Jeremiah 17:7-9; II Corinthians 4:7-12
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.
It is May 1943. The Allies are bombing Berlin. Bonhoeffer has been arrested by the Gestapo and is in prison awaiting trial. He takes up his pen and writes a letter to his parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer:
it is of course difficult on the outside to imagine realistically what being in prison is like. The situation … is in fact often not so different from being someplace else. I read, reflect, work, write, pace the room – and I really do so without rubbing myself sore on the wall like a polar bear. What matters is being focused on what one still has |and what can be done … and on restraining within oneself the rising thoughts about what one cannot do, and the inner restlessness and resentment about the entire situation.
Bonhoeffer then goes on to write about something that bothered him, something you often find in the writings of saints, people you would expect to be full of joy, without a doubt, never tempted to despair. This is what he says to his parents:
I have never understood as clearly as I have here what the Bible and Luther mean by “temptation” [Anfechtung]. The peace and serenity by which one had been carried is suddenly shaken without any apparent physical or psychological reason, and the heart becomes, as Jeremiah very aptly put it, an obstinate and anxious thing that one is unable to fathom. One experiences this as an attack from the outside, as evil powers that seek to rob one of what is most essential.
Jeremiah’s words Bonhoeffer has in mind are those we read this morning: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?” What was Bonhoeffer thinking about? A clue comes l in another letter he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:
You are the only person who knows that “acedia” (resignation) -“tristitia” (despair) with its ominous consequences has often haunted me, and you perhaps worried about me in this respect – so I feared at the time. .
Acedia is a sadness of the heart which makes us feel that life is no longer worth living, and tristitia refers to becoming depressed, even to the point that it led Bonhoeffer to contemplate suicide.
There are times when most of us feel that life has lost its purpose. All joy and meaning has departed. It is a feeling many have as we grow older, hear about the death of close friends, or accidents and illness that have afflicted others. It is the feeling we get when our children are far from us whether physically or in spirit. It is the feeling of loneliness, of being confined in some claustrophobic prison, maybe even one of our own making. It is the feeling we get as we read the news or watch it on TV and start despairing of the state of the world or the nation.
For some people, this deep, dark mood is diagnosed as “clinical depression” needing medical help, but for most of us, even though it only afflicts us from time to time, it is still a disconcerting experience. It is as though our heart, the seat of our affections, is deceiving us. You can no longer trust your feelings for they are tearing you apart. Note how Bonhoeffer speaks of this as a “temptation,” the temptation to let the joy of living and gratitude for our many blessings be sucked out of our lives, the temptation to lose hope and resign ourselves to fate. Isobel has captured this mood in a poem:
Poured over us like a disfiguring acid,
Is the pain of the world,
To intermingle with our own pain.
How easy to fall into despair,
To think, God, that you have left us,
Left us because we will not listen.
Are you still present in everything you have made?
Still care about it?
Still direct it towards your purpose?
Julian saw that you do indeed,
But felt greatly tested by this insight,
and so do I.
for her world showed a different reality,,
It was god-forsaken, like ours.
In a leap of faith, she believed
And so do I, but….
Help me Lord!
Help me not to be sucked into darkness and despair,
Help me to see that you are indeed in everything;
That you will triumph in the end.
Unless our depression is diagnosed as clinical, we need to understand that it is a very normal, part of being human. Jesus despaired of the world and his disciples, as does every saint worthy the name if you read their diaries, letters or meditations. Like St. Paul they did not let these moods destroy them: “We are afflicted in every way,” writes Paul, “but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
Or, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his letter to Bethge, we can regard “even these experiences” as “good and necessary in order to learn to understand human life better.” We can also begin to learn again what it means to trust God and discover afresh that God’s grace is sufficient for us in our hour of need. For even when we descend into the depths of despair, says the Psalmist, “You are there!”
There are some practical ways to deal with our times of despair. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama provide many suggestions on how to do this in their Book of Joy. No wonder it is high up on the best seller books list of the New York Times. I commend it to you. Spending some minutes each day in meditation, slowly reading a favourite Psalm, coming to Holy Communion, visiting a friend, sharing a cup of coffee, or doing something to help someone in need — these become means of God’s grace that help us negotiate our depression and prevent us from being sucked into darkness and despair. But remember, you are not alone. You are with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, you are with Job when his while world collapses around him, you are with Paul on his journeys, despairing of the churches he has helped to established, Mother Theresa as she is overwhelmed by the suffering around her, and with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison and many others like him, cut off from friends and loved ones, uncertain about the future. You are with all for whom life has lost its purpose and joy. And you are with the Psalmist many times over,
Why are you cast down, O My soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 42:1-5)
“John de Gruchy
Volmoed 9 February 2017