“Despondency is the impossibility to see anything good or positive. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann
“Great is the tyranny of despondency, and much courage do we need so as to stand manfully against the feeling, and after gathering from it what is useful, to let the superfluous go.”
St. John Chrysostom
Part of our human experience in this fallen world is to suffer periods of sadness, hopelessness, overwhelming fear, loneliness, grief, and distress. Few escape the grips of what the saints often call despondency. They teach us that it can be brought on by a variety of life’s circumstances: facing the death of a loved one, illness, injury, loss of status or relationships, pessimism, attempting to find fulfillment in fleeting pleasures, seeing the sorrows and struggles of others, even realizing one’s own sinfulness—all these might cause bouts of despondency.
While nothing about our fallen experience is normal in the sense that it is not what we were made for, despondency is normal in the sense that we are all likely to experience it to varying degrees throughout our lives. While it is often said that joy is the sign of Christian life, joy should not be mistaken for simple happiness or outward cheerfulness nor should we feel obliged to put on a pretense of joy to prove our faithfulness. Joy is an inward gift of the Holy Spirit which is freely and mysteriously given to us and cannot be generated by any power of our own. Therefore, we must learn instead what to do when despondency invades our lives to make space for joy to arrive.
What do you think the relationship between joy and despondency is?
To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, how do you experience despondency? Are there things that trigger it in your life?
Why do you think it is that we sometimes feel pressure to hide our negative feelings?
Part II: Crying Out
As we mentioned before, despondency is a real experience felt by most human beings. Many throughout history have expressed this experience in the form of poetry, giving voice to their grief. Putting despondency into verse is one way of acknowledging the feelings and crying out for help.
Select one or more of the provided poems to read. You can either let each group member choose a poem or two to reflect on individually or split your group into pairs or smaller groups and give each pair/small group a different poem to read. Repeats are allowed.
What struck you about the poem(s) you read and how they expressed despondency?
Was there anything in particular that resonated with your own experience?
Part III: Surrendering to God
“In times of any sorrow, illness, poverty, need, disagreements, and any difficulty, it is better to spend less time in ruminating and talking to ourselves, and more often to turn to Christ our God and to his most pure Mother in prayer, even if it is only a brief one. Through that, the spirit of bitter despondency will be driven away, and the heart will be filled with joy and with hope in God.”
St. Antony (Putilov) of Optina
One notable aspect of many of the poems above is how the author both grieves and surrenders their grief to God. We need not attempt to “fix” our sadness but we can open ourselves up, raw and wounded as we might be, to the healing love of God and His saints in prayer. This prayer might be said in words, like the poetry of those we read earlier, or it might be offered as silence or weeping. We might simply repeat, “Lord, Lord.” Sometimes, we may find that we need help even to pray, and we can ask our friends and spiritual elders to pray for what we are not ready to pray for ourselves.
Who in your life, among both the saints and your family, friends, and mentors, can you turn to for prayers when you find yourself caught in a period of despondency?
How will you approach feelings of despondency when they arise in your life?
Use the blank “Crying Out” document to write your own poems or letters expressing whatever grief, worry, or fears you may currently be experiencing. For the coming week, read your poem or letter as part of your daily prayer rule as a way to surrender your despondency to God.
Conclude your meeting with this prayer for despondency from Fr. Arseny:
O my beloved Queen, my hope, O Mother of God, protector of orphans and protector of those who are hurt, the savior of those who perish and the consolation of all those who are in distress, you see my misery, you see my sorrow and my loneliness. Help me, I am powerless, give me strength. You know what I suffer, you know my grief — lend me your hand because who else can be my hope but you, my protector and my intercessor before God? I have sinned before you and before all people. Be my Mother, my consoler, my helper. Protect me and save me, chase grief away from me, chase my lowness of heart and my despondency. Help me, O Mother of my God!
As we can see in his simple yet complicated life, there may be no saint better acquainted with the depths of despair and despondency than St. Silouan. Although our temptation to hopelessness may look differently than Silouan’s, he still understands that same feeling. He was a young man when he first began battling despondency in full force. He is right here with us, and he shows us how to keep getting back up and resolutely place our trust in Christ. When we are perplexed, frustrated, apathetic or catch ourselves thinking or feeling some pretty negative things, we can turn to him as our friend and ask for his help. He in turn can help guide us to Christ and see His light even in the blackest hell. He can lead us by his prayers to the peace and love we find in our Savior Jesus Christ. As his spiritual son, St. Sophrony of Essex, says, “Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea.”
