Tag Archives: despair

When Hope Fails – Redux

Hope is what gets a lot of people through the Christmas season. And the failure of hope is what leaves some souls shipwrecked on the treacherous rocks of the sin and imperfection of this world.

What is it for you this year? Death of a loved one? Spouse in Afghanistan? Unemployed? House foreclosed? Cancer?

Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression.  It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.           Rubem Alves

She was fourteen. She sat next to me as we drove home after the Christmas Eve service. Lights sparkled from distant homes across the snow-covered fields. Shattered with pain and trying not to show it, I tried to focus on driving. After a while she spoke out of the darkness, “Mom, things aren’t ever going to be the same, are they?”

That year, our family had been struck by a blow from which we would never fully recover. In spite of  brave efforts, prayer, and sacrifice we could not put back together what was broken and, perhaps, fatally flawed.

During that season of suffering, hope became nearly eclipsed by fear, anger, shame, and pain. Each evening I turned briefly from my grief in defiance of “the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression,” and lit a candle for hope. Even though I felt no hope, I let the candle hold my hope for hope.

In those days I clung to the verse of scripture the minister preached at our wedding. Remember thy word to thy servant in which thou hast made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that thy word gives me life. Psalm 119: 49-50

What an odd text for a wedding, you may think. Yet as the years unfolded it became more and more meaningful. I prayed it, holding God accountable to the goodness promised to me in scripture and whispered to my soul. God’s promise of joy, peace, and love comforted me and gave me the ability to keep breathing in my affliction.

Carmelite writer Constance Fitzgerald writes about the movement in our spiritual journey from “naïve hope to theological hope.”

Through experiences of loss and suffering, naïve hope in a Santa Claus god and other illusions nurtured by our egos and culture give way to a different, richer kind of hope.

We let go of placing our hope in our own efforts, our own goodness, our own “luck” or worthiness. We let go of our “right” to ourselves and our way. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we numbly watch our way wrenched from our grasp. We face our helplessness and the truth that we are not in control. Hope in oneself and one’s little plans and projects dies on the cross of our life experience.

It is there in that stillness of a drive back home on the worst Christmas Eve in one’s life, while a child’s heartbreaking question hangs in the air, that hope in God is born.

You may miss it at first, especially if the pain is choking you.
But refuse to let the last word be the brutality of facts.
Go ahead and light that tiny candle.
Defy the darkness.
And pay attention.
A baby is on its way.
Something fragile and new and unimaginably sweet
is making its way into your consciousness.

I tell my daughter, “Yes, honey, things will not be the same. But I believe somehow or other, things will be all right.”

And they were.

Special thanks to artist Anne Emmons for her permission to use “Hope” in this blog. You can reach Anne at anneemmons_8@msn.com or on Facebook.

Here is Anne’s story about this painting:  I was trying to think of one moment in the Biblical narrative which captures the theme of hope.  Each year I have made a new image for Christmas since 1997, and in 2000, I was struck by the idea of hope as the source of light. The images in this series reflect the thought that Christ came, the Light of the world, into darkness. So I was thinking about one single moment in the story and I realized the moment Mary heard the announcement from the Archangel Gabriel must be the moment hope found a form, in her face. At the time, my daughter was almost 14, the estimated age of the Virgin Mary, and I suddenly connected with the story in a particular way. I kept her home from school that morning to have her sit for the painting. What struck me, and this has since been confirmed from other sources, most recently Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, was that the Incarnation was possible only through God’s will in union with the “yes” of the young Mary, who became the bearer of the Uncontainable God. Just after I painted this I saw the Pontormo Annuciation in a small side chapel in Florence, and Mary had the same sort of look of wonder I tried to catch.  Now my daughter Claire has a two year old son, Theodore. She is a single mother who said yes to the birth of this child, whose name she chose, not knowing it means “gift of God.”

This is a previously published post (December 2009)  with some light editing.

The Miracle of Gratitude

woman praying 002Feeling discouraged? Despair breathing down your neck? Are you trapped in a painful situation with no way out?

Count your blessings. I know. It sounds lame. You need a whole life makeover. You need to win the lottery, find a new job, or discover the cure for cancer. Humor me. Do it anyway. Hold up your ten fingers, or however many you have. Count out loud one blessing for each finger.

Now that you are warmed up, take out a piece of paper and get to work filling it up with things you are grateful for. Just put down whatever pops in your head. Keep at it. Include the most specific details – water actually flowed from my faucet at the flick of my wrist when I was thirsty this morning; I can see the mourning dove pecking corn outside my window; my cup of coffee tastes delicious – dark, aromatic, and hot.

