November 2016 Print

Never Despair of God

by a Benedictine monk

In chapter four of the Rule of St. Benedict, we find Our Holy Father comparing the sanctification of the soul to a monastic workshop. The last tool listed in this workshop is “Never to despair of God’s mercy.” It is almost as if St. Benedict is saying: “If everything else has failed, try this one.” This powerful tool is the theological virtue of hope.

Hope exists on the natural level and we use it daily like a reflex. While traveling, we hope to arrive at our destination. We hope to have a decent meal when we are hungry. It is simply a desire of a future good that we are capable of attaining. Supernatural hope is similar, but quite different because its object is God Himself. Relying upon our own natural strength, we could never fulfill our desire of God. So God, on the day of our baptism, infused into our soul the capacity to hope. It is the desire of eternally contemplating the beauty of God without the possibility of ever losing His friendship, the desire of becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

This desire makes the soul capable of great sacrifice while striving after union with God. In the Catholic soul, suffering and hope are closely related. When the soul is suffering from the consequences of its own sin, the virtue of hope is very necessary. Like a prisoner seated in darkness and covered with the shadow of death, it is bound by its own fault. Grave sin has already banished Charity and the presence of God’s grace has been replaced by a terrible void. The creature has willfully abandoned its Creator; nevertheless, it can still have hope and say with St. Benedict, “Never despair of God’s mercy!”

On the day of Our Lord’s death, the Good Thief was in this exact position, nailed to a cross, dying without the grace of God in his soul. He could have despaired of his salvation and given up, but he did not. He hoped in God’s mercy. As he was agonizing on his cross, he spoke to the agonizing Christ. Although his hands and feet were bound to the wood of his cross, his heart was not bound because he hoped in the goodness of God. Against all human logic and in spite of his wicked crimes and his wretched past, he cries out with hope to the Man dying next to him: “Remember me, Lord, when Thou comest into thy kingdom.” In the midst of their common suffering he receives a reply from the incarnate God: “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” This is the theological virtue of supernatural hope that we are all called to practice in order to enter heaven. In our own sufferings and trials and even in the state of sin, we too are called to hope in God’s mercy without fear.

There was another man dying in their company, the bad thief, who despaired. He was materially in the same condition as his fellow thief, but instead of asking forgiveness, he blasphemed Our Lord and in a certain way blamed God for this terrible punishment. Despair often blinds us of who we really are.

In our “hi-tech” society, modern man has replaced God by science, seeking to find heaven on earth by means of the ever-new discoveries of a comfort-enhancing technology. He is essentially turning his soul over to sloth and lust, paving the way to the bitter embrace of despair. Having lost faith, there is no place for hope, and brute strength takes the place of God’s justice. His life undergoes a dreadful division. The despairing soul, first of all declares war on God, then upon neighbor, only to continue with a blind war of self-destruction. Without hope, charity vanishes altogether. The poor soul becomes very bitter, unjust, and rebellious toward those who love him the most, that is to say: God and his family.

Since man was created for happiness, the despairing soul still seeks it, but in a distorted way. He often turns towards sensual pleasures as the sole object of his desire and becomes their slave. By rejecting goodness and love, falsehood and hatred have become his continual companions. They have destroyed his union with God and neighbor and have caused him to live a self-seeking life of frustration, never to achieve his ultimate goal of beatitude.

We have before us the choice of either the good or the bad thief: hope or despair. The only solution is to return to the love of God through faith and hope. Faith will open our eyes to the light of God’s truth, and hope will give us the audacity to desire true happiness in spite of our failures and weaknesses. For the past fifteen centuries, St. Benedict has been crying out in his Rule to our discouraged world: “Never despair of God’s mercy.”