people. They’re sick a lot. Their children die at about 75 percent. Seventy-five percent of the children die before they reach the age of five or six. These are astounding pressures.

MUSIC: Matthew Reid, “Quietus” (from Courtyards and Fairgrounds)

A group of people that laughs at suicide? Doesn’t sound much like the U.S., does it? Suicide’s not a laughing matter here; and it’s not so rare, either. Now, compared to the rest of the world, our suicide rate puts us right about in the middle. But here’s what’s interesting. The U.S. is famous for a relatively high murder rate – it’s double, triple, even five times higher than most other developed countries. So if I said to you: what’s more common in the U.S., homicide or suicide, what would you say?

Listen to Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, an economist at the University of Chicago. He’s been studying crime for years.
STEVE LEVITT: Homicides, per one hundred thousand, have fallen from something like ten to something like five over the 15 years I’ve studied crime. So essentially, homicide has fallen in half.

STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Wow, so let’s say it’s roughly five per hundred thousand people now, do you have any idea what the suicide rate is?
LEVITT: That’s about twice as high. It’s surprising because it doesn’t usually make the newspaper when someone commits suicide, but it always makes the newspaper when someone commits a homicide, but twice as many suicides as homicides.

It is surprising, isn’t it? The preliminary numbers for 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, show there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. and roughly 16,500 homicides. That’s well over twice as many suicides. So why don’t we hear more about it? Partly because, as Levitt says, most suicides don’t make the news, whereas murders do. But also: they’re different types of tragedy. Murder represents a fractured promise within our social contract, and it’s got an obvious villain. Suicide represents – well, what does it represent? It’s hard to say. It carries such a strong taboo that most of us just don’t discuss it much. The result is that there are far more questions about suicide than answers. Like: do we do enough to prevent it? How do you prevent it? And the biggest question of all: why do people commit suicide? Steve Levitt has one more question:

LEVITT: I always think to myself: why don’t more people commit suicide? If you think about the poorest people in the world surviving on less than a dollar a day, having to walk three miles to get water and carry 70-pound packs of water back just to survive, and those people do everything they can to stay alive. Whereas I think if I were in that situation, wouldn’t I just kill myself?
DUBNER: And what does that say to you about human nature that people in situations way, way, way, way, way worse off than you don’t kill themselves in large number?

LEVITT: My guess is that evolution has built in to us an unbelievable desire to stay alive, which when looked at from a modern perspective doesn’t actually make that much sense.

So how should we make sense of suicide? If you, personally, have been affected by suicide, if you’ve lost a friend or family member, it may be hard to even think about “making sense” of it. But, at the risk of shining a light into a darkness that’s usually left undisturbed, let’s give it a try. The first thing we need is a Virgil of some sort to guide us —someone who’s been thinking about suicide, and death, for a long, long time.
DAVID LESTER: I was born in 1942. I lived in London for 22 years of my life. And for the first three years of my life, my mother told me we slept in an air raid shelter every night.

David Lester is a professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, about 20 minutes from Atlantic City.

LESTER: The classic bomb that came over was called a buzz bomb because it was buzzing and that meant that the engine was going. Once it stopped buzzing it meant it would drop and maybe hit your house. My mother says that even as a toddler, I was very concerned about them. And actually she said that I would hear them before the air raid warnings went off, and I would warn everybody about a buzz bomb, and I would rush into the air raid shelter. Then 10 years ago, I remembered this picture of this little toddler who’s very worried about buzz bombs and hiding from them probably without a material concept of death, but obviously perhaps, laying the seeds of some interest that manifested itself later in life. I’ve become a thanatologist in general, and a suicidologist in particular.

Lester is president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology, and the eminence grise of suicide studies. He’s also alarmingly prolific — he’s written more than 2,500 papers, notes, and books, about half of which are on suicide. So people expect him to know things that he says are not yet known.

MUSIC: Abstract Aprils, “Parallels” (from Translucence)

LESTER: First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing admit that we really don’t have a good idea of why people kill themselves.
So what do we know about suicide? As you drill down into the numbers, one thing that strikes you are the massive disparities — the difference in suicide rates by gender, by race and age, by location, by method and many other variables. In the U.S., for instance, men are about four times as likely to kill themselves as women.

LESTER: Yes, about three to four, yes.

About 56 percent of men use a gun, compared to just 30 percent of women.

LESTER: Yes, men tend to use what we would call more active methods.
That helps explain the gender gap, since suicide by gun is usually successful. The primary method for women is technically called “poisoning” – usually some kind of overdose.

