by Jenny Schroedel, from boundless.org
“The anguish completely paralyzed me,” wrote Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love. “I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments ... All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”
Anyone who has fallen through this house without floors can relate, at least in part, to what Nouwen is describing. A feeling of meaninglessness descends without warning—making everything feel suddenly exhausting and unbearable. Prayer feels like an excruciating effort, cracking open the Bible akin to parting the Red Sea. We’re left to lug our sorry selves through another Sahara Desert day. No amount of coffee cuts the gloom.
During a recent bout with despair, I developed a bonus aliment—a flu complete with fever and the shakes. I crawled into bed and called my friend Amber, hoping to get a sympathetic chuckle out of her. “I’m on my deathbed,” I said. “I think it may be a step in the right direction.”
Two Kinds of Despair
Despair is the death of hope. Judas experienced this after he betrayed Jesus. In one of the Gospel’s most poignant scenes, he suddenly realizes the horror he’s set into motion. He bolts to the temple leaders, begging them to take the money back and release Jesus.
They don’t want his blood money, however, nor do they intend to let Jesus go. Judas throws the coins at their feet and flees. When he realizes that there is no going back he hangs himself.
Jesus, also, struggled with something like despair when he was languishing on the cross. He cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus felt abandoned in his own way—some of his best friends with their freshly-washed feet, the taste of bread and wine still on their lips, pretended like they never knew him while he was being led away. He then languished between two criminals. Even God seemed to withdraw—offering no solace or comfort, just a shattering, expansive silence.
Anyone who has given birth without the benefits of painkillers may have some idea of what Jesus was getting at. There is a phenomenon that strikes many laboring women—a moment of despair when a woman feels she can’t go on a single moment longer. The pain has become excruciating, her body limp with exhaustion, and her potential best ally during labor, her mind, shamelessly betrays her.
She may begin believe that the labor will never end, that her ultrasounds were some kind of cruel trick to dupe her into thinking that she was actually going to have a baby, when (surprise) she was actually suffering from an extreme case of appendicitis all along.
This may seem like an exaggeration, but despair (in and out of labor) can be almost entirely out of touch with reality—even delusional. People who have lives that seem almost perfect on the outside can struggle with secret bouts of despair. Holy people who radiate joy can tumble backwards into this pit as well.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, who died of Tuberculosis when she was only 24, was described by her sister nuns as calm and peaceful, even when most ravaged by illness. But behind her serene exterior, she struggled with despair. She loved God with all of her being, but at times, He felt so far away—as if there was a wall from the soil to the stars separating her from Him.
When all hope is lost, when we hit the wall with a horrific thud, sometimes all we can do is weep. Being in labor or in the throes of a ravaging illness (physical or mental) is a little like being on a cross—there is no out—there is only a tearful, trembling way through.
The Saddest Moment
A few weeks back, I was part of a solemn, candlelit procession with a small, empty casket down a busy Chicago street. We sang “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” as taxis slowed to a snail’s pace and a fire truck with flashing lights came to an almost total stop to observe us.
We were celebrating Holy Friday, Eastern Orthodox style. Our journey through Lent into Easter (or Pascha—literally translated as “the Dawn”) is a fully-interactive passion play in which the congregation follows Jesus’ path through the cross and tomb to the hope on the other side.
At no time does hope seem further away than on Holy Friday, as we remember the moment when Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb. When you contemplate his death, (“Why would anyone kill a good man?” my three-year-old daughter asks) it is almost impossible not to ache with the horror of it.
On Holy Friday, the head priest at my church stood in front of the tiny casket and said, “This is the saddest moment.” He seemed to be struggling for more words. He blinked. He opened his mouth again. Instead of words, tears came. “This,” he said, struggling to compose himself, “Is the saddest moment. But God will never abandon those who love him.”
Hold My Hand
If we’re to keep believing this—that God is near even when he seems far, that hope is close even when it seems to be on strike, we’re going to need other people. I especially need people in my life who are able to be quiet with God, who soak up a few rays of His love and reflect them back at me when I feel most hopeless.
“When you’re struggling with despair, find the places in your life where you sense the hand of God, and grab on with all your might,” said one of my seminary mentors. For me, that place is relationships. When I’m struggling with despair, I call a few friends and I tell them my woeful, meandering tales. Even when they don’t have answers, it helps to know that they are on the other end of the line, holding me in prayer.
“The road to heaven is narrow,” this same mentor told me. “The road to hell, wide. But do you know why so many people can make it to heaven even though the road is so skinny?” I shook my head. “Because the people on the road to heaven never let go of each other,” he said.
Long before I conceived, I used to fantasize about naming my first daughter Zephania. My mom (and husband) nipped this in the bud. My mom said, “Zepha-what?” looking at me with wide, worried eyes. Anytime you have to say back, “But, um, I think it is pretty,” it probably isn’t a keeper. My husband shook his head, slowly, and with purpose. “Sorry, Jen, Zephania was a man.”
The reason I so loved this Old Testament name is because it means “the Lord is my secret.” I imagined that giving this name to a child would be like bestowing upon her a great inheritance, or at least a delicious secret that she could feast on during the rough seasons.
There’s a nourishing secret about despair, too. I’ve experienced this in labor, in prayer, in marriage, motherhood, and in writing. Especially in labor, that moment of despair I wrote about earlier is not random. Most women who experience it hit it at a very specific time—right before they are about to begin pushing, when the labor is about to take a dramatic turn for the better—when that baby is so, so close to birth.
It’s the same way with Holy Friday. After the somber service, we rush home and slip our kids into bed and begin assembling our Easter baskets, baking special breads, ironing our best clothes. We might be a little weary, but everything we do is infused with hope. We are so, so close now, to Pascha.
Despair is the torn fringe at bottom of hope’s robe—it comes just before a breakthrough. To some it is a grave, to others, an oddly shaped door that we can only wriggle through with our arms stretched open wide, our eyes toward hope even as we make our way through shadows toward the life on the other side.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
From Despair to Dawn
This past year has wrought some of the greatest moments of despair in my life, and even now, I think there is a part of me that despairs. But you can't know hope without being familiar with despair...