The Life of St. Silouan (1866-1938)
St. Silouan was a Russian peasant who traveled to Mt Athos and became a monk in the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon. He lived so simply, humbly, and quietly that he might have been forgotten had St. Sophrony (Sakharov) not become his spiritual child and, after the saint’s repose, written a book describing his life and teaching, St. Silouan the Athonite, one of the great spiritual books of our time. It was through St. Sophrony’s efforts that St. Silouan was glorified as a saint.
St. Silouan grew up with pious parents but was himself fairly “wordly” for a long while. When he was still a young man, he almost accidentally killed a man with a single punch. He was immediately remorseful and devoted himself with zeal to repentance. However, this newfound fervor only lasted a few months! He returned to his old ways until he had a horrible dream that demonstrated just how displeasing his way of life was to the Mother of God. Grieved in his soul, he devoted himself again, and this time, through the prayers of St. John of Kronstadt, made his way to the Holy Mountain with a fire burning in his heart, so deep was his repentance.
In the beginning, he made many blunders in the spiritual life but his desire for Christ was stronger than his failures. A torrent of temptations that would have led him to give up this life of prayer assailed him but still he persisted. For six months the attacks never lessened. His spirit failed, he began to lose heart and the horror of hopelessness surrounded him. He thought to himself, “God will not hear me!” He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged into the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour. That very same day, the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The gentle gaze of the joyous, all-forgiving, boundlessly-loving Christ drew Silouan’s entire being to Himself.
The period of time after this, all was beautiful and lovely. He had within himself a sense of peace, reconciliation with God, and strength to continue on. However, this gradually faded, and he was perplexed and feared losing what he had. He sought counsel from an elder concerning his experiences and worries and received good advice on prayer, but amazed at the spiritual depth of the novice, the man mistakenly praised him as well. Silouan soon found himself struggling with thoughts of vainglory among other things. He fell into despair, despite his perpetual prayer. Having known the peace and grace of the Holy Spirit, his soul grieved, begged, prayed, and wept for the return of that Light. Weary years of alternating grace and withdrawal of grace now set it.
St. Silouan was called to serve as steward to the monastery. Though he now supervised some two hundred men, he only increased his prayers, withdrawing to his cell to pray with tears for each individual worker under his care. For more than fifteen years, he struggled with demonic attacks during prayer until he was almost in despair. At this point Christ spoke to him in a vision, saying “The proud always suffer from demons.” Silouan answered, “Lord, teach me what I must do so that my soul may become humble.” To this he received the reply, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” St. Silouan made this his discipline in every moment of his life with joy and thanksgiving and was granted the grace of pure prayer. He said that if he ever let his mind wander from the fire of hell, disruptive thoughts would once again plague him. In his humiliation, he was filled with a pervasive love for all — he said many times that the final criterion of true Christian faith is unfeigned love for enemies, and that “to pray for others is to shed blood.”
By prayer thou didst receive Christ as thy teacher in the way of humility, and the Spirit bore witness to salvation in thy heart. Wherefore, all peoples called unto hope rejoice in this day of thy memorial, O sacred Father Silouan. Pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.
Apolytikion of St. Silouan the Athonite
by Orthodox Christian Fellowship
Pray to him
O chosen ascetic and earthly angel of Christ, all-blessed father Silouan, most excellent emulator of the fathers of Athos in vigils, fasting and humility! Through thy thirst for God and burning love for Him thou didst acquire abundant grace for thy soul, O most blessed one. Imitating Christ, thou didst crucify thyself with tearful prayer for those languishing in hades, for the living and for those yet to come. Of this thy love deprive us not, who amid the vale of sin ask thine intercession before God and cry out with compunction: Rejoice, O father Silouan, inextinguishable burning of love in thy prayer for the world!
In this episode Samuel Dutschmann, College Conference Midwest Student Leader, is joined by author, podcaster, and trauma coach, Nicole Roccas. They discuss despondency in the life of college students. Nicole shares insights from her work and how students might work through these restless moments of our lives.