One of the seven deadly sins recognized by the medieval church was acedia, which gets poorly translated into “sloth.” The words “despair” or “hopelessness” offer a much better translation. I’ve encountered these far too often in my life: suicide, alcoholism and depression run deep in my family.
It’s important to offer a couple of clarifications at this point. First, I’m not so much talking about clinical depression here. (Clinical depression generally arises from a complex miasma of environmental circumstances and chemical imbalances.) I’m also not talking about the sort of transitory sadness that is an appropriate response to a loss or to tragedy. I’m talking about that deep, spiritual despair most of us encounter at some point of our lives. Acedia involves a kind of spiritual resignation: the conclusion that not only can I not do anything about this situation, but also the suspicion that God cannot or will not help either.
It seems cruel to suggest that people like this, who live with genuine pain which they may have had little role in, are somehow in a sinful state. And that would be true if we view sin as simply doing something forbidden or naughty or wicked. I think it’s important, however, that we recognize this notion of sin is too narrow and ignores the true nature of sin. Sin, simply, is separation from God. And anyone who’s encountered deep spiritual despair knows quickly we can fall into feeling distant from God and God’s help.
In other words, I think we need to re-imagine sin as not just something we’ve done, but as a state in which our souls are in peril. Sin may or may not involve some act of the will or volitional conduct. (The question of whether our brothers and sisters had some role or fault in their current state must not be our concern. That determination lies exclusively within the Almighty’s province.) Regardless of whether it’s volitional, the danger to our souls is just as real, and the danger lies in our separation from the Source of our lives and healing.
To paraphrase Woody Allen very roughly, eighty percent of the Christian life is just showing up. I sometimes wonder if that’s not an important distinction between Judas Iscariot and St. Peter. Both betrayed Jesus; both broke trust and listened to their lesser angels. Judas despaired, and resigned himself to his failure. Peter, on the other hand, kept showing up.
Jesus said that the devil did “not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44. One of the most powerful lies our Ancient Enemy ever tells us is: “This will never change. This will never get better. Things will always be this way.” As Christians, hope provides our greatest weapon against the despair and resignation which the world so often pulls us toward.
In an earlier post, we discussed the Parable of the Good Samaritan (https://dominicanes.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/go-and-do-likewise/). Most of us will never encounter someone lying on the road, beaten almost to death. We are far more likely to meet a friend, neighbor or co-worker deep in the well of despair or hopelessness. Sometimes, we may merely let them know that “it gets better.” Sometimes, we may take them into our prayer lives, our hearts, or simply offer them a cup of coffee. Sometimes, the situation calls for nothing more than sacred listening, or the ministry of simply being present to the struggle. Either way, when we act as the hands, the voice and face of Christ, we engage in good and holy work.
Our faith often demands that we muster hope when it seems extraordinarily foolish, that we recognize God’s power to recreate when desperation has overcome us. Our confidence lies in knowing that our Redeemer lives. Thus, we pray in the Collect for this week that the living God increase our faith, our charity, and our hope. Like faith and charity, hope is a gift from God: a gift for which we should all pray.
God watch over thee and me,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis