The resurrection challenges our right to despair. Despair is something we misunderstand, just as we misunderstand resurrection. Both are not experiences which are extraordinary, at the end of life. Resurrection and despair lie in the bread and butter of our existence.
Generally we tend to confuse despair with the type of illness which leads to suicide or pathological withdrawal. This is not despair. It is merely an illness, like heart disease, cancer or high blood pressure. We have confused despair with suicide partly because, for years, the church did. It declared that despair was an unforgivable sin and then, most often, went on to identify despair with suicide. At times, it even refused to give a Christian burial to suicide victims. Fortunately those days are past. We have little to fear about guilt and salvation when a suicide occurs.
The Church’s declaration that despair is unforgivable has, I submit, nothing whatever to do with those souls, often of extraordinary sensitivity and goodness, who were unable to survive the emotional and psychological napalm in our world. In their deaths there is, generally, no more guilt, sin, or freedom involved than there is in the death of a cancer or heart attack victim. In each case, the person dies against his or her own choice, unfree and unable to continue to live. Real despair, like all of the worst demons, is infinitely more subtle. What is it? It is the death of our sense of surprise, the belief that nothing new can happen to us. We despair at that precise moment when, consciously or unconsciously, we say in resignation: “That is the way I am, that is the way things have always been for me, that is the way it will always be! I know what is possible! For me it is too late!” Once this has been said, we are in a tomb. Much of us is dead and more of us is still dying.
Why is this despair? Why is it so dangerous? Because the resurrection is always, like it was the first time, a surprise, the totally unexpected, the impossible, that which defies all logic, the laws of nature, and the wisdom of common sense and convention. The resurrection is the fairy tale of the child come true. But when we stop believing in fairy tale endings, when we have every angle of reality so calculated and figured that we know all the possibilities, then nothing new can come along to surprise us. Sadly, our prophecy will then be self-fulfilling for it is always our own desire to be defeated that, in the end, defeats us! Nothing new can happen! We have ceased believing in God and grace in a real sense. Our God is the God of the impossible and for us too much is not possible. We have slimmed down God and grace to fit our own minds. That is despair. We must let the resurrection of Christ challenge our despair: We go through life perpetually dissatisfied, both with life and with ourselves. We live not merely in exile, but also in mediocrity.
Our world is not full of mediocre persons. It is full, rather, of extraordinarily gifted persons, living in mediocrity…and in a subsequent frustration. And we are frustrated at all levels. Spiritually, we know we are lackluster. We pray seldom and poorly. We know we should, and could, make more effort, but we feel helpless against longstanding habits of laziness, dissipation and distraction. Our good intentions, over so many years, have never really carried through. Now we have despaired that we will ever be better. Interpersonally, it is much the same story: we are frustrated and mediocre. Entombed in longstanding habits of resentment and infidelity, shame and inhibition, we are prevented from being fully loving and in warm satisfying friendships with others. Finally, we are also frustrated creatively: We have insides bursting with creative juices, richness of all kinds, but we are going nowhere! We are all talented-up with no place to go! We are in deep tombs, behind a wall of very large stone. Our exile will not be ended easily. Worst of all, in the end, we have given up hope. We have precisely said: “I’ve tried, but it didn’t work! That is the way I am and that is the way I will always be. It is too late for me now! That is despair and we, knowing life as well as we do, will protest that we are entitled to it. After all we know what is possible! But do we? The disciples of Christ thought they did. When their dream seemed to die they went back to fishing, finished with their disappointing little experiment with the dreamer. Then came that Sunday when the stone rolled back and they were surprised. They quit fishing for good after that! We spend our lives between fishing and dreaming, despair and resurrection. Every so often it happens and we are surprised: The stone rolls back for awhile and we poke out our timid heads, take off the linen bindings they wrap the dead in, and walk free for a time, breathe resurrection air… And we have a glorious 40 days with the resurrected Christ…the smell of fresh fish seems to be everywhere; empty nets, suddenly, full to the breaking point; strangers we’ve walked with for years, surprisingly, turn out to be Christ in disguise; the Scriptures begin to burn holes in us; and a powerful spirit, suddenly, has us speaking in a whole different language.
If only we could quit fishing for good!