The “Non-Option” of Despair

My husband and I are currently working our way back through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The other night we were watching this scene from The Two Towers, in which 300 men are preparing as best they can to defend the fortress of Helms Deep against 10,000 orcs that will besiege their gates by nightfall. Legolas, in great anguish, is calling Aragorn’s attention to the obvious: most of them are either too old or too young and are hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy…they are all going to die. Aragorn’s response: “Then I will die as one of them!” The video link above then skips to Legolas’s apology later, right before the battle begins: “Forgive me,” He says to Aragorn. “I was wrong to despair.”

I remarked to my husband how significant Tolkien’s theme of hope is throughout this trilogy. The company of joined Middle Earth forces is facing an enemy that has both the desire and ability to wipe them out completely. In reality, their only option is to fight this evil; their only choice is to bravely face the enemy and hope for their realm to once again be at peace, ruled by a just and noble king. In this particular scene we see what happens when hopelessness begins to blur the clarity of this reality: it causes us to abandon our cause and actually prevents us from any action. Despair freezes people

The funny thing about despair is that it pretends to give us an alternate option. But Tolkien’s depiction of hope in his sweeping narrative and through his compelling characters most powerfully reveals that despair is actually not an option, though it seems like such a viable and reasonable one in our moments of weakness and hopelessness. I can’t help but draw parallels from this film scene in our own responses to the spiritual warfare we experience in the pilgrimage of the Christian life. 

How many times do we face overwhelming odds and, over time, when things are at their darkest, get worn down to the point of complete despair? The thing about Legolas is that he is actually an extremely brave warrior and dedicated friend who, up to this point, had been a hope-filled comrade to Aragorn and the entire “Fellowship of the Ring.” He was the kind of guy who rallied the troops. But, we see that even Legolas can become despondent, given certain circumstances. We too, after fighting so bravely, can find ourselves vulnerable to the lie that the enemy whispers to our hearts: “Your hope is not a sure thing. Don’t be a fool. Save yourself the disappointment at the end. Stop moving toward heaven; it’s out of your reach.”

When we think of “options,” we think of alternate routes to get to an end goal or destination. The lie from the enemy of our souls is that despair is an option—our only option—that it has an end in store for us that is better than what we risk losing if we choose hope. But it’s a lie. Despair just arrests and binds us in fear. It is when we hear the lies being whispered that we need, more than ever, to hold on to God’s promises, to recognize and listen to the voice of the Father. This is what He says:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

“See, I am making all things new… [my] words are trustworthy and true… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”(Revelation 21:5-7) 

When next the enemy tells you that despair is your only option, remember and respond with triumph that though you are afflicted, you are not crushed; though you are perplexed, you will not be driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8).

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

Messengers of Hope

While recently out of town visiting family in Charlotte, NC, I attended Sunday Mass at the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (If you ever visit the area, you will enjoy the intentional liturgy and spiritual atmosphere of this parish.) To my delight, Fr. Chris Alar of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, MA was visiting St. Patrick’s that morning. He celebrated Mass and gave the homily. I expected a good homily, because I’ve heard him speak before. But I was blown away by the story he told.

While in another country, he had celebrated Mass in a Church of pilgrimage for thousands of people from many different countries, who spoke many different languages. After Mass, he exited the Church into the large courtyard, and he was going to turn left toward the blessed sacrament, but something was drawing him to go to the right. As he walked that way, he suddenly saw a woman standing apart from the crowds of people, and she was sobbing. 

He had no idea if she spoke English, but he approached her and asked if she was okay. “No,” she said. “No one loves me; God doesn’t love me.” And then she told him of her plans to take her own life. Fr. Alar told her that he had actually just finished writing a book on suicide, and he spoke confidently to her of God’s passionate love for her. “The mere fact that you exist,” he said, “is proof that God loves you.” After they had talked for a few minutes, Fr. Alar asked her where she was from. She said she was Ukrainian. He told that he was impressed by how beautifully she spoke English. She just stared at him. “Father,” she said, “I don’t speak English. I’m speaking Ukrainian.”