LESTER: The easy access to medications these days makes medications an important method.
For men and women, being unmarried, widowed or divorced increases the risk. The most typical American suicide is a man 75 or older. But in that age bracket, where a lot of people are dying from a lot of things, suicide isn’t even a top 10 cause of death. For people from ages 25 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it’s in the top five for all Americans from ages 15 to 54. In terms of timing, suicide peaks on Mondays:

LESTER: There is a blue Monday effect.
But not, as many people suspect, around Christmas and New Year’s.

LESTER: People do not kill themselves more on national holidays.
There is a seasonal spike, but it’s not in the long, dark days of winter.

LESTER: In fact, suicide rates peak in the spring in most countries. It’s as if you expect things are going to be better, and when they turn out not to be better, you’re more likely to be depressed in a suicidal way.

David Lester is willing to entertain any theory, to examine any pattern. Interestingly, he’s found that suicide and homicide are often perfectly out of synch with each other. Homicide spikes not on Mondays but on the weekends and on national holidays and during the summer and winter. Homicide is also much more common in cities than in rural areas; for suicide, it’s the opposite.

MATT WRAY: The American suicide belt is comprised of about 10 western states, this sort of wide longitudinal swath running from Idaho and Montana down to Arizona and New Mexico.
That’s Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple.

WRAY: To sum up what I do in a word would be to say that I study losers. And I am interested in those who lose out on societal gains and opportunities. It’s another way of saying I’m interested in inequalities and stratification.
Wray found what he has taken to calling the “Suicide Belt.”

WRAY: So, yes, the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns. This may turn out to be a very powerful explanation and explain a lot of the variance that we observe. It’s backed up by the fact that the one state that has rates that is on par with what we see in the suicide belt is Alaska.
Alright, so now you can get a picture of the American who’s most likely to kill himself: an older, white male who owns a gun, probably unmarried and maybe unemployed, living somewhere out west, probably in a rural area. Now, don’t you want to know: where aren’t people killing themselves?

VERALYN WILLIAMS: OK, so I’m standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital. It’s got the lowest suicide rate of any American city: just six per 100,000 people. We sent Veralyn Williams there to ask strangers a couple of strange questions.

WILLIAMS: Do you know anyone that committed suicide?

TYRONE: Personally no.

AMINA: No.

WILLIAMS: Do you know anyone that’s died of homicide?

AMINA: Yes.

SAMIAR: Yes, I do.

BARNES: I got a son that’s been murdered. I’ve got cousins that’s been murdered. I’ve probably been to 100 wakes in the past year. But I can’t tell you one person that I know that’s committed suicide.
Now, as we told you earlier, there are more than twice as many suicides each year in the U.S. as there are homicides. There are just three places where the homicide rate is higher than the suicide rate: Louisiana, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. It’s not a coincidence that these are also places with large African-American populations. African-Americans are only about half as likely to kill themselves as whites. When it comes to murder, meanwhile, African-Americans are nearly six times more likely than whites to die.

DONNA BARNES: In our community, it’s different. We have low rates of suicide and high rates of homicide.

WILLIAMS: Why do you think that is?

BARNES: I think a lot of those homicides are probably suicides.
Donna Barnes works at the suicide prevention center at Howard University.

BARNES: It’s very easy when you are stressed and you don’t want to live anymore and put yourself in harm’s way and somebody will take you out. And many times, we will externalize our frustration, meaning that we’re going to take it out on other people. And then you might have more folks, maybe from the dominant culture, who internalize their frustration and take it out on themselves. We have been socialized to believe that a lot of our disadvantages are based on our surroundings — racism, discrimination and all of that. So it’s really easy, for us, when we become frustrated and we look at what’s going on around us, to take it out on the environment and other people rather than ourselves.
I asked David Lester if he had an explanation for the black-white suicide gap.

LESTER: If you’re white and in psychological pain, what can you blame it on? Other people are doing well, why aren’t you doing well? Other people are happy why aren’t you happy? So maybe that, in part, accounts for the higher suicide rate in whites as compared to African-Americans is because whites have fewer external causes to blame their misery for.

MUSIC: Morrison 78s, “Goodbye Little Girl Goodbye”

I find this idea fascinating. As Lester is quick to point out, it is little more than an idea – it’s pretty much impossible to prove. The fact is, we usually don’t know much about what’s going through a person’s mind as they consider suicide. But when your life is miserable, when it seems beyond redemption or repair, where do you put the blame? You can blame other people. You can blame yourself. What if you could blame … a song?
* * *
As we said earlier, there are about 36,500 suicides a year in the U.S. That’s an average of 100 a day. The vast, vast majority of them, you never hear about. They don’t make the news. That’s not an accident. For decades, sociologists have been studying the media’s impact on suicide rates. And some say they’ve proven that a widely publicized suicide – when described in a certain way – can lead to copycat suicides. A suicide contagion.

