Cross at a construction site in our neighborhood today.
My imperative title is not intended to apply to those enduring clinical despair or depression that require professional help and/or medication. I’m thinking of those of us suffering “ordinary” despair from the political situations in which we find ourselves: demagoguery, racism, nativism, extreme partisanship, polarization, disinformation, manipulation, corruption, and so on.
Rarely do I write a post the day before I put it on my blog, but here I am, doing just that. If you only read the title you know what I’ve been thinking about for weeks as we begin this holy season of Lent today, Ash Wednesday. Lent reminds us of the interval of our lifetimes from cosmic dust to dust, our own “brief but spectacular” moments to shine in this universe. (Thanks to PBS for that phrase.)
Context is important. I’ve been watching a series on Netflix called The Universe that reminds me how fabulous and fantastic, fearful and far-flung the universe is as well as how opportune it is for these short-lived bits of human flesh (me and you) to wonder in amazement and awe and gratitude to even be a tiny part of it!
In preparation for a contemplative retreat I’ll be co-leading (to which you are welcome) I’ve been rereading Kathleen Norris’s book The Cloister Walk, looking forward to conversations about its many spiritual subjects. Synchronicity would have it that today she writes about despair, though in a different way than I expected.
Norris quotes early Christian spirituality historian Benedicta Ward, “For all sins, there is forgiveness. What really lies outside the ascetic life is despair, the proud attitude which denies the possibility of forgiveness.” Norris elucidates:
As for designating despair as an aspect of the sin or “bad thought” of pride, I find it enormously helpful. Among other things, it defeats my perfectionism, my tendency to give up when I can’t do things “just right.” But if I accept the burden of my despair, in the monastic sense, then I also receive the tools to defeat it. I have a hope that no modern therapeutic approach can give me (p 129).
Quoting another scholar, Douglas Burton-Christie, Norris explains that the first Christian monks believed scripture “possessed the power to deliver them from evil. They believed that the Word of God has the power to effect what it says.”
So, in our political morass, we are not defenseless. But we do need to consider and confront our all-or-nothing perfectionism which we apply not only to ourselves, but to our political candidates and parties. I was astounded to learn recently that in the last U.S. presidential election, tens of thousands of Bernie Sanders’ supporters voted for Donald Trump when the Democratic party chose another nominee. (See New York Times columnist David Brooks’ February 6, 2020 column, “How Trump Wins Again.”)
Whomever you support, don’t despair! Please volunteer and/or donate to campaigns you believe in, not forgetting that “down ballot” choices are also vital. Or, if politics is not your thing, please volunteer and/or donate to programs, centers, and causes near and dear to your heart.
Despair is a luxury we cannot afford in these troubled times!
I was invited to be among the contributors to Ashes to Rainbows: A Queer Lenten Devotional that includes meditations for Ash Wednesday, the Sundays of Lent, and the days of Holy Week. Go to: https://justiceunbound.org/queerlent/
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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.
I will again be co-leading “Beside Still Waters: A Contemplative Retreat” with Debra Weir April 27-May 1, 2020 at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. It is open to the public, and some limited scholarships are available. Three readable texts are recommended to prepare but are not required to have been read by opening day. Here's the link: