e-mail us

Starting Point

A holy and healthy despair


Something ate my cat. Foxes, coyotes and eagles are the most likely suspects. Of course, I’m not sure the cat got eaten. I just know she went out one day and never came back.

I liked that cat. She usually curled up on the bed with me at night and was a mild and undemanding creature. The woods were a pleasant playground for her, full of places to climb and hide and stalk. Rather extravagantly, I bowed to her preference for canned food over dry, and I had made the socially responsible trip to the vet for neutering and shots. Ultimately some predator had an expensive lunch.

I hope her death was simple and quick. And I do understand that life feeds on life, that all beings are engaged in a great struggle for survival, that the whole course of our existence, no matter how sweet and blessed it is, inevitably contains suffering, fear and loss. Living is a difficult project. None of it is easy.

These things were fresh in my mind when I made my annual retreat in Kentucky. Fr. Matthew Kelty gives the chaplain’s talk after compline each night at the Abbey of Gethsemani. He always begins by reading several poems. One night he read some Gerard Manley Hopkins, including the poem about carrion comfort, which Kelty said expressed the poet’s struggle with despair.

The next morning, out on one of my walks along the back roads in that farming country, I came upon a dramatic carrion scene. A deer had been killed, probably struck by a car. As I approached, half a dozen turkey vultures rose up from the carcass. The body of the deer had been pushed into the ditch, but the birds had detached the tail and lower leg bones and scattered them upon the road. I momentarily imagined being on a mountaintop in Tibet, where corpses are most respectfully released by being dismembered and made available for the carrion eaters. Unable to coax the birds back from the trees where they had landed, I just stood there in the midst of the ravaged body and thought about death and despair.

I have been rather intimately acquainted with despair, and I know that there are at least two varieties. One is indeed deadly, and to be resisted, as Hopkins knew. This kind opens the door to many demons, and leads to helplessness and hatred and bad decisions, such as suicide or “wars on terrorism.” This despair eliminates trust in anything beyond one’s own perspective, one’s own actions. It stifles the imagination and makes it impossible to believe in miracles or in the blessedness of ordinary life on earth. In the grip of this despair, one could never hear the voice of an announcing angel instructing one not to fear. In this despair, the virgin could never conceive.

But there is the other despair, the one that follows T. S. Eliot’s advice and simply waits, resisting the temptation to hope for the wrong thing. For it is indeed wrong to hope that accident, illness and death will not come. They will come. It is wrong to hope that life on earth will not be what it has always been, a vale of tears. But a true, holy and healthy despair lets go of striving and allows one to accept, more or less dry-eyed, both the horror and the wonder of what is actually happening. It frees us to step away from illusions and wishes and a need to have things our own way. It helps us stop trusting in our own strength, our own efforts, our own ability to change anything. In this despair we can let the dead be dead, let what is gone be gone, let what is lost be lost.

This is not fatalism or passivity, but a serene and sober accommodation to the hard aspects of life. This is about allowing the vultures and maggots to do their work. This is about getting up every day and doing what can be done, even in a country where decisions are made and values are promoted that are contrary to everything we believe in. This is about living an underground economy of love for one another in spite of a culture that encourages greed, rewards wealth and punishes poverty. This is about picking up the pieces and living peace even when we cannot prevent war. Situations are not going to unfold the way we want them to. We are going to lose things we thought we could not live without. Poor people are never going to get all they need. And we, to be faithful to the One who is faithful to us, must keep going, must keep loving and trusting and believing and being grateful. If we are not afraid of this holy despair, then we will be able to share in the mystery of the cross and do the work the gospel calls us to.

I returned, the next day, to the place where the deer had died. Most of the body had been devoured. I watched the full-bellied vultures watching me from the trees.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist who lives in Lubec, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002