The Psalm for Compline on Fridays (Psalm 88) is one of the darkest in Scripture. The author is in intense agony, holding onto his faith by his fingernails, clinging to a truth he can no longer feel or see clearly.
The exact conditions of his suffering are not revealed; all we know is that he is close to death and feels overwhelmed by the anger of God. “I am reckoned as one in the tomb: I have reached the end of my strength,” he writes, and “imprisoned, I cannot escape; my eyes are sunken with grief.” I have considered, for years, that this psalm of all the Psalms most accurately depicts the anguish of deep depression, as it aligns well with the interplay between faith and mental illness that I have experienced in certain seasons of my life.
Looking at the psalm now, however, I am noticing far more hope buried within it than I had seen before. Even as the psalmist feels alone, abandoned, and rejected – even as he claims that his “one companion is darkness” – still, he is in conversation with God. He has not succumbed to the silence of despair. He protests, he pleads, he questions, he presents a case: so at some level he still trusts God to hear him and to respond. The darkness of his circumstances and the pain within him to not cause him to give up his faith or to turn away from his God; instead, he brings his suffering to his God and proclaims implicitly, even through his complaints, the depth of his faith and the fierce fighting strength of his hope.
Make no mistake, it takes ferocity, determination, and endurance to be able to say with one breath, “Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me” and with another, “As for me, Lord, I call to you for help: in the morning my prayer comes before you.” It takes hope with deep roots to persist through that kind of suffering. And yet the psalmist holds fast. Even in the darkness, even in the overwhelming flood of his anguish, even though he cannot honestly say that he believes a better time will come and that God will give him the help he desires, he has the strength to continue to cry out to the Lord.
It does not make a person less of a Christian, less a follower of God, to be so surrounded by pain and darkness that they cannot visualize or verbalize the realization of their hope, or proclaim the promises of God in faith. What reveals the hard, true core of their faith is that they hope enough to continue to cry to Him even when it seems that no answer or succor will come.
I first read Orwell’s 1984 when I was 12 or 13, in 8th grade, around the 9/11 terrorist attack, and I read it again, in high school, but I hadn’t read it since until this year because of the intense emotional memories I have associated with it. As a young teenager reading the novel, I missed a lot of the subtlety and was simply struck with the horror of a system that was so completely in control of people that it could torture and brainwash them into not just obedience to, but complete assent with and even love of that system. Having grown up in a privileged and comfortable environment, it was difficult for me to comprehend that there could be a society so completely without hope, or that there could be people and governments in the world who inflicted suffering intentionally for their own twisted pleasure – I don’t think the possibility had ever occurred to me before.
Reading the book again now, however, it came to me that the book is (in a backwards, dystopian way, of course) about the nature of humanity and the priceless value of human dignity. Even in the most absolutely totalitarian state fathomable, in a society where all the biological and spiritual impulses of the person are quelled or redirected into emotional and political reactions, humanity bubbles up in quiet wondering, solitary dissatisfaction, fearful reconsiderations. One of the most hopeful moments of the book, to me, was one in which Winston simply observes another human being, noticing all the things that are most beautiful and universal about her, drawing to the forefront her dignity and unique humanity:
“Tirelessly the woman marched to and fro, corking and uncorking herself, singing and falling silent, and pegging out more diapers, and more and yet more. He wondered whether she took in washing for a living or was merely the slave of twenty or thirty grandchildren. […] As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line, her powerful mare like buttocks protruded, it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an overripe turnip, could be beautiful. But it was so, and after all, he thought, why not? The solid, contourless body, like a block of granite, and the rasping red skin, bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?
“[…] He wondered how many children she had given birth to. It might easily be fifteen. She had had her momentary flowering, a year, perhaps, of wild rose beauty and then she had suddenly swollen like a fertilized fruit and grown hard and red and coarse, and then her life had been laundering, scrubbing, darning, cooking, sweeping, polishing, mending, scrubbing, laundering, first for children, then for grandchildren, over thirty unbroken years. At the end of it she was still singing.”
Of course for Winston it is all just a temporary interlude, this quest for truth, beauty, and individuality. When every action is observed, it is difficult to step out of line and escape for long – and Winston has no idea of where to look for help, or what actions to take, except to follow the confused and tangled pathway of his beaten-down heart and neglected spirit. It is inevitable that he should be caught, and broken, and converted, no matter how he tries to resist. And while they are torturing him, they share with him one of their secrets – the truth, to be honest, of the opposite aspect of humanity from what Winston saw in the poor washer woman. For humanity has ever been a two-sided coin: created in perfection, fallen into all kinds of cruelties and apathies.
“‘Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
“‘[…] How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’
“Winston though. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.
“‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.'”
It isn’t hard, these days, to think of all kinds of situations in which those words ring true. It is the expression of our worst impulses as parents, teachers, or employers. It is present every time innocent or ignorant people are tortured for information, or held without trial, by countries that claim to be just. It runs insidiously through the background of every attempt to rationalize policies that are needlessly harsh, or that sacrifice human dignity to efficiency and social order.
In the end, of course, Winston dies loving Big Brother. Thirteen year old me was shell-shocked by that for a long time. I have an inkling of an understanding, now, how hopelessness can finally drive a person so far down that they sabotage their own being to escape its torment. But when we live in a society that still claims to value justice and mercy, it is our crucial purpose to hold fast to Winston’s initial realization that there is beauty in everyday family ties, in the resilience of the human person enduring in love. It falls to us to close our eyes and ears to the seduction of power, and (as much as lies in our power) to prevent our society and government from falling prey to those sirens. For us, in the real world, where hope still lives, the loss of all that is good and true and beautiful about humanity is not yet inevitable.
One of things I have learned from my depression is that hope, while certainly made easier by pleasant circumstances and positive emotions, is most emphatically a virtue. It is possible to cling to hope with raw and reddened hands, eyes blinded by night and storm, refusing to release that slender line though every fiber of one’s body and every echo in the tempestuous wind is shouting out the futility of holding on.
Hope is not a wish list for Santa Claus, or a fantasy of a perfect airbrushed future. Hope is a conscious choice to endure, a moment-by-moment fight to persevere, a decision to stay the course despite all odds and appearances.
Hope does not aim for a peaceful and indulgent future, where every want is satiated and every inconvenience eradicated: it could not derive its lasting power from such a weak and flimsy foundation. Hope is anchored in the everlasting love of God, looking towards a future in which every pain and sorrow will be redeemed, made beautiful, and given purpose.
Hope impels one’s feet forward through the valley of the shadow of death, to which no end can be seen.
Advent, in focusing our attention on hope, does not attempt to sugarcoat the suffering of the world with carols and cookies, but rather endeavors to give us the strength and the vision to press on through that suffering without giving in to despair or bitterness. With hope, we may be as small and weak as the one isolated candle flame that flickers in the darkness this first week of the season, but we are at the same time enervated by the raging and glorious power of unleashed fire. No icy cold can put out our light so long as our wick reaches deep into the wax that is Christ in us and for us.
In answer to the hope of the world, He came. To give us the hope to endure to the end, He came. In His coming, in the Christmas manger, in the weakness of a newborn baby, is all the strength we need.
This post, originally published in November 2015, is relevant again this month as our new president does everything in his power to block both refugees and legal immigrants from targeted countries from entering the United States. A year ago, I thought it reasonable to hope that our country would respond with greatness and nobility to the refugee crisis; it seems far less likely now. To see the names and faces of some of the innocent people our country condemned to death in 1939, visit https://twitter.com/stl_manifest, a Twitter feed that went through the entire ship’s manifest and shared the people who were killed by the Nazis, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th – it makes the whole tragedy feel more real and less distant. And then remember that the families, the children, fleeing from Syria and Somalia and Iraq are just as real, just as human, as these people from the past whose fate we so vocally lament.
I remember learning, as a child, about the ship St. Louis that sailed from Germany in 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees to a Cuba that had just closed its doors. Turned away from her destination, the St. Louis asked President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor (a choice he could feasibly have made using the power of the executive order), but he never even replied. In the end, the passengers were scattered throughout Britain and Western Europe; half of those who returned to the continent were killed in the war. Hitler received the clear message that the rest of Western civilization was not particularly concerned about the fate of the Jewish people.
Why was the United States so cavalier about the fate of these individuals, so cold to their plight? The USHMM has a good summary:
Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany, the State Department’s attitude was influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which intensified grassroots antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia. The number of entry visas was further limited by the Department’s inflexible application of a restrictive Immigration Law passed by the US Congress in 1924. Beginning in 1940, the United States further limited immigration by ordering American consuls abroad to delay visa approvals on national security grounds.
In short, substituting anti-Islamic sentiment for antisemitism, the United States was facing exactly the same attitudes in 1939 that she is today in 2015. Her citizens were afraid – afraid for their own economic security, afraid to be drawn into global problems, afraid of war, and afraid of people whose appearance, culture, and beliefs were different than their own. We have our own problems; let those people take care of themselves and leave us in peace.
In C.S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength, he allows the characters to muse for a while on the particular genius or defining characteristic of several different nations – in essence, the way in which those nations, despite the grime and decay of sin, most especially reflect some aspect of the coming kingdom of Christ.
He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China – why, then it will be spring.
Since the first time I read that passage as a teenager I’ve wondered what could define the United States, my own country. It’s only now, as I consider the refugee crisis, that I think I see what is best, most characteristic, most beautiful about us – and what consequently is most violently attacked.
