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!