A sure way to find hope in a dark time is to count one’s blessings. This simple spiritual practice focuses our attention not on what has happened or what might happen, but on what we can discover to be thankful for in this moment. Gratitude awakens mindfulness, which calms and focuses us on simple pleasures and the miracle of life itself.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.  Melodie Beattie

I can recall some pretty anguished nights in my life. I flailed about rehearsing imagined scenarios, practicing speeches to give to various people, and writing scary science fiction. To what end? Nothing productive. I only became more and more entangled in my own hysterical drama. Some of us come to a point where we are being eaten up by worry and fear. This can be the key to a wonderful discovery. Right about when we say, I can’t live like this anymore, we discover we do not have to. Peace is a choice. We have the freedom through an act of our wills to choose peace of mind.

So much about the spiritual life and happiness in general depends upon where we put our focus. We get to choose what thoughts we entertain and which ones we sweep out the door. At the same time there is tremendous competition among multiple influences to occupy the center stage of our minds. Consider for a moment who or what influences are in charge of your mind? The mantras of our consumer culture? Some nasty critical, negative inner voice? A whiny, fearful, abandoned child? A tangled root of bitterness?

The psalmist puts it succinctly, “Do not fret – it only leads to evil.” Psalm 37: 8. Spiritual teachers of many traditions teach the practice of gratitude. Jesuit priest Jeanne Pierre de Caussade, who died in 1751, advises: The great principle of the interior life lies in peace of the heart: it must be preserved with such care that the moment it is in danger everything else should be abandoned for its re-establishment, just as when a house is on fire, one leaves everything to extinguish it.. . .  And the reason of this is that great peace and tranquility of spirit alone give the soul great strength to achieve all that God wills while trouble and disquiet turn the soul into a languishing invalid. 

De Caussade’s image of the languishing invalid cracks me up. That is exactly what I become as I succumb to fear and anxiety:  infected with negativity, unable to make clear decisions, confined to a bed of worry.

If the only prayer you ever pray is thank you, that would suffice, wrote Meister Eckhart. It seemed to work for Jesus. Remember that embarrassing moment when there were only two fish and five loaves and a huge hungry crowd to feed? The disciples quickly turned into languishing invalids. Jesus takes what he has, lifts his eyes to heaven, and gives thanks. After everyone had enough, they filled twelve baskets with leftovers.

That was Jesus’ miracle. Why don’t you go work a few of your own today?

 Praying hands



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Contact Loretta at
lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary

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Hidden Things of God

Dock, fog “I have come to get some answers. I’ve talked to a bunch of ministers and none of them was any help.” The man sitting before me was a young professional, bright, and angry.

I draw in my breath and exhale, praying  to be released from any illusions that I could improve upon my colleagues’ work. “Make me humble, Lord. Make me true.” Glib answers, formulaic responses, any hint of arrogance would quickly be detected by his cynicism and broken heart.

“I am about ready to give up on church,” he told me with a hint of defiance, as though he were daring me to be helpful to him. His story was painful and his betrayal, despair, and hurt were palpable. As he wept, shoulders shaking, I sat Shiva. I kept the ancient Jewish vigil of simple presence to another’s suffering. As those who comforted the bereaved in Jesus’ tradition, I waited for my guest to initiate conversation.

“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself,” wrote the Spanish writer, Unamuno.

We live in a world with little patience for doubt or questioning. We do not value subtlety, complexity, or mystery. We possess minimal tolerance for simply sitting with ambiguity and suffering. We do not trust there is any effectual power at work in our lives beyond what we can manipulate or contrive with our own wills and abilities.

The pragmatism, that is the religion many of us bow before, insists on quick, easy solutions. If something “works,” then it deserves our support. An end product that satisfies our needs justifies almost any means.

Our market place economy heavily determines how we think of ourselves and the world. The language of faith with its nuance, poetry, metaphor, and reverence for mystery has been exchanged for the practical idiom of the market place, which measures worth by utility and productivity.

This is not a new sin. The people of Isaiah’s day were also co-opted by a culture of consumption and utilitarianism. The prophet reminds Israel that they and their carved idols and cast metal images do not know everything. “Now I am revealing new things to you, things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment, of these things you have heard nothing until now, so that you cannot say, “Oh yes, I knew all this.” (Isaiah 48: 6)

I do not know the end of the young man’s story, as is often the case with those who pass through my life. I gave him what I could, which was my love and respect for his losses. As I sat with him, I saw that God loved him very much and also saw how deeply this young man loved God and didn’t know it.

I found myself face to face with my poverty – my lack of any satisfying answer to tie up everything and take away his pain.  I had no bright ideas, plans for recovery, or quick fix resources to suggest. In the words of Isaiah, I could only stay open for the hidden thing, the unknown thing which was coming into being in that young man’s soul, just at that moment out of the infinite, divine unknowable Mind of God.

I had only love to give, 
which, in times like this, never seems to be enough,

                                                             but always is.     FOG      





Contact the author:
lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary