Blessed – how sacramental reality brings peace

Yesterday my house was blessed.

Friends gathered. The priest came with stohl and holy water. We walked through the house, prayed words, crossed ourselves. And the house was blessed.

After everyone was gone, leftover cheese wrapped tightly, dishes washed, chairs set back around the table — after it all, I paused. And for one moment I felt the old anxiety. Did I mean it enough? Did I feel it enough? Is my house really blessed?


I was 10 years old the winter I was baptized. I stood in the pool, freezing. Said yes to the pastor’s questions. Emerged shivering and wet.

I was 10 years old. The following years were chaotic. Again and again I was questioned: did you really mean your baptism? Or did you just get wet?

How was I to know? I was 10. I was scared of hell. I wanted to belong in church. I wanted to please my parents.

Well, did you have true saving faith?

I searched my heart, my soul. I couldn’t find the answer. I did want to be baptized. I did want to be a Christian. Did I believe all the right things? No – but who does? I’m sure I still don’t have everything right.

Had you repented?

Of what? How thoroughly? I still sinned – a lot. There were some sins I just couldn’t shake. But I tried really hard to be good. Did that count? Was it enough?

After fifteen years of being questioned, of questioning myself, I gave up. If I hadn’t really been baptized – meaning, if I hadn’t meant and believed all the right things at the time I was baptized – then, I was repeatedly told, I needed to be baptized. If I had been baptized . . . well, I figured getting dunked wouldn’t offend God too much. So, at 25 years old I stood in a much warmer lake, answered yes to the same questions, and emerged dripping and relieved.


A year later I walked into an Anglican church. I watched babies get baptized. I smiled as little children cupped their hands to receive communion. I witnessed adults renew their baptismal vows. I joined with the congregation on the feast days, renewing our vows, receiving the sprinkled reminder of our own baptisms. Slowly, deep peace settled in me.

Sacraments are real. All the introspective diligence of my earlier years is unnecessary. Communion, baptism – they are realities independent of me, of my changing emotions, thoughts, beliefs and moods. Did I have all the right intentions and beliefs when I was baptized at age 10? at age 25? On the deepest level, it does’t matter. I was baptized. Such comfort!

It is to that peace I now return. My mind wandered yesterday. My heart did not fully enter into prayer. I was distracted, tired, distant. But my house was blessed. Neither prayer nor holy water draws its efficacy from my mental state. The Lord hears.

Let this dwelling be made holy; let every unclean spirit depart, by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ: May health, joy, and cheerfulness be given to those who live here, and may your divine Majesty ever protect and preserve them. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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uncensured

Every word measured
Every sentence designed
Every thought censured
Every spoken word mine

Open my mouth
words pour out
Dam broken
a tomb unsealed
Tremble inside
at the mercy of a waterfall

Breaking wave rushing
unbidden words
Whence these tears
I do not know
No right to cry
but the right of humankind

The Gift of Despair

Anne: Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?
Marilla: No I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.

Anne of Green Gables movie (1985)

Marilla expresses a popular Christian understanding of despair. Jesus is our hope, the reasoning goes. Despair is hopelessness. Therefore, despair is a sin.

I believed that, until one life-changing class.

He divided us into groups and gave each group a slip of paper.

“Each paper has a list of six negative emotions,” he told us. “God gave us these emotions for a purpose. Discuss the purpose of each emotion as a group.”

This was a new way to think about emotions. I’d been taught that emotions were useless, usually bothersome, often sinful. But he was saying that emotions—even negative emotions—were created by God for a good purpose.

I read the list:

  1. Anger
  2. Disgust
  3. Fear
  4. Sadness
  5. Shame
  6. Hopeless despair

Now that I had been asked, I could think of a use for most of the emotions. Disgust keeps me from eating rotten food. Fear warns me not to pet a snarling dog. Shame lets me know when I’ve said something inappropriate. But hopeless despair?

I knew despair—knew it well. But I couldn’t see its purpose. Wasn’t I supposed to fight despair? To never give up, always  hope, always keep trying?

In fifth grade, while learning to find the areas of complex geometric figures, I was often stumped. But I wouldn’t give up; I believed I could find the solution. I would try one thing and another. Eventually the teacher would go to the board to explain the solution. I might have been feeling frustration, even despair. But I was not giving up! I would cover my ears and stare at my desk, refusing to admit defeat.

My stubborn determination may have annoyed my teacher, but it impressed most people. I was good at resisting despair—
or, at least, I was good at ignoring it.

As I grew, I continued to respond to despair with stubborn determination. If a job was miserable, I’d try harder; if a relationship felt impossible, I’d bend over backwards to make it work; if I was tired, I’d push myself to collapsing—all in the name of fighting despair. True, I still felt hopeless despair, but I’d been taught that feelings don’t matter. I just had to act in hope and hope would (probably) eventually appear. Stubborn determination was, I thought, acting in hope.

So what was the use of hopeless despair?

As we discussed that emotion, I gradually saw its purpose. Despair is not simply the emotions that cries “I give up!” Despair is the emotion warns: “Stop. This won’t work. Do something different.” If I pay attention to feelings of despair I will

  • Look for a way out of a dead-end job
  • Rest when I’m tired
  • Walk away from a harmful relationship
  • Go to the doctor when I’m sick
  • And listen when my teacher tells me how to solve a problem.

I realized that hopeless despair is not overcome with stubborn determination. In fact, my stubborn determination had never produced hope. Four years into a misfit job, struggling to make impossible relationships work, ready to collapse in exhaustion, my despair was more intense than ever. My initial despair in those situations had been a warning sign: “No Outlet.” The later despair was a cry of death.

That discussion on emotions initiated a change in my life. I began listening to my despair. I finally quit many endeavors in which I had felt hopeless and I looked for different approaches to areas where I had felt stuck.  As I did, my general feelings of despair lessened.

Hope is a Christian virtue. But hope is not the ignoring of despair. Christian hope is certain, founded on the revealed truth of God: it is hope adoption, hope of love, hope of God making all things new. To despair of that hope would be to turn my back on God.

But I might also hope, even pray, that my dog won’t die, that I will be promoted, or that my cousin will marry. Those are human hopes. They may be reasonable; they may be unreasonable. They are not virtuous. And despairing of those hopes—of my dog’s life, a promotion, or my cousin’s marriage—is not sinful. In fact, those feelings of despair are gifts from God signaling that my human hopes may be unreasonable, that I may need to give up or do something different.