The whole time they spoke she was hearing Ukrainian, and he was hearing English.

Miracles like this actually happen all of the time. We just have to be open to witnessing them. What is so powerful about this story is that God, out of his deep love for this woman and compassion for her suffering, made an extravagant gesture to make the message of hope—ultimately of His undying love for her—real to her soul. He brought her into contact with the person that had the message that she needed. Fr. Alar was designed to be a beacon of hope for that specific person at that specific moment in time, and I’m sure that at many other moments of his life he has been the divinely appointed beacon of hope for many other individuals. 

Fr. Alar’s story, and the main point of his homily, left me with one clear message—we are all designed by God to be messengers of hope daily to specific people. We may not always know who they are or even realize that we have come into contact with them; so often God means for us to spread His message of hope through our actions rather than our direct statements. Yet sometimes he gives us words at the right time, intended for one of His dear children who need them. 

We are to be His messengers of hope every day; and if we don’t do it, if we don’t respond to His nudge in the daily moments of our lives, then who will? Who will reach the people who are living without hope? If only we can accept that God intends for each of us to deliver His message of hope to particular people every single day. If we live as ready messengers, imagine how many people might be rescued from despair and encouraged to live in the light of God’s love for them. 

All Things New: A Reflection

During this season of Easter, the readings in the Divine Office have been taken from the book of Revelation. There is one passage that has particularly grabbed my heart and offered much fruitful meditation and consolation. Revelation 21 speaks powerfully of the “new heaven” and the “new earth,” and how God himself will come to his people to “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Then verse five invites us to take in the re-creation, as the One on the throne says: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Do you feel the invitation to inhale this truth deeply and exhale peacefully when you read those words?

I do. I so often need to remember this truth and allow it to sink into my heart. I have brokenness, and I have loved ones with brokenness. I regularly experience the consequences of brokenness, and I have felt sorrow for all that needs to be made right. We all daily experience the reality that there is much wrong with the world. And how do we respond? We sometimes distract ourselves. We sometimes are paralyzed with grief. We sometimes bravely move forward on our pilgrim journey with great faith, despite the dismal circumstances that result from our fallen humanity. 

Whatever our response has been to the brokenness in our world, we need to inhale deeply of the truth that our Lord is the one on the throne making all things new. This is no greeting card sentiment; this is a promise that will be fulfilled.

Our God sits on the throne and is in the process of making all things new: in my life, in your life, and in all of the world. We do not see clearly how now, but we are assured of what we hope for and given evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). With that in mind, I offer the following reflection exercise that you can take with you into your quiet prayer time with the Lord:

  • Quiet your heart as you enter His presence. He is there already, waiting for you, in the space of your Interior Castle. 
  • Be conscious that you are bringing your heavy burdens with you—every one of them. Perhaps, imagine them strapped to your shoulders like a large hiking pack. 
  • Imagine the glorious light of God’s presence ahead of you. Look forward and see our Lord on the throne, in all His glory and goodness.
  • Take Him in. Take in the glory of His presence and the truth of His sovereignty over all the world. Spend a few moments with this vision and worship Him for who He is. 
  • Then, take off that heavy pack of burdens and set it at your side.
  • Open the top and take out the first broken thing you see. Walk with it toward that glorious throne and leave it at His feet. As you release it, pray over it by name, and ask our Lord to make it new.
  • One by one, take out each broken thing you have carried. Walk each one to the feet of Jesus. Ask Him to make each one new.
  • When you are finished, when you have emptied your pack of all your brokenness and all the brokenness of others you love, take in the sight before you. See all that you have carried at the feet of the King. See these things in their redeemed state; see them in the light of His promise to “make all things new.” And worship Him again for His faithfulness.
  • As you leave this time of prayer and worship, know that His presence stays with you and your burdens of brokenness stay at the foot of the throne. They are being made new. You are being made new. 

Go out in joy and peace, giving thanks to God. Alleluia!

Revelation 21:5

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey