Part I: The Feelings Are Real
“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!
This discussion is made up of four parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Framing the Discussion
Most of us – whether Christian or not – think it’s natural to thank God or to simply be grateful when we experience something positive. In fact, in our world today, saying “Thank God,” has become a common way of expressing gratitude for a positive outcome in our lives, even by atheists.
However, when it comes to the more difficult moments in our life – the uncomfortable and confusing ones – we often become angry, upset, or depressed. We feel as if some sort of injustice is going on. We question why something is happening to us. We wonder what we could change to make that bad thing go away. And we definitely do not thank God.
- Why is it more difficult to be grateful in times of struggle and suffering than in positive times?
- What might our underlying worldview be when we react to struggle and suffering as something that we should despise rather than be grateful for? What thoughts might be causing that reaction to take place?
Part II: Reframing the Discussion
You probably touched on this in answering the questions above, but most people don’t see struggles and sufferings as things to be grateful for because we don’t view them as good things. Indeed, why would you give thanks for anything that isn’t good?
Furthermore, we don’t give thanks to God for these things because we don’t believe they are from God. Most of us know that God is loving, compassionate, patient, and merciful. It doesn’t make sense then how things that are so uncomfortable, so hard to endure, and, so often, so clearly heartbreaking and painful, can be from God. After all, St. James tells us in his universal epistle, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). St. James doesn’t say that bad things are from above, just good ones. So why thank God for things that aren’t from Him?
Despite both of these very logical forms of reasoning, however, we as Christians know that we are supposed to be grateful for everything in life, both what we would call good and what we would call bad.
In his epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5: 17-18). Similarly, perhaps one of the most famous lines in the history of the Church are St. John Chrysostom’s final words, “glory to God for all things,” which he uttered after being persecuted and walked to his death as an old man.
The Tradition of the Church is clear, we should give thanks and praise to God for everything that we encounter in life.
- So how do we reconcile the two competing ideas in the section above? Is it possible to say that the bad things in life are not worth thanking God for because they are not good things and only good things come from God while also saying that we should thank God for everything in life?
- If we have to reframe our thinking here, what needs to change?
Part III: A Difficult Truth
You may have arrived at this realization on your own, but there are a pair of possibilities worth considering:
- That struggles and sufferings are not actually bad.
- That struggles and sufferings are from God, too.
If we think that it doesn’t make sense for evil things to exist in the world when the world is created by a loving and compassionate God, then we have a choice: we can either decide that God does not exist, or we can decide that evil does not exist.
In today’s world, most people probably choose the former. After all, it’s easier to decide that there’s no God in the face of struggle and suffering because it means that we can create our own meaning in life. We don’t have to live up to someone else’s standards, and we don’t have to endure that struggle and suffering if we don’t want to.
But the reality is that we do have to endure struggle and suffering even when we don’t want to. Even if we are the most selfish people in the world and do everything to look out for ourselves and avoid any difficulties in life, we are bound to be affected by some disease, natural disaster, unlucky outcome, or, simply, death.
So it can’t be that God doesn’t exist, but that evil doesn’t exist.
Of course, this is what the Fathers of the Church teach. They say that evil is not a thing, but actually the absence of a thing. It is the absence of good. And that absence is only felt and made real when our lives do not aim at the ultimate good: God.
- Take a moment to consider the gravity of the section above. How does it feel to be presented with the idea that evil doesn’t exist?
- If we have experienced great pain or suffering in our lives, it might be difficult to believe that evil does not exist. How would you as a Christian support the argument that evil does not exist?
Part IV: Finding the Reason for Gratitude
In truth, the section above is not explicitly Christian. Philosophers and great thinkers of other religions can and have arrived at the same conclusions about God and evil independently of any Christian theological foundation. However, there would still be something unsettling and empty about the section above if our discussion were to stop there, if we didn’t have the revelation of God to add to that philosophical reasoning.
In the Church, we recognize that God has not only created the world but that, out of his abundant goodness and love, He has also revealed Himself to the world and shown us the reason for the reality of struggles and sufferings which, though not evil, can still feel difficult and unnecessary.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus and his disciples pass a man who was blind from birth, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” and Jesus answers them, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work” (John 9:1-5).
In the context of Genesis, the meaning of this passage becomes clear. After we humans chose not to direct ourselves towards God, after we chose to forsake His work of bringing order to the world by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we started to drift away from God. We no longer participated in His glory and we stopped radiating His light. However, instead of giving up on us and allowing us to drift into evil (into the dark nothingness of the night) by becoming completely separate from Him, God instead granted us more light and more day. He gave us opportunities to transform our fallen experience into good by granting us struggles and suffering.
It is when we struggle or suffer that we are motivated to choose to put our trust in God and receive His power and grace once again. It is when others struggle or suffer that we can choose to share God’s powerful grace and love with the world by tending to the suffering of others.
And Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection shows us that that suffering is not in vain. In resurrecting and promising us that same resurrection, Christ shows us that our struggle and suffering can lead us back to a place where there is no struggle or suffering, especially when we choose to participate in that suffering like He did: by engaging in it on behalf of others.
- In light of this final section, why should we be grateful to God for all things?
- How did acknowledging the need for gratitude in life help you change your perspective on struggle and suffering?
- How does a new perspective on struggle and suffering help you be more grateful?