SEAN COLE: All right so we’re gonna have to go all the way back to 1774… when this novel came out.

READER: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. May 4. How happy I am that I am gone! My dear friend, what a thing…

COLE: For those of you who have never read it – I had never read it – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is written mostly as a series of fictional letters by a young, dilettante artist named Werther. He travels to the countryside, falls in love with a girl who’s already engaged, despairs, and then borrows two pistols from her fiancé.

READER: “They are loaded. The clock strikes twelve. I say Amen! Charlotte! Charlotte! Farewell! Farwell!”

COLE: Sorry to spoil the ending. Now, this book was really popular when it came out. Scholars talk about legions of men in Europe dressing like the character, in blue swallowtail coats and canary yellow pants. And while this next part is probably apocryphal, the story goes that…

DAVID PHILLIPS: Many people who read the book killed themselves by the same method and sometimes they even killed themselves with the book open to the page where he was described as killing himself.

COLE: David Phillips is a sociology professor at U.C. San Diego and the father of imitative suicide research in America. In 1974, exactly 200 years after Werther was published, he released a seminal paper called, “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect.”

PHILLIPS: My students and I were the first to provide modern large scale evidence that there is, in fact, such a thing as copycat suicide. And we called this, I called it, the Werther Effect.

COLE: Now, Werther is a work of fiction. But the Werther Effect focuses more on true stories about suicide. The theory goes that whenever the media runs with a big sensational suicide story, especially if the victim is famous, you can expect a bump in suicide rates. Phillips and company gathered 20 years of suicide data, 1948 to 1967, from The National Center for Health Statistics. Then they combed through back issues of three major newspapers and honed in on front-page suicide reports: the actress Carole Landis; Dan Burros who ran the KKK in New York; one of the most famous stars in Hollywood history.

NEWS REPORT: One of the most famous stars in Hollywood history is dead at 36. Marilyn Monroe was found dead in bed.

COLE: Of course, this was back before all of the conspiracy theories about how she died. Anyway, in 27 out of 33 cases like this: suicide rates were higher than expected for about two months following the story. So for example, Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. For the rest of that August, U.S. suicide rates were 10 percent higher than normal.

PHILLIPS: How do we know that there’s a 10 percent increase in August of ’62. We’re comparing the number of suicides in August of ’62 with the number of suicides in August of 1961 and the number of suicides in August of 1963.

COLE: So those other Augusts are the controls.

PHILLIPS: That’s right.

COLE: In some cases, the bump was a lot smaller. But it’s not so much the size, says Phillips, as the consistency. And it wasn’t just suicides that went up after these media reports.

PHILLIPS: You also get a spike in single-car crashes after suicide stories. And you see that the driver in the single car crash is unusually similar to the person described in the suicide story. So if the person described in the suicide story is unusually young, then the spike in single-car crashes just afterwards has drivers who are unusually young.

COLE: So to close that loop — they’re not accidents. They’re people who are committing suicide.

PHILLIPS: Right. So all of these things together make it very difficult to think of an alternative explanation.

COLE: But this is not to say people kill themselves because they read a big, splashy suicide story in the paper.

THOMAS NIEDERKROTENTHALER: It’s not really about the causes of suicide. It’s about the trigger of suicides.

COLE: This is Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, an assistant professor at The Medical University of Vienna in Austria. About 10 years after that original study, the Werther Effect hit Vienna in a big way.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: There was a tremendous increase of subway suicides and suicide attempts on the Viennese subway in the early 1980’s.

COLE: In 1983 there was just one jumper in the Viennese subway and that person lived. The next year there were seven suicides by subway in Vienna. And the big Austrian newspapers ran graphic stories about them. 1985, 13 jumpers, 10 deaths, more splashy articles. At the peak, in 1987, there were 11 successful suicide attempts in the Viennese subway and 11 unsuccessful. Though granted, three of those were the same guy. Finally, the Austrian Association of Suicide Prevention told the press to tone it down. They issued a whole series of recommendations: don’t include the word “suicide” in the headline. Don’t print pictures of grieving relatives.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: But you should also mention help-lines. Helping opportunities for people in crisis.

