Despair’s Elixir

by | Sep 18, 2019 | Blogs, Spirituality

A confession: If, when it is all over, when all is said and done, and I am six feet under, dead and buried, the last clump of dirt is cast over my simple, pine coffin, and I somehow come to find out that there is no God after all, I am going to be royally pissed. 

Would you be one of those people to tell me that religious life was still a noble enterprise and needed institution despite the minor detail about, you know, there being no God? If so, I would respond: that’s cute, but no thank you.

There are a lot of other paths I’d have pursued, and a variety of other ways I would have arranged my weekends. Those Saturday evenings many of us Catholics customarily gather to celebrate the Eucharist? Well, they would look a lot different. The wine could stay. 

I’ve been a practicing Catholic my entire life and less than a year ago I professed perpetual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience in the Society of Jesus. I placed my life in the hands of an obscure God, made a free choice and said Yes to this Jesus guy, in faith. FOREVER. These vows are meant to counsel and help Jesuits receive consolation through life’s journey. St. Ignatius once articulated a phenomenon he called consolation without previous cause” – a gratuitous rush of peace that moves one toward God with no external happening to explain its how or wherefore. But nowhere, as far as I know, did Ignatius account for its devilish twin: desolation without previous cause. I know it as an out-of-the-blue vacuous sensation, a kind of existential sucker punch that leaves me languid, somatic symptoms included: an ache in the pit of my stomach as if I’d just gorged myself sick on fistfuls of packing foam. The Yes I gave during vows – no shield is it against the sometimes ferocious struggle concerning the question of belief and unbelief. I know what unbelief can do to a person, or a group of people for that matter. 

Fifteen years ago, I was gifted a series of audio lectures from the popular Christian author Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. Through a folksy, Canadian accent he explained that so many of our sins are committed not out of pride or malice. Rather most of our sins are sins of despair. It struck me as one of the truest things I’d ever heard.

I shared my confession along with Rolheiser’s insight to my Jesuit brothers in a reflection I gave on the fourth Friday of Lent. Passages from the Book of Wisdom and the seventh chapter of John were docketed. 

Wisdom opens to a drama of a group of “wickeds” rolling their eyes and declaring the “righteous one” obnoxious. Things escalate quickly. From eye-rolling to name calling, to testing to torturing. Before the wickeds condemn the righteous one to a shameful death, they pause to query: Let us see whether the righteous one’s words be true; let us find out what will happen to him, if God will protect him (Wisdom 2:17). In the passage from John, Jesus’ disciples prod him to perform public acts. Let the world see who you are, they insist (John 7:4).

What accounts for the wickeds’ plotting and the disciple’s pleading? Rolheiser’s insight suggests an answer. Each party is compelled by unbelief born of a creeping despair. And so, each group schemes reassurance: Does this righteousness business really pay off? Could such a holiness vindicating God even exist? Is Jesus really who he says he is, his promises trustworthy? 

I know what it’s like to scheme reassurance. There are times when after 30, 40, 50 minutes of prayer I find that all I’ve been doing is staring into the nothingness of my own room. I sit back in my chair, glaring in contempt at the Jesus who’s not there and whisper:

You S.O.B. You who raised people from the dead and lift up bread to become your very body. Show yourself. Now! Respecting my free will, are you? Well, in freedom, I invite you to make the lights flicker. Tear the wooden beams from the roof. Levitation will suffice. 

Like those wickeds, like Jesus’ disciples, I desperately proffer demands for signs. And I wait. 

But it never happens. So? 

In those moments I’ve reckoned myself bereft of God, I have to recall something else I’ve confided in others over the years. Less exciting to tell because it doesn’t have the same emotional smack as its counter, is that somehow when I lean in and engage the People of God, they always have a way of bringing me back to belief and to hope. The mechanics of it are dim, but I have come to see that all the constant pressing for signs and obsessive intellectualizing about God’s existence has not diminished my unbelief and despair but enhanced it. Conversely, an elixir to these solipsistic wanderings has been to let my body lead, to hand myself over in loving service to the suffering and tossed aside. It’s a derivative and ironic phenomenon: when I forget my own incessant demands for reassurance and immerse myself in the needs of others, glimpses of the divine break through. It’s as if the puzzle piece that is me experiences the joy only a puzzle piece could when its jagged contours meet the rough-edged grooves of another. It makes sense since the living Christ I seek is the one with hunks of flesh missing from his side and the God I so desperately want to encounter is, first and last, relationship.

Now in my better moments I pray God would break open my heart and then place me with others whose hearts are broken. Because, as holy scripture says, that is where God is. In those queasy, empty moments of despair, I have to live the psalm that accompanied the readings for that fourth Friday of Lent, nestled as all psalms are in the crack between the two readings, obvious, and thus easily skimmed over (like grace itself): The Lord is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).


Photo by Isabella Mariana from Pexels


Christopher Alt, SJ   /   All posts by Christopher