The United States, in theory, as a concept or an ideal, is a nation that welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the pioneer, the explorer, the entrepreneur, the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” and offers to each of them the opportunity to labor, live, learn, and love to the best of their ability. We’re not, historically, a country that supports and provides for each other well, but we are a country that provides opportunity well. In every age people have come here seeking that opportunity, and it has been here waiting for them. And as representatives from all nations and cultures have come here seeking that opportunity, we have taken them in and, though we have most definitely not always embraced the diversity they bring, we have given them the freedom to be and express who they are. With time, they become American, but they don’t need to lose their heritage to do so.
It is the same with God’s kingdom. All nations will come to it, seeking life, seeking love, seeking to learn and labor for a better future, and all those peoples will be assimilated into one people, His people, but they won’t have to lose their traditions and history to do so. We will be proudly and beautifully ourselves, carrying the full rich textured fabric of our past and our culture, as we walk into His kingdom, and all nations will be represented there in the fullness of their glory as well.
Is it any wonder, if this is the divine spark within our nation, that it should be so constantly besieged? It is always our fear that impedes us – our fear of the unknown future and our forgetfulness of the past.
Throughout our history there has been this countercurrent running, this voice that whispers fear in our ears. It tells us that letting in these new people will compromise our own position – steal our jobs, endanger our families, threaten our comfortable way of life. Having received opportunity for ourselves, our temptation is to withhold it from others. Having been born to privilege, safety, and relative wealth, we fear that offering the opportunity for others to work for those things will entail losing them ourselves. Having lived in freedom, we condemn others to oppression even as they beg at our feet for us to open our doors, or risk their lives to enter illegally.
I pray that this time, in this hour of need, our borders would open to those seeking shelter, desiring a new life, wanting simply the opportunity to pursue happiness and love that we have declared an inalienable human right; that we would overcome our fears of different cultures and religions and see the humanity behind them; that we would risk our comfort and security ever so slightly to save families and children from torture and death. I pray that we would not repeat our failure of the 1930s, ISIS terrorism standing in for Hitler’s Holocaust.
Our Father, who art in heaven Hallowed be Thy name.
Father, your name goes unspoken, or mocked, or used for profit and manipulation. The names of all the people in the world – the movers, the powerful, the close at hand – constantly echo around us, while your name lies forgotten and unspoken on the side. And you feel so far away from us, enthroned in heaven in glory and peace while this world falls apart beneath you.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
It seems as though your kingdom is so far from coming, Father. This world seems more broken every day: my Facebook feed is filled with laments, with arrogance, with anger, with half-truths; the news constantly reminds me of pain and division, oppression and war, hatred and selfishness. What principles are right and good and worthy? What means of applying those principles are most effective? People who love you and long for your kingdom don’t even agree with each other on the answers. And I feel lost, and confused, and I wonder how your kingdom will ever come, how your will may ever be done, when even your people are divided among themselves. Our brokenness seems complete, our hope extinguished.
Give us this day our daily bread
And yet, each day comes, and we are still here, and even the food we eat is a gift from you, a gift of hope, a promise of life. Every day we need it. And some, because of war and poverty and famine and corruption, do not have it. Where is their hope? Are you present for them like you are for us who have never known hunger? Is your power too weak or your love too small to provide for them also, when they cry out for food and their children die around them? Why do you not intervene when people tear the world apart and condemn others to starvation for their own gain? And it goes beyond the physical bread we need to live: we need emotional bread – love, hope, friendship, purpose; we need spiritual bread – the body of your Son given for us. Why do you allow so many to be cut off from those things, bereft of those great blessings, caught in misery and despair, for whom each morning is not a cause for joy at your faithfulness but simply the start of another journey through darkness and fear?
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Is that why you wait so long to intervene in the evils of this world, Father? Are you offering even the oppressor a chance at forgiveness, a chance to work for the redemption and setting right of the brokenness they have caused? It is a hard and painful wait for the oppressed. For us, a thousand years are not as a day, but as an eternity, and we fail, eventually, to extend again forgiveness when it has been met time and time again by continued oppression and trespass. We forget our own sin in the burning awareness of the sins committed against us; we seethe with anger, hold onto our hurt, and drive your kingdom still further away in a cry for justice that does not extend beyond ourselves.
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
Everywhere I look, there temptation and evil lie in wait. The temptation to put myself first, to let anger take root in my heart, to attack and demonize the people who disagree with me or inconvenience me, to close my ears to the hurts and needs and stories of others. The evil of corrupt institutions, of dysfunctional families, of systemic poverty, of generational sin – broken homes, communities, and nations, catching people in nets of pain and pride and wickedness. Deliver us, Father; restore us to your righteousness. It is such a faint hope, sometimes, a light believed in though still unseen, but it is the only hope we have.