COLE: Amazingly, the Austrian media listened. The stories were less graphic, and they stopped running so many of them.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: And at the same time the number of suicides and suicide attempts on the Viennese subway decreased by nearly 80 percent. And this is really stunning— the numbers remained relatively low in all the years up until today.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I thought that was a pretty study.

COLE: This is David Phillips again. He says he’s actually not so comfortable telling the media what to do. He thinks freedom of the press should be inviolate. But both the World Health Organization and the AP Managing Editors Association asked for his advice. So he basically told them, ‘Think of a suicide story as a kind of commercial. If you make the product attractive, people will want it.’ But if you say…
PHILLIPS: “By the way, when a person kills himself, let’s say by shooting, he looks terrible afterwards.” Or, “When a person poisons himself, he often fouls the bed sheets.” And things like this. If you talk about the pain and the disfigurement, then I thought that would make it less likely that people would be copying the suicide.

COLE: And there may even be a trend growing in the other direction. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler and his team in Austria did their own study looking at nearly 500 newspaper articles from the first half of 2005. He says not only did they find more evidence for the Werther Effect, but they saw suicide rates go down when the media wrote about someone who found an alternative solution to his or her problems.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: So this may be exactly the opposite side of the same thing. And we called this effect: the Papageno Effect.

COLE: Papageno is another fictional character, from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” Like Werther, he’s in suicidal crisis over a girl, his beloved Papagena. But just as he’s about to hang himself, three young boys rush the stage and tell him not to do it. They say…

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: “Papageno use your magic bells and Papagena will come back.” And psychologically speaking, we can say this is what we believe that those newspaper or press articles do. They remind people what they can do other than commit suicide.

WRAY: Now I should say that I’m pretty agnostic about this. My sense is that what this literature misses are all of the times that high profile suicides occur that don’t spark contagion. The one that comes to mind is Kurt Cobain. So everyone was expecting a rash of shotgun-induced, blow-your-head-off suicides in the wake of Cobain’s death. They did not materialize. And so the question is…

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: Why was it so? There was some specifics about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In particular, Cobain’s spouse…

COLE: Courtney Love. Yeah.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: Yeah, Courtney Love. She was broadcast in the media immediately after his suicide.

COURTNEY LOVE: I’m really sorry you guys. I don’t know what I could have done.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: And she told to the audience this was really the wrong thing to do. And there is one study, actually from the U.S., which showed that reports that use negative definitions of suicide — so such as suicide is something that is stupid that you should not do— that those reports are 99 percent less likely to identify a copycat phenomenon than other reports.

COLE: So, listen, suicide is something is stupid, that you should not do. After all, I am the media. And this whole show is basically one big suicide article. And as I said to Matt Wray, I’ve been wondering which type of article it is.

WRAY: Are you guys trying to figure out how to report on this story without, like, sparking suicides?

COLE: Well, it is an odd little meta problem isn’t it. I mean, I’m doing a story about whether what I’m doing a story about could possibly cause a suicide contagion.

WRAY: Yes, I’m well acquainted with that dilemma.
* * *
But what about a song? David Lester, the psychology professor, tells us about the time…

LESTER: In the 1930s, two Hungarians wrote a song called “Gloomy Sunday” that was thought to precipitate a wave of suicides across Europe.
Freakonomics Radio producer Suzie Lechtenberg went to Hungary.

SUZIE LECHTENBERG: Rezso Seress’ piano still sits, rather benignly, in the restaurant in Budapest where he used to play his most famous song. The person in the song is thinking about suicide. He, or she, wants to be reunited with a lover who has just died. Today, it sounds a bit melodramatic, but as many as 200 people might have killed themselves after listening to this song.
ZOLTAN RIHMER: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

LECHTENBERG: Because they heard the song?

RIHMER: Yeah. But it was just the trigger.

LECHTENBERG: It was just the trigger, Hungarian psychiatrist Zoltan Rihmer says. But it had to be stopped. The Budapest police enforced a Gloomy Sunday ban. And the BBC…

LESTER: The BBC banned that song until 2002.

LECHTENBERG: These days, the owner of the restaurant where Seress used to play, still gets requests. He’s not afraid to play it. But he feels certain that this was a suicidal song. It should come as no surprise then…

RIHMER: Rezo Seress completed suicide. He was around 70.

LECHTENBERG: In 1968, Rezo Seress — Gloomy Sunday’s composer — jumped to his death from the window of his small apartment in Budapest. Unfortunately, this Hungarian suicide story isn’t unique to this one man, or this one song. Suicide has been epidemic in this country. For most of the last century, Hungary has had the highest suicide rate in the world. Right now, it’s more than double the suicide rate in the United States. So what is it about this place? Why are so many people killing themselves here?

