On despair

Desolation is permitted, or rather tolerated, to some degree, but despair is a spiritual evil, and therefore, gentle reader is advised not to go there. I would not give you advice I haven’t given myself, at this or some other point in my life, O Sir or Madam. For hand-wringing on the state of our society, our governments, our civilization, our hierarchy and our Church, extends beyond my inbox. Even without the daily bombardment of links to one outrage or another, I would be inclined to feel sometimes the opposite of upbeat about what is going down.

This does not mean I think God has abandoned us; that the Holy Spirit is not still at work; or that Christ has changed His mind about the Second Coming. (There are days when I wish He would hurry up.) It does not even mean I suspect Holy Church is defectible. Popes and bishops, priests, even humble parishioners, have made a mess in the past, and it often takes some time to clean up after them. But on one issue even Walter Cardinal Kasper is right: the doctrines of the Church are not going to change. Humans may try their best, but this is Christ’s Church, and ultimately the boss sets things right again.


As ever, we can be confused by words, and the distinction between desolation and despair is worth glossing. The first is passive, the second active. To be sinful, despair must be voluntary, too. It necessarily involves an intellectual decision — that there is no hope of salvation for oneself, or beyond oneself for anyone else. It goes beyond discouragement to surrender: to giving up on the good, the true, the beautiful, and therefore on their Lord. In a sense it is more atheist than atheism, though it can be equally jaunty. We have decided that there is no point to human life, and everything that gave it point is a lie.

On the other hand, the despairing might decide that since they are here, anyway, and pleasure is pleasure however sick, they might as well impose a little meaning. Such has been the triumph of Nominalism, in our age, that this view has become academically respectable.

The common or garden atheist of today is not decisive but clueless. Despair belongs to the truly hardened atheist, the “classic” atheist if you will. Blasphemy comes into this — the real blasphemy we have lost the ability to perform, because we are so flighty and shallow, and all we know how to do is swear. “Atheism lite” does not really deny God, nor even the efficacy of supernatural agents. It merely avoids thinking about such things. It is a form of waywardness, that ought to be punished, but it is neither intellectually nor spiritually impressive. It is the heavier sort of atheism that leads to such carnage as mass murder.

Stalin, we all know, started out a seminarian, in his native Georgia. From a glib, Obama Democrat point of view, we might attribute the murder of countless millions to the fact that he was unable to pay his tuition at the Tiflis seminary when his scholarship ran out, and was therefore expelled. (This may not be true, but it is commonly accepted.) And that is why post-secondary education should be free of charge. …

On closer examination we find that he had become a serious atheist by his sophomore year; that he’d been trouble since a child in the shadow of a violent alcoholic father, who finally abandoned him and his mother, having tired of beating them. Curiously, the little boy Joseph was marked from birth by a form of cloven foot, and by age seven with smallpox scars. (I add this only by way of, woo! woo!) He was also extremely bright, well-organized, and as it turned out, a very talented assassin and bank robber — just the kind of capable young man Lenin was recruiting. And as we know, the lad went far.

I mention him as the perfect model, a poster boy for spiritual despair. But as I say, cheerful and jaunty about it; not neurotic at all. The person who does not believe there is Heaven will hardly believe there is Hell, either. This is the opposite of Christian freedom, but it is a kind of freedom nonetheless — the very kind our children are now consciously taught in our evil public schools. Cue here John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” which offers a more modern, sentimentalized version of the Stalinist outlook on life.

And I raise that little cliché back from the dead again, to suggest how tricky despair must be. Often it presents itself as happyface. The Devil also smiles when he gets his kicks, and Stalin could find the humour in an excruciating death. He’d read the accounts from the dungeons of the Lubyanka, giggling away and snorting. Let no one say Stalin lacked a sense of humour; only the nature of it is controversial. And like a Harvard graduate, he was more droll than hyperbolic. The strange thing is, he wasn’t actually insane: totally compos mentis when he needed to be, which was in every moment of his waking life. As hyper-alert as a little sparrow.

This is the sort of thing that we don’t understand today: that you don’t have to be insane to be evil. In fact, it helps if you are not. For the insane tend to be self-defeating, mistaking hawks for handsaws and so forth.

Moreover, despair of salvation can be seen to take many forms, once we realize it is not a “mental illness.” The gentlemen who flew the jetliners into the Twin Towers were, technically speaking, not atheists but religious fanatics. This is certainly the conventional view, and plausible enough prima facie. And yet I don’t believe it for a moment, never did, and won’t. Our investigation of their background, and behaviour prior to the act, showed they didn’t believe in anything. And if a deathwish does not herald despair, what does?

We have little understanding of our Muslim terrorist enemies, and it would perhaps be helpful if we turned to sincerely religious Muslims to learn about what is missing in them. For they are interested exclusively in the violent elements of the Islamic tradition, and have little time for the liturgical and moral propaedeutics. Or the eschatological teaching either, except insofar as it is extremely violent. For a reason even they could not provide, they just like to destroy things.

Yet they are fairly easy to understand, once we acknowledge there is human immortality to deal with; and Hell; and the Devil.

I doubt even one of them is banking on the seventy-two virgins — which is incidentally not in the Koran but the Hadiths. Their motivation is much more like that of the fin de siècle and Edwardian anarchist bombers, who cared little for human life, whether others’ or their own. This is something to watch for at every ideological extreme.

Despair, properly understood, is not insane. Nor is it much like a conventional depression, which is the opposite of wilful.

A person who is lost still hopes to be found.

The instruction from on high is to continue hoping.

And should we not, ourselves, try to be at least as cheerful as the despairing?