I was traveling in Australia when I heard the news about Robin Williams—actually in a text message from my wife. “Robin Williams committed suicide.”
The media treatment is full of praise, full of memories, and full of sadness. Everyone is secretly thinking, “How could a genius of laughter on the outside, be filled with the swirling darkness of despair on the inside? Didn’t he have it all—money, fame, women, big houses, big cars. Everything anyone could want? Everything I could want?”
I didn’t know about Williams’ suicide when I went out on the ferry that takes tourists around Sydney harbor, past the famous Sydney Opera House.
Sydney is a very secular city, in an increasingly secularized country. What you see, as you scan the embracing land holding in the harbor, are dense mass of houses and high-rises all around the rim, each trying to get a glimpse of the good life through their windows, packed in like the bustling frantic tourists crowding the Sydney beaches all shoving and shouldering for their thin slice of the view.
In that crowd—my hosts had to point them out, and I had to squint—were a few much older buildings, churches, timidly peeking out among the far more numerous apartment buildings, high rises, and houses jostling for position along the water’s edge.
The churches were few and far between, and looked as if they were passing into tourist status like ancient ruins, rather than being vibrant centers of faith. If they were breathing, they were breathing hard, knocked about by the larger buildings dedicated to getting all one can in the here and now.
“There’s the Gap,” my host pointed to a lowering of land off the right side of the ferry. “That’s the place for suicides in Sydney.”
The Gap is a great ocean cliff on the South Head Peninsula, facing the Tasman Sea, known as a jumping off place for those in despair. Australia has a high suicide rate, higher than America or the UK.
But then he told me about the Angel of the Gap, Don Ritchie. He died in 2012. For the last fifty years he lived just a few yards from the Gap, or more accurately, from the notorious Watson’s Bay Cliff. For fifty years he’s saved lives, not ten or twenty, but hundreds.
Since 1964, when he moved into his house on Old South Head Road, he’s been watching out his window. At the beginning, he’d run out and physically hold them back—one time, even tackling someone—while his wife Moya called in the police. But then later he started inviting them into his house to talk—”for tea,” as the Australians say.
They didn’t jump. He saved lives. For five decades. And the Australian secular press duly eulogized him when he died.
But why did he do it—he and his wife Moya? Fifty years of watching.
The press didn’t say. Nothing they quoted from the Angel of the Gap gave much of a clue. It was just as if he was a regular guy, giving jumpers a reason to live by giving them a cup of tea.
But people don’t jump for lack of tea, and people don’t spend fifty years saving others, hovering over the Gap, due to a slight excess of niceness. The press also skipped over the fact that he very often risked his own life, climbing over the safety fence so he could get to them.
The secular press accounts lacked depth—the real depth of the despair of those who wanted to jump, and the real depth of the Angel standing at the Gap for half a century and snatching them.
What was Don Ritchie saying to those who, crushed by blackness within, were about to jump into the blackness below?
What would Don Ritchie have said to Robin Williams?
The more I read, the less I knew.
From reading the media accounts, one imagines a kind little old man toddling out with a cup of tea, “There, there, it can’t be all that bad. Have a scone, then?”
I finally came across a clue. Witness the words of Father Tony Doherty:
“I met him forty years ago. It was at Watsons Bay, I was driving home at about 1am. There were a group of guys at the Gap. I edged my way in tentatively… Here’s a figure who was lying down on his stomach, talking to a terrified little Vietnamese chap, who was just over the edge and threatening to jump. I watched this figure gradually encourage him to come back to the safety of the cliff. He has this wonderful soft, appealing voice that encouraged this little fellow not to jump, it turned out to be Don.”
Hanging over the edge of a cliff at 1 a.m., slowly, carefully, sweating every second.
What the press didn’t mention was that the Angel of the Gap was a Christian.
I wondered if the secular press avoided this at all costs? Perhaps they didn’t want to let it be known that just perhaps, the Angel of the Gap was motivated not by the limpid deity of niceness, but the God of Abraham, the God of David, the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
“Aha!” I thought. Now I believe I know why he did it, and what he was so gently saying at the edge of the cliff, and during tea at his house. He knew there was something more than mere comfort, mere pleasure, fame and fortune—something deeper, something better.
But if you take that something out, there’s only a voracious black depth beyond the shimmering promise on the surface.
We don’t want to admit that despair can be so black and so deep, that only God can lift us out, because that would be to admit that modern secular life, which would seem to offer every physical benefit, every pleasure, every intoxicating fantasy, leaves us in the end writhing in agony in a darkness that all too often engulfs precisely those who, like Robin Williams, seem to have it all.
If money and material success and fame cannot make us happy and keep us happy, as the secular gospel proclaims, then maybe we just might be open to listening to a wonderful, soft appealing voice, a still small voice like Don Ritchie’s.