SZILVIA LADONMERSZKY: Oh, my husband. My husband was very handsome. Great looking. Very intelligent.

LECHTENBERG: Szilvia and Levente Ladomerszky met at a concert. He was a neurologist, she worked in finance. He was cool, she says. They fell in love. Married. Had a daughter. But they didn’t have a fairy tale ending. Levente’s family had a history of mental illness. It was something he was afraid was in his blood.

LADONMERSZKY: Before we married, were sitting at the kitchen table, and he told me that, if it ever happens to him, that he gets ill, and he will need treatment with drugs, then he will refuse the drugs. And he will never take drugs, he prefers dying because drugs, psychiatric drugs, will change personality and he wants to remain himself all the time.

LECHTENBERG: Levente’s mental state deteriorated. He was hospitalized.

LADONMERSZKY: And a few years after, it happened to him exactly what he described.

LECHTENBERG: When he had a few moments alone, when the doctors and nurses left his room, Levente Ladomerszky hanged himself.

LADONMERSZKY: My own suicide I was able to completely ignore, but my husband’s is somehow still with us.

LECHTENBERG: “My own suicide was something I was able to completely ignore.” Szilvia tried to kill herself years before she and Levente met. But she says, she didn’t want to die. It was a cry for help more than anything else.

LADONMERSZKY: I took a bunch of pills, but made sure that it won’t kill me.

LECHTENBERG: Everyone in Hungary knows someone like Szilvia, like Levente. The World Health Organization says in 2008, about 2,400 people committed suicide here. To put that number in context, around the same time in Greece, a country that’s roughly the same size, there were 394 suicides.

RIHMER: Yes, my name is Zoltan Rihmer.

LECHTENBERG: I met Dr. Zoltan Rihmer in his smoke-filled office in Budapest. He’s a professor of psychiatry at Semmelweis University, and he says, there are two main reasons the suicide rate is so high.

RIHMER: The prevalence of bipolar disorder. We have found the lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder in Hungary is five percent.

LECHTENBERG: The worldwide rate of bipolar disorder is about half that.

RIHMER: The risk of suicide is much higher among patients with bipolar disorder. It can be one factor. But it is just one factor. Alcohol. Alcohol plays a very important role in suicide.

LECHTENBERG: And Hungary has the third highest alcohol consumption rate in the world. This country is about the size of Indiana. From the window of a train, the Hungarian Great Plains look like it too. In the southwest, there’s a small town called Kiskunhalas.

KATALIN SZANTO: It’s a nice little town.

LECHTENBERG: That’s psychiatrist Katalin Szanto.

SZANTO: So, there is a little lace museum there, and there are these women making beautiful laces. On the other hand, if you walk around, you see drunken people outside the pubs. If you visit the local hospital in the psychiatric ward, there the circumstances were very, very poor.

ÁGNES RACZ NAGY SPEAKING IN HUNGARIAN through TRANSLATOR: My name is Dr. Ágnes Rácz Nagy, and I’m the leader of this psychiatric department of the Kiskunhalas hospital.

LECHTENBERG: Until 2005, Kiskunhalas was the epicenter of suicide in Hungary. Suicide in this town was double the national rate. As one cultural critic put it, living here, was like living on psychic death row.

NAGY: I’ve seen a family — it was a big family — and there were more than 10 suicides in the family.

LECHTENBERG: In 2001, Dr. Agnes Rácz Nagy and a colleague began 100 “psychological autopsies,” meaning, they interviewed families, in depth, after a loved one committed suicide.

NAGY: In 67 there was mood disorder, and 60 alcohol. And of course there were overlaps as well. But this number is huge.

LECHTENBERG: This was part of a study that ran for five years in Kiskunhalas. Dr. Katalin Szanto and colleagues trained 28 of the town’s 30 general practitioners in suicide prevention. They set up a suicide hotline, and made low-cost anti-depressants available to residents. Then they compared their results to a neighboring town — a control group. And it worked.

SZANTO: Yeah, there were, like, 34 less suicides during these five years than in the previous five years.

LECHTENBERG: Overall, the suicide rate in the region decreased sixteen percent. The suicide rate for women decreased 34 percent. This shouldn’t be that surprising. Research by academics in the United States, like Jens Ludwig, has shown that anti-depressants do lower the suicide rate. But here’s the thing: even though the suicide prevention program in Kishkunhals was a success, this model just hasn’t caught on elsewhere in Hungary. The country still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. So, why?

