Lent | 2.27.12
Every week, while the community gathers at the altar of my church to receive communion, ministers also practice the sacrament of unction—the anointing of those who are not whole in body or spirit. I often visit these healing ministers with the same request: “Please help me to overcome my despair.”
In the church’s ancient tradition, despair is one of the seven deadly sins—indeed it is the one the Church called unforgiveable. My sin of despair does not fall into the traditional form—in author Joyce Carol Oates’ description, the belief “that one is damned absolutely…a repudiation of the Christian Saviour and a challenge to God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness.” Rather mine is a more worldly despair, a belief that the world is sunk—that we will not be able to fix what is broken, heal what is sick, or help G-d’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As Richard Liantonio writes: “Despair (with its corresponding lack of vibrant hope) destroys the uplifting, forward-looking, revolutionary aspects of the Christian eschatology and replaces it with an insipid acceptance of what is.”
There is a relishing of this despair that finds good company on all sides of the theological and political spectrum. We all wring our hands and lament the state of the world and affirm our own helplessness. We don’t seek hope—the kind of hope that change and healing require—but rather just confirmation of our views.
Psalm 77 speaks to that despair. It speaks of the distress of one who feels the absence of G-d asking “Has his unfailing love vanished forever?” Yet the psalmist fights comfort, stating: “I refused to be consoled.” We too refuse to be consoled. But the psalmist does not stay focused on the present, on the seeming absence of G-d. Instead, he turns to memory—to history—and meditates on all G-d’s mighty deeds.
In this broken world, the sin of despair is a mighty temptation. We would do well to follow the psalmist’s lead, to acknowledge our frustration at the ways in which G-d’s presence is not felt, but then to remember G-d’s great works, the way in which G-d cut a path through mighty waters though his footprints were not seen. These memories can allow us to replace despair with hope, and then to let that hope work through us to bring healing to the world.
Associate Professor of Honors
You can download the full Lent and Holy Week Devotional Guide at: http://www.belmont.edu/religion/files/lent-devotional-2012-final.pdf.