The Mysterious Joy of Matthew Warren

Let us begin with prayer: Heavenly Father, bring healing to the parents, family, friends, and community of your son Matthew in this time of grief. May the light of your Divine Mercy banish the darkness with which he struggled, and may this same mercy see him into your kingdom. We ask all these things through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.


I know very little about Pastor Rick Warren, and nothing at all about his son, Matthew. Since I learned of Matthew’s suicide last night, however, I have thought of little else.

When this kind of high-profile act of self-destruction happens, we pretend to search for answers for a time. Society imagines it’s having a “national dialog on mental illness.” People will talk of what to do, how to recognize the symptoms, how to help those you love. Perhaps some will become more sensitive to the warning signs in the process.

But in the end, things will return to where they were. People will go back to not understanding mental illness, because it is not something that can be understood from the outside. The mentally ill will forever remain an enigma to a population that can look at a person torn apart by a darkness that devours and say, “Everybody gets depressed” or “You’ve got a good life, so what you have to be down about?”

The issue will be further clouded by the vast number of people who are medicated–and in most cases mis-medicated and/or over-medicated–for “depression,” and thus think they understand something about real, clinical depression: not the boutique blues that doctors like to smother in Prozac, but the clammy parasite that attaches to your soul and sucks out your life day by agonizing day, until annihilation appears to be the only relief.

I come from a long line of mental patients, alcoholics, and suicides. My family tree is full of people who completed their short and tormented lives in a madhouse, at the bottom of a bottle, or at the end of a rope. Had I not met my wife at the point when I did, and made the ongoing effort to “heal” (you’re never healed) under the motivation of her selfless love, I would have been one of them.

What will probably disturb people the most about the death of Matthew Warren is that those around him seemed to do everything right. He had the love and support of a faith-filled family who understood that this was an actual illness that needed the best doctors, treatments, and medications available, and they had financial resources to get that help. Judging by his father’s statement, the Warren family “got it” as much as they possibly could.

When your child has cancer, the course of action is self-evident. Tests, doctors, treatment, nurturing, healing, fighting. When your child has a sick mind, it’s much harder for a family to come to grips with how–and in many cases if–to proceed. And, as with cancer, the treatment might not succeed. Mental illness is both biological and psychological. Both aspects need to be treated, and you need to deal with the brain chemistry before you can hope to work on the psychological elements. Finding the right combination of meds isn’t an exact science. It’s just trial and error, usually over a grueling period of time that can grind down the patient.

From the few facts that are out there, it’s likely Matthew has been pursuing these solutions since his teen years (a common time for mental illness to really manifest or worsen), meaning he’d had a decade of ups and downs, successes and failures. You can only ride that roller coaster so long. It wears on you. It weakens you. In the end, if you don’t hold on tight, it can destroy you.

There is one striking moment in Rick Warren’s statement: “Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

Did you catch that? Because I could read an entire novel into that statement. Depressives should recognize it right away. Matthew had a good night with his family. He was “high.” No, not on drugs. Depression is a like suffocating fog in the brain. Sometimes, seemingly for no reason, it lifts, and you feel like a human should feel again. You experience joy. You say, “Oh, that’s what it feels like.” And then the fog rolls back in, as it always does, and the final condition is worse than the first.

Perhaps this is what Rick Warren meant by a “momentary wave of despair,” except that it wasn’t momentary. It was perpetual. It returned as surely as the tides, year after year. Matthew had ridden that wave before. He was tired of it.

There is, of course, one other likelihood, which is something else people don’t understand about suicide. They often say, “I don’t get it. We had a great time just that night! He was so happy!”

Often, that happiness is because the decision was already made. The fight is over. The relief is coming. You can let yourself be happy. You can have one really beautiful moment with parents who you know love you, even though you want to tear yourself apart because that love–unconditional, overwhelming–will never be enough. You feel the joy of a person who comes in sight of the finish line after a long and brutal race.

No doubt Pastor Warren and I are separated by sharp denominational differences, but we both preach the Gospel of the risen Christ, and that makes him my brother. We certainly have different ideas about what happens to the soul after death.

For centuries there was a sense that self-murder was a grievous and unforgivable sin: so bad that suicides were denied Christian burial. I have a great aunt who committed suicide, and in the place where cause of death should have been listed are merely the words “body viewed.” The person who filled out the form knew the family, and didn’t want to impede her chances for a Catholic burial.

None of this was dogmatic, however, and the Church now emphasizes mercy for those who, in a diminished mental capacity, kill themselves. The Catechism says

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Which brings us back to that mysterious joy; that final happiness some suicidal people feel just before the final act.

The grave sin at the heart of suicide is despair, which is the opposite of hope, one of the three theological virtues. Suicides were thought to have sinned against hope and thus, in a sense, denied God as well as committing the most horrible violation of the 5th commandment: throwing away God’s gift of life to you.

Despair is a great danger in the life of the mentally ill: perhaps the greatest. Hope is what keeps people going. When that hope is lost, all is lost. Thus suicide would seem to be the absence of hope and surrender to despair.

But I wonder, sometimes, in some cases, if the distortion of thought that accompanies mental illness gets it exactly backwards; if, at some point, hope and despair become crossed in the mind of the sufferer. Death mistakenly appears to be a hopeful act. There’s something else in Rick Warren’s statement that suggests this point of view:

I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said “ Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.

Putting aside the vast theological issues with that quote, you get a sense of the great burden carried by the mentally ill, which makes up seem like down. Few people can imagine a suffering so great that death would seem like a relief, and no reasonable person would embrace self-annihilation to gain it. Worse, the idea that you can kill yourself into Heaven is a terrible perversion of core Christian teachings. Certainly, the son of a minister knew this, which means–at the end–he’d lost his reason, and was no longer in control. He needed to just hold on until the wave passed, but he just couldn’t. Holding on is the key.

There are some taking to social networks to say Matthew Warren’s final act dooms him to Hell. I prefer the question of Hans Urs von Balthasar: Dare we hope that Hell is empty? Dare we hope that all are saved?

Yes. We dare. We’re Christians. We live a life of love with faith in God and hope for eternity. Hope is central to our being. Hope is a beautiful gift, and certainly the greatest of hopes is that the desire of Christ that none shall be lost is fulfilled. I don’t know if it will be or will not be, nor does anyone else. I do know that I hope it to be the case.

Today Catholics celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, in which we recognize the pure power of God’s infinite mercy. We trust the soul of a troubled young man to a merciful God: a God who breaks chains and frees captives, who lifts up the broken-hearted and wipes away every tear. May He wipe away the tears of the Warren family. And may He, in his mercy, comfort Matthew at the last, and show him the final, true, and lasting joy found in the heart of God.

UPDATE: Max Lindenman adds a powerful and lovely Prayer for Suicides.

Timothy Dalrymple: When a Loved One Takes His Life.