Published November 25, 2020
Some years ago, during a particularly dark and troubling time, an American Jew living abroad wrote to his Catholic friend in the States to commiserate: “Looking across the seas at my native land, I see that the barbarians have taken over everything. You are lucky: for you, despair is a sin.”
Between the resurgent COVID closings, the long-awaited-but-still-painful McCarrick Report, and the post-election fevers to which we are daily subjected, things have been a bit of a slog lately. I have thought to myself more than once that we Catholics really are lucky that despair is a sin. At times like this, a little perspective and a little humor go a long way.
The truth is that things have been a bit of a slog since round about the third chapter of Genesis, when our ancestral orchard thieves pilfered their way out of Eden and left the rest of us in the lurch. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Such resignation in the face of a fallen world might not be despair, but it is a close cousin to it.
Sometimes humor can show us the line between resignation and despair. Pope John Paul II once managed to slam his fingers in a car door. Someone near to him heard him mumble under his breath: “Thank you, Lord, for loving me in this way.” That prayer has been one of my favorites since I first heard the story, not least because it is the only prayer I know that can be prayed, simultaneously, with equal measures of piety and sarcasm.
When Our Lord bestowed the blessing of a minor hardship upon St. Teresa of Avila (she fell in the mud), the Carmelite famously informed the Lord of the Universe, “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”
There is love in that sort of humorous rebuke. The bonds of friendship do not only permit such rebukes, within the bonds of friendship such barbs are a sign of true intimacy and even delight. It is a sign of a strong friendship when one can poke fun at the other and the result is the strengthening of the friendship rather than its dissolution.
Not everything is a big joke, of course. The world is in a bad way. The world is filled with suffering. There are more than enough reasons to feel betrayed and cynical and angry. Hope doesn’t grow on trees. And just like that, we’re back at Ecclesiastes again: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
The beginning of trust in the providence of God begins with the loss of our sense of control. In this sense, being resigned to the futility of human efforts in the face of the world’s difficulties is close to despair, but also the beginning of the way to hope. The realization that we are not in control, that we are not gods, is decisive. We should be grateful that we are not responsible for saving this broken and miserable world. If its salvation were up to us, the world would be utterly without hope.
As I say, it has been this way since the beginning – or just about the beginning. When Adam and Eve sinned, their punishment was suffering and toil and death. Their punishment was just. But the justice of their punishment was also a sign of God’s mercy.
Then the LORD God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever?
The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken.
Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden as just punishment for their sin, but also so that they would not remain in this fallen state forever. Death is the path God gives us to escape this vale of tears. Grace was there in the Garden, even at the Fall. Grace was there in Gethsemane and there on Calvary. God’s grace was not just present, but actively transforming the worst of the devil’s manipulations and the most heinous of our sins into the very means of our salvation. What is the line between resignation and despair, between abandoning our pride and losing hope? The dividing line is God’s own providence.
We will suffer. We will die. And because we know that the very worst calamities that could ever befall us are nothing less than opportunities for God to pour out his grace and mercy on the world: in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
I can think of no thought more comforting than that. I can think of no greater reason to be grateful. No greater reason to exclaim: “Thank you, Lord, for loving us in this way.”
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.