BELA BUDA: Well, we can see a part of the bridge, the Margaret Bridge.

LECHTENBERG: Back in Budapest, everywhere you walk, there are musicians playing classical music in the streets. The Margaret Bridge stretches over the Danube, which is the lifeblood of this city. It’s stunning, but it’s also the place where many Hungarians have jumped to their death. I met psychiatrist Bela Buda on the banks of the river.

BUDA: I am 73. I was born and lived in Budapest in all my life.

LECHTENBERG: He looks exactly how you want someone named Buda to look: graying, rotund. I’ve been told he speaks 17 languages. He says it’s just 12. Buda has tried to solve the problem of suicide his entire career. He started the first suicide hotline in the country; he worked in psychiatric wards when the suicide rate was soaring. But, he says, this problem is hard to solve, because a lot of people here don’t see anything wrong with suicide.

BUDA: The Hungarian general opinion is very favorable towards suicide. If somebody commits suicide, then it is commented as a brave act. That somebody had the courage to end suffering. For instance, these old men who hang themselves are praised in the community that he was brave enough to free the family from the burden of his existence.
* * *
Next year, the Golden Gate Bridge will celebrate its 75th anniversary. You’ll hear all kinds of tributes to it, all kinds of facts and figures. One number you probably won’t hear, at least in the official proclamations, is the suicide toll: since the Golden Gate Bridge opened, more than 1,400 people have killed themselves by jumping off it.
There is another place that now attracts more suicides each year — the Aokigahara Forest in Japan – but, historically, the Golden Gate is still the world’s No. 1 suicide spot. Last year alone, 32 people jumped and died. Now, it should be said that every weekday, about 5,000 people walk across the bridge and don’t jump. And 100,000 cars cross it every day.

TAXI DRIVER: My name is (name in Thai). That’s 17 letters all together.
He moved here from Thailand in 1968, and he drove a cab in San Francisco for 15 years.

TAXI DRIVER: One night I picked up a guy, I think down nearby Tenderloin, and he want to go Golden Gate bridge. Must be 11 o’clock at night. And I said “OK,” so I drove on Franklin Street. He said, “You want to ask me why I go to Golden Gate Bridge this late?” I said, “No, but if you want to tell me, I guess I will listen to it.” And he said “I’m going to go and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.” And I said, “OK.” “You’re not going to stop me?” I said, “Why should I?” So I get out to the Golden Gate Bridge, I think the fare was like $7 or something at that time. And he looked in his wallet and found $10, so he give it to me, the $10. So I told him, “I don’t think you need any change.” He said “I guess you’re right, I don’t need any change.” So, I let him off at the side of the bridge, and once he get off, I turned around the cab and called my dispatcher. I told him, “Why don’t you call the harbor patrol there?” And he did. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe I was too cool to him. I don’t know what happened— if he was really going to jump.
Now, we don’t know if this man did, in fact, jump off the Golden Gate Bridge that night. If he did, he almost certainly died, since only two percent of jumpers survive. We also have no idea what was going through his head that night. Did he have a fight with someone? Did he lose his job? Did he maybe just have one drink too many?

LESTER: I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves.
If you unpack that “why” in “why people kill themselves,” there are all kinds of other things we don’t know about suicide either. For instance: the percentage of people who seek help, or get help, before committing suicide. We don’t know. Or even how many people who commit suicide are mentally ill. Lester says there is so much disagreement on this question that estimates range from five percent to 94 percent. And then there’s the mystery of the suicidal impulse.

LESTER: And I just found a case, which I’m using in an article that I’m writing, where the time between the impulse and the act was something like five seconds.
Think about that: five seconds.

LESTER: The man was walking over a bridge, and suddenly the thought came to him.
One.

LESTER: He was in some, I think, financial distress,
Two.

LESTER: But he hadn’t thought about suicide before.
Three.

LESTER: And he said, I ought to kill myself.
Four.

LESTER: And he immediately jumped off the bridge.
Five.

LESTER: And he was saved. And that’s the shortest interval I’ve come across.
One academic study looked at attempted suicides in Houston among 15-to-34-year-olds. It found that in 70 percent of the cases, the time between deciding to commit suicide and taking action was under an hour. Seventy percent of the cases. For about one-quarter of the people involved, the time gap was five minutes or less. That’s pretty stunning. People are making a permanent decision to end their lives, on the spur of the moment. How are you supposed to stop that? Remember this guy?

