Psychologists tell us that one of the chief evils of our age, an evil apparently less evident in earlier ages, is that of easy defeat. Be this as it may, most people who are honest with themselves would probably have to admit to indulging in despondency. They are fortunate if they have nothing worse to confess than despondency; there are many who labor under the weight of near-despair. Whether guilty of surrendering to the temptation or whether burdened with a sense of guilt that in fact is without foundation, a man can reduce his spiritual vitality so as virtually to close his soul to the operation of hope. When hope dies, there is very little chance for faith and charity.
It is a commonplace to observe that the saints were not those who never fell, but those who never gave in to their falls. It is less generally understood that the saints felt just the same longing as we do for the excuse to go on falling. The parable of the wheat and the cockle should show us that the saints were not only as divided against themselves interiorly as we are, but that they had to go on struggling all their lives against the desire to let the cockle have its way.
A mistake we make is to think of the saints as triumphing over temptation by the felt force of ardent love. Some of them, certainly, experienced this fire, but for the most of them it has been a question of grinding out dry, hard acts of faith and hope through clenched teeth. The saints have had to fight every inch of the way against discouragement, defeatism, and even despair.
How could it be otherwise? No virtue can be productive of good unless it comes up against the evil that is its opposite. Courage is not courage until it has experienced fear: courage is not the absence of fear, but the sublimation of fear. In the same way, perseverance has to be tried by the temptation to give up, by the sense of failure, by an inability to feel the support of grace. The reason Christ fell repeatedly — one tradition would have it that He fell seven times — is at least partly because we fall repeatedly and have need of His example in recovering from our falls. The difference between His falls and ours is that, whereas His were because of weakness of the body, ours are because of weakness of the will. The likeness between His and ours lies simply in the use that can be made of them.
Even if we do not reproduce the Passion in any other respect, we have the chance of reproducing it in perseverance under exhaustion. If, as we have seen, the Passion is constantly being renewed in the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, there must always be some aspect of Christ’s suffering to which our own personal sufferings can show an affinity. If we are bearing witness to the same truth, opposing the same evil, moving in the same direction, then the same means must be used by us as those that were used by Christ — namely, patience and endurance in the all-but-defeating experience of life. The effort that we make to regain the position lost by either circumstances or sin will reflect the effort made by Christ to return to the interrupted work of cross-bearing. Nothing of our experience need be wasted, not even our sinfulness.
So it would seem that the truly Christian man transcends discouragement only by accepting it. No man can pass beyond an obstacle except by facing it and rising above it. To go around an obstacle is not to overcome it, but to evade it. Circumvention may be all right when we are traveling along a road, but it will not do when we are advancing toward God by the way of the Cross.
Of the three answers that are given to the problem of pain, it is only the Christian answer that is found to provide any lasting conviction. The Stoic approach, stifling complaint, can carry a man to heroism of a sort, but it does not supply him with a philosophy; it does not point to anything beyond a natural nobility to be developed in physical endurance.
Then comes the Christian ideal, which has nothing to do with negation and emptiness. Here is the invitation to take up the Cross; here is St. Paul preaching Christ crucified and glorying in nothing save in the Cross of Christ; here are the Apostles going about glad to be accounted worthy to suffer for Christ. In the Christian dispensation, happiness and sanctity are found in accepting the Cross with Christ, bearing the Cross with Christ, falling under the Cross with Christ, getting up under the Cross with Christ, and going on in the knowledge that this is Christ’s cross-discouragement.
A man cannot deny his discouragement any more than he can deny his existence. It is part of his existence. All he can do is deny himself the luxury of discouragement; he can mortify his tendency to self-pity. By becoming Christ-centered instead of self-centered, a man re-orientates his perceptions so as no longer to see discouragement by the light of the world, or in its purely human context, but by the light of grace and in the setting of the Passion. If Christians lived out their lives in relation to the Passion — if their wills remained in proper harmony with God’s will — they would be incapable of experiencing more than the first stab of disappointment and would suffer only such pains as creation necessarily imposes. There would be no settled mood of disillusion, no dispirited pursuit of the second best, no trailing of despaired purposes, no accepted exhaustions and wastes.
But because most people live in a lamentably distant relationship to Christ’s Passion, inevitably there must result a lingering malaise in their lives that drains away their irreplaceable resources. Failing to see their place in the suffering Body of Christ, they remain blind to the significance of their discouragements.
What, after all, are the grounds for human discouragement but experience of inadequacy and loss? A man is discouraged either because he looks back at the past and sees a sequence of misfortunes that has shaped for him a mold of failure, or because he looks into the future and can see no security, happiness, or prospects of success. His experience of life has given him these findings, so he feels, understandably, that life is insupportable.
But if he knew more of Christ, he would know that he had misinterpreted his experience, and that life is not at all insupportable. He would neither shy away from the thought of the past, nor stand dismayed by the thought of the future. The immediate present would not daunt him either: he would know that it could be related, together with the failures that have been and the horrors that are in store, to the Passion.
This is not to say that deliverance from disillusion, discouragement, and despair can be effected by a mere trick of the mind — the knack of referring our desolations automatically to God — but that, in the gradual and painful conversion of the soul from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, there will be a growing tendency toward confidence. No longer brought low by the sight of so much evil in ourselves, in others, and in the world, we rise by the slow deepening of detachment to the sight of a possible good in ourselves, in others, and in the world. The vision extends to a probable good, and then to a certain good. Together with this widening of a horizon, which reveals the positive where before only the negative was expected, goes the knowledge that the only good is God’s good, and that it exists on earth — as those who receive the Word made flesh exist on earth — not of the will of man, but of God.
In the measure that we allow our desolations to be transfigured by grace, so that they become part of Christ’s desolation, do we bring at the most significant level comfort to others who are desolate. “If you wish men to weep,” says Horace, “you must first weep yourself”: if we weep for the right reason, we shall prevent others from weeping for the wrong one. If we unite our sorrows with those of Christ, we not only sanctify our own souls, raising them above the discouragements of life, but also come to act as channels of grace to the souls of those for whom, like us, Christ fell and started up again on His way to Calvary.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Dom van Zeller’s Suffering: The Catholic Answer and is available from Sophia Institute Press.