Saint Paul never tramped the byways of Palestine with Jesus, but he knew the Jewish Scriptures – to love the Lord your God with your whole being and your neighbour as yourself. He put it this way:
If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.
You don’t have to be a Christian believer to look to the things of others, to work towards being of one accord with your neighbours. In a diverse society such as the United Kingdom today, that should be obvious. But that sense of solidarity does not predominate in everybody. I feel that it was what Virginia Woolf missed by trying to live the illusion – her own word – that she was somehow superior to others. Vainglory sums it up precisely.
And realising that it was vainglory to affect such superiority – or so I read her ending – she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the river. Woolf was certainly struggling with despair in her last months. The Hamilton Star recently told how researchers from Canada and Brazil created word clouds from her writings in happier times and those last months.
In the cloud created from her final months, the words include: little, miss, war, nothing, never, can’t and don’t. The researchers write that these “negative words” may indicate Woolf’s “thoughts of lack of efficacy, self-criticism, worthlessness, nostalgia, melancholy and mainly hopelessness.”
This is not to deny the mental illness that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life, which surely contributed to her thoughts of melancholy and hopelessness, despite her many privileges. Nor is it possible to compare her suffering with Paul’s time in chains and prison, nor to deny the power of God’s grace to work in her heart. Suicide is an extreme form of repentance, and Woolf was aware, perhaps morbidly aware, of causing suffering to others, and as her last letter shows, she wanted to end that. Let us, for every one who takes their own life,
be … confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.
And let us remember, with thanks, that there is now formal and informal help for those in great distress that was not available to Virginia Woolf.