TAXI DRIVER: My name is (name in Thai).
He didn’t try to stop his taxi passenger from jumping.

TAXI DRIVER: “You’re not going to stop me?” I said, “Why should I?”
“Why should I?” Sounds cold-hearted, doesn’t it. Or does it? Your life belongs to you. It’s a crime to take someone else’s life. But not yours, at least not a crime in practice. So: should we consider the suicidal impulse a rational choice? I know what you’re thinking: only an economist would say something like that, an economist like Dan Hamermesh, at the University of Texas. He once wrote a paper called “An Economic Theory of Suicide.”

DAN HAMERMESH: Well, I think there’s an epigraph to the paper, which I cannot quote exactly, it’s by Arthur Schopenhauer: “When the value of a man’s life is less…” You can read it there, I don’t have it with me, now. Why don’t you read it.

DUBNER: “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to him life.”

HAMERMESH: Exactly. Well, that’s just an economic statement. You’re weighing the benefits on one side of the equation, the costs of the other. If the costs exceed the benefits, you chop off the investment.
Back in the spring of 1972, Dan Hamermesh was hunting around for a research topic. And he thought of a poem he’d read back in high school.

HAMERMESH: The poem is “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, written in the last decade of the nineteenth century. “Whenever Richard Cory went downtown, we people on the pavement looked at him…
There was something about the poem that nagged him.

HAMERMESH: …and he was rich, yes richer than the king, and admirably schooled in every grace. In fine, we thought that he was everything to make us wish that we were in his place. So, on we worked and waited for the light, and went without the meat, and cursed the bread. And Richard Cory, one calm summer night went home and put a bullet in his head.”
That’s it, the last part. It didn’t make sense to him.

HAMERMESH: I was always very bothered by the notion that suicide’s a problem of rich people. And that always struck me, as an economist, as being really stupid since rich people are generally going to be happier, utility is higher, income goes up, you should be less likely to kill yourself. So those were the thoughts running through my mind that spring afternoon of 1972.
So Dan Hamermesh did what economists do. He wrote a model to determine the conditions under which suicide might be considered a rational choice. He came up with three predictions. Suicide, one, rises with age; two, falls as income increases; and three, falls if your “desire to live” is high. Nothing so radical, but at the time, no one had tried anything like this.
Then, Hamermesh plugged some suicide data from the World Health Organization into his model. His predictions were right. He also calculated the opportunity cost of a suicide. A 50-year-old person and a 70-year-old person have different expectations of future happiness, income, and so on. So the price of suicide is higher for the 50-year-old. But whether it makes economic sense for either person to commit suicide depends on what economists call the utility function – how much you value your life.
So it all goes back to the Schopenhauer quote at the beginning of Hamermesh’s paper: “as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.” Hamermesh may have been the first economist to wrestle with suicide in this way, but he was hardly the first to intellectualize it:

MARGARET BATTIN: Plato, Aristotle, the Greek and Roman Stoics, the early Church Fathers on up to Durkheim and Freud.
Margaret Battin…

BATTIN: Sometimes called Peggy.
… is a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. Plato, she says, argued that suicide was wrong in some cases, not wrong in others. Aristotle thought it was cowardly, an offense to society.

BATTIN: The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that suicide was the act of the wise man. This is not done in desperation or agitation or depression or any of the things that we ordinarily associate with that term, but it’s the reflective responsible act of the genuinely wise man.
For the Stoics, suicide was a procedure. People who wanted to commit suicide would plead their case before magistrates to get permission; the magistrates kept a supply of hemlock on hand.

READER: “Whoever no longer wishes to live shall state his reasons to the Senate, and after having received permission shall abandon life. If your existence is hateful to you, die; if you are overwhelmed by fate, drink the hemlock. If you are bowed with grief, abandon life. Let the unhappy man recount his misfortune, let the magistrate supply him with the remedy, and his wretchedness will come to an end.”
But going forward in history, this was hardly the mainstream view. Christianity held that suicide is a sin; Dante set aside one ring of his Inferno for suicides. Fast forward about 700 years, and we’re still firm in our moral stance. We can’t really consider suicide a rational choice, can we?

MARGARET HEILBRUN: We would wake up to the sound of her typing at an astonishing speed on her Smith Corona typewriter.
Margaret Heilbrun is talking about her mom. Carolyn Heilbrun was a Virginia Woolf scholar at Columbia; she wrote mystery novels on the side. She was famous for making grand pronouncements, for saying outlandish things.