The Eternal vs The Temporal
As Orthodox Christians, we’re used to the idea of the “eternal.” Our prayers repeat over and over, “now and ever and unto the ages of ages!” This idea of something being stable, being infinite, being timeless can sometimes feel foreign in our fast-fashion, short-attention-span, Prime-delivery everyday world. What’s even more difficult than living at the intersection of these two worlds is the task of inviting others into the awareness of the eternal so that we may share with them the beauty of God and His Church.
Do you feel a tension between the norms of society and the awareness of eternity that our faith presents to us?
Where do you find you “live” between these two worlds? Are you mostly in one? One foot in each? In a different world depending on the day of the week, season of the year, etc?
Is it possible that these two worlds could compliment one another rather than be at odds with each other? What could that look like in our everyday lives?
The Eternal & The Temporal
Believe it or not, both the eternal and the temporal worlds were given to us by God. We live in the temporal, there’s not much we can change about that. Through the Christian life, we are reintroduced to the eternal: to God, to eternal life, to the heavenly realm, to the saints, to the sacraments. We are called to live lives that work to intersect both worlds at all times. In our spiritual walk, our purpose is to live at the very meeting place of the eternal and the temporal. Making every temporal moment and infinite one by bringing Christ’s presence into it.
Have you had a time/season in your life where you found the eternal sanctifying your temporal time? What was that like?
Do you struggle to live at the intersection of these two worlds? Would you rather hop into one for a time and then hop into the other at a different time? Why do you think that is?
Making the Eternal Accessible for Others
If we are to bring the eternal things of God into our everyday, temporal lives, not only will our lives be changed, but also the lives of everyone around us. Since God made us to live at the intersection of the eternal and temporal, everyone around us has a natural longing to experience the eternal things of God. This doesn’t mean we need to be preaching at our friends at all times. Living a life that is filled and sanctified with the eternal will offer a look at what a life-giving existence looks like to all those who are around us. And believe it or not, most of our friends would be receptive and interested in an invitation from you if they already see that your life is different from everyone else’s around them.
How can we live in such a way that makes the eternal present for those around us?
What hinders us from inviting friends into the eternal? (Prayer before eating, attending the Divine services, praying before exams, etc.)
How can we invite others to participate in the eternal?
What does it mean to build habits that are truly Christ-centered? It means to invite Christ into our everyday lives, no matter how mundane. It means for us to call upon the Holy Spirit so that we grow in our awareness of His presence. A Christ-centered habit is a habit that allows us to recognize God’s activity in the world. St. Gregory the Theologian says simply, “We must remember God more often than we draw breath.”
It’s easy to go about our day with the sense that we are isolated from God. How and when are you most aware of His presence?
Do you ever feel as if God is not present? What situations elicit that experience for you? What do you do?
What do you think of St. Gregory’s lofty challenge to remember God more often than we breathe? What can you do to actively become more aware of God in your day-to-day life?
Habits that draw us near
There are many ways we can clear our hearts to become more aware of Christ in our lives, and all of them take time, guidance, and repentance. Here is one suggestion we’d love for you to consider:
Sanctify your day with tiny prayers. Sometimes we’re prone to overcomplicate praying. Try instead when you open a book to study to say, “Lord, bless my understanding that I may give glory to You.” Or pray, “Lord have mercy on…” when you get a text message from that person. Or, if you find yourself on a solitary walk across campus, pray the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner) in rhythm with your footsteps.
What other tasks throughout your day could you turn into opportunities to be in conversation with Jesus? What time of day or activity do you think might be most transformed in your life if you were to pray during it?
A reflection from St. Patrick
In the Breastplate of St. Patrick, a morning prayer attributed to the patron of Ireland, St. Patrick makes a conscious effort to acknowledge the presence of God, the angels, and the saints in the world in which he goes about his daily tasks. Pray the following excerpt from the Breastplate. Take your time, and recite each line slowly.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
What stands out to you in this prayer? What will you take into your life this week from St. Patrick’s attitude about the presence of Christ?
We live in a reality where we are caught between the eternal and the temporal. We live
lives within the temporal: we mark the years, seasons, and feasts, and yet, we look to
the eternal “and the life of the age to come.”
At times, because we live in this tension, we lose sight of the blessings that come with
each “type” of time. We may also miss out on how the two types of time compliment
one another within the Christian life.
Living in the now
Time flies without us noticing! What practices do you use to mark chronological time
passing? How have you found this practice to be beneficial?
Describe a period in your life where you wish you had been more more aware of time
We must be intentional about living in the present moment. How can we use the
beginning of this new school year to more intentionally live in the present and treat our
time as a sacred gift?
Living in light of eternity
God offers us windows into the eternal; glimpses at the coming age through the work
and prayers of the Church. How do we prepare for the eternal? What practices have you
found helpful to make the most of these “eternal” events.
Who among us doesn’t get distracted with the temporal when we’re supposed to be
focused on the eternal? Physically we’re in liturgy, but our mind is with our assignments,
our to-dos, our problems, our plans. Why is this the case? How can we combat this?
Time meets the eternal
Christ comes to meet each one of us at the intersection of the temporal and the eternal.
As temporal beings, we are transported during the Divine Liturgy to the eternal Liturgy
partaken of by all the saints. Sadly, once we walk out of Liturgy, we tend to leave this
behind and return to our “normal lives.”
Why is that? What has been your experience in the past?
What can we each do to change that? How can we live more of our lives at the meeting
point between the temporal and the eternal?
Why is this meeting point important? Will this make any real difference in our lives?