He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Love it to Death: The Gift of Despair

Last week, I attended Mass on a Saturday, which is not something I normally do.  I did so for a Theology on Tap event, an event at which I was asked to read the second reading.  But it was the first reading that struck me where I was.  We were asked to reflect on the readings and given ample time to do so, something I found very productive.

The first reading was from 1 Kings, Chapter 19.

"1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night."

The prophet Elijah as we meet him in this moment is at the end of his wits, the end of his strength, and the end of his love.  His fellow prophets of the Lord had been killed, many prophets of Baal had been killed, and Queen Jezebel was promising to finish the prophet-killing work by killing him as well.  He saw no way out; after doing all he could to carry on the work of the Lord, it appeared that it had been a futile effort, that he would die with the work unfinished despite his best efforts.

As we all do if we but live long enough, Elijah encountered the deepest despair and cried out that what he had undergone was enough, that he could stand no more.  He asked for death, understanding that like all of his ancestors, his weakness would lead to his death eventually, and believing that this was likely the time because he was feeling that weakness most keenly.

Elijah chose to give in to fatalistic resignation, lying down and giving up in his despair, choosing to let go of everything rather than cling to his mission.  It is precisely in that moment that God reached out to Elijah, giving him the food needed to sustain him for the next part of the journey and calling him back to spend quality time with Him in solitude on sacred ground.

For Elijah, the most important thing was succeeding in doing the work of the Lord, in turning the people Israel back to the Lord and away from Ba'al and Asherah.  The Lord gave Elijah the gift of despair so that the prophet might let go of his attachments to his own plans and his own notions of success, and in letting go, become open to drawing closer to God so that he might follow sincerely the plans of God.

In despair, Elijah learned to accept the direction provided by God without clinging to his own plans. In despair, the prophet learned to accept the gifts of the Lord and draw close to the living God who sustains him.  In despair, he learned that walking humbly with the Lord is more important than completing the mission.  In despair, he learned to accept the bread and water provided by God

Like Elijah, it is in despair that we learn to accept the Bread from Heaven and the Living Water provided by the hand of God as a greater gift than the bread and water we earn by the work of our hands.  It is in despair that we learn to accept the commandments of Christ after we have followed our own plans to the end of our wits, the end of our strength, and the end of our love.  It is in despair that we learn to accept the commandments and the Bread from Heaven, those great gifts from the Lord, as greater than the gifts we desire for ourselves.

In our despair, we learn to let go of the lesser gifts to which we cling so that we might open our hands in gratitude and accept the greater gifts which the Lord has in store for us.  In our despair, we learn that we simply need to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, that we do not need to run around acquiring successes, not even for His sake.  In our despair, we learn that even our despair is a gift which draws us back to the love of God unfettered by the chains we seek to wrap around it so that it conforms to our plans.

In accepting the gift of despair, we are freed from the unwise demands we place upon ourselves; we are then able to accept the easy burden and light yoke offered to us by Christ.  In accepting the gift of despair, we love to death our ways which lead to the end of our love, entering into God's ways which lead to the beginning of an even greater Love, so high above the love to which we aspire while walking in our ways.  In accepting the gift of despair, we make room in our lives to love Him by obeying His commands. 

In accepting the gift of despair, we learn that giving up all to which we cling and letting go completely is the way we gain all which we truly need, the Love who never wants to let us go and will never give up on us.

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