MARGARET HEILBRUN: A partner of mine enjoyed drinking Stolichnaya vodka, so she took to having it on hand, but she insisted on calling it “Solzhenitsyn” vodka. And she knew it wasn’t, but she just, you know— “I’ll go get the Solzhenitsyn.” So, it was the same with her once she started saying that she would kill herself when she reached a certain age. But it was another one of those sort of pronouncements. And one thought, “oh well, Mommy’s prone to pronouncements.”
Carolyn Heilbrun had decided that, by the time she turned 70, she would have accomplished what she could accomplish; she would have had enough of life, and she’d end it. Her family – her husband and three grown kids – they weren’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a relief when her 70th birthday came and went without a suicide. Apparently she had changed her mind. She even wrote a book called The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Her daughter says she took a lot of pleasure in life, even the small things.

HEILBRUN: She loved to get gifts. And it was quite easy to please her with a gift. And she’d made some sort of remark about she wanted to start listening to sextets, I think she said. No longer string quartets, no longer string quartets, I want quintets and sextets. And I was at Borders bookstore and found, could it have been a sextet by Elgar? And this was on Tuesday, the 7th of October. And I pulled out my cell phone to call her, and her voicemail came on, and I thought, “well I don’t really feel like talking to her right now.” I was going to call and say, “oh you don’t really want Elgar do you? You really want me to buy you Elgar?” And I hung up before she picked up, and I never spoke to her again.
Carolyn Heilbrun waited until she was 77, and then she did kill herself on October 9, 2003. She wasn’t sick; she wasn’t depressed. But she did feel she’d come to the end of her writing life. And that was that.

HEILBRUN: She left a note out in the foyer that said, “The journey is over, love to all. Carolyn.”

DUBNER: Did anyone know that she was planning to kill herself now? Did you father know, for instance?

HEILBRUN: Oh no, he didn’t know.

DUBNER: Your father — he was an economist, yes?

HEILBRUN: Yes.

DUBNER: So, economists are practiced in the art, or science, or whatever it is, of what’s known as rational thinking. Here is the wife of an economist, your mother, who seems to have approached suicide, at least life and the end of life, as a rational decision. Did you see it that way, or no?

HEILBRUN: No, I think it’s: if you’re mortally ill and in great pain, I can see seeking to end your life. But no, I think it was unreasonable, irrational of her. But, I think she felt it entirely reasoned out and rational.

DUBNER: Well, Margaret, I’m sorry for your loss and again, I very much appreciate your willingness to come speak to us.

HEILBRUN: Well, thank you.
For David Lester, the dean of suicide studies, 40-plus years of research has yielded some answers about the “what” of suicide – who’s most likely to do it, and when, and how. But the “why” remains elusive. The people who do it aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect.
Remember the point Steve Levitt made earlier in show – how puzzling it is that people whose lives look so hard don’t kill themselves in huge numbers? Remember the Piraha, the Amazonian tribe with their outrageous rates of infant mortality and malaria – but no suicide? Or African Americans, who trail white Americans on just about every meaningful socioeconomic dimension – but commit suicide half as often? Here’s what David Lester has been thinking about:

LESTER: Actually, I’ve done studies on the quality of life in nations and the quality of life in the different states in America. And regions with a higher quality of life have a higher suicide rate. Now, quality of life is more than wealth. The people who try and rate the quality of life use a variety of indices: health, education, culture, geography, all kinds of things. So they put more into it than just median family income, or individual per capita income. And what I’ve argued, therefore, is it seems to be an inevitable consequence of improving the quality of life. If your quality of life if poor— and it may be you’re unemployed, you’re an oppressed minority, whatever it might be, there’s a civil war going on, you know why you’re miserable — you know, as the quality of life in a nation gets better and you are still depressed – well, why? Everybody else is enjoying themselves, getting good jobs, getting promotions, you know, buying fancy cars. Why are you still miserable? So, there’s no external cause to blame your misery upon, which means it’s more likely that you see it as some defect or stable trait in yourself. And therefore you’re going to be depressed and unhappy for the rest of your life.

DUBNER: It’s so interesting. There are just so many pieces of this puzzle, as you put it, that are fascinating, but confounding. I mean, what you’re talking about now, when there’s a higher quality of life, suicide tends to rise. Your wife, who’s an economist, I wonder if she would consider then calling suicide to some degree a luxury good?

LESTER: Yes, now, there’s an anthropologist in the past, Raoul Naroll, who considers suicide an indication of a sick society. And so, in my writings I’ve argued that no, it’s an indication of a healthy society. So, it is a puzzle. There’s a paradox, perhaps we should say.”

Love,
Matthew