The Gospel for the Down-and-Out

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Another fall, and what a fall! Must you give up hope? No.

The Way, no. 711

“Having no hope and without God in the world,” is St Paul’s bleak description of humanity without Christ (see Ephesians 2:12). Yet we know that even after Christ’s coming, feelings of hopelessness and abandonment, or weariness with life, can creep back into our lives—resurfacing after prolonged struggles, repeated failures, or serious disappointment. Like the sad disciples en route to Emmaus, “we had hoped” is the weary refrain of those let down on their journey.

Saint Josemaria’s encouragement in The Way not only points to this discrepancy between our Christian ideals and our lived experience of falling short, but also to the first casualty of the conflict: hope. Nothing so sinks the spirit as aiming high and then falling low.

This is why the very next number of The Way offers some realistic advice. After exclaiming “How low you have fallen this time!” St Josemaria calms the fallen soul: “Begin the foundations from down there. Be humble.”[1] The solution to a fall is waiting for you at ground zero. Of course. If pride comes before a fall, humility always paves the way for a resurrection: He who humbles himself will be exalted. Don’t budge from the bottom, don’t even try to climb out, until you’ve asked the Son of God for a hand up.

When Jesus steps into the trenches of human misery, He reaches out to those whom He calls “the sick.” The sick can neither heal themselves, move themselves to higher ground, nor sometimes even identify their own illness. This may be especially true when the symptoms are not obviously the result of sin, but a general feeling of dissatisfaction or frustration. “My heart is numb within me” is how the Psalm says it.

People can sometimes reach a point in life where they are, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, ‘sick of what they have.’[2] The soul feels ‘depressed, restless, and off-balance,’ Newman says, as it ‘trembles under the shadow of temptation’—and it needs to be brought back to peace and health. Trapped in a bad place, some even find themselves saying this sad thing: “I hate my life.” The hope that life could be better has burned out.

Burned out describes several Gospel figures whom Jesus either encounters or tells us about in parables: the Samaritan woman who came out to draw water in the heat of the day, the Prodigal Son impatiently asking for his inheritance, St Matthew sitting at his tax office—all are ‘sick of what they have.’

Sin is not the only cause of this sickness. We might pray out of sheer exhaustion: “Lord, make my life a little easier—Lord, make my life a little more ideal.” And why? So that I won’t have to come to this well to draw water, or have to hang around the homestead and take orders from my older brother, or spend another day sitting in this tax office…. We can fill in the blank.

And what is the answer to these prayers? For the Samaritan woman, it isn’t a miraculous jar of water that will never run dry. For the Prodigal Son starving over a pigsty, it isn’t a care-package. For Matthew, it isn’t more cash.

It’s not simplistic to suggest a simple solution, the remedy repeatedly chosen by Jesus Himself. Healing for our sickness comes always with a deep encounter with the living God as we are—not: Once I’ve gotten my act together, gotten sober, become virtuous—then I’ll start being ‘religious.’ No, it’s in the sickness itself that the divine Physician seeks to join up with us, to share our food and our conversation, to heal us. God comes out to meet the prodigal son, rests at a well to meet a jaded woman, and sits at table with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s house.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” is how the Psalms model prayer for us. So that if you feel hopeless like any of these gospel persons looking for a way out, or if you just feel like you, it is time to reconnect with Jesus from those depths.

Seek union with God and buoy yourself up with hope – that sure virtue – because Jesus will illumine the way for you with the gentle light of his mercy, even in the darkest night. (The Forge, no. 293)

Seek union with God…. Let that mean for you whatever it needs to mean—I think we all understand. It could mean going to confession, making an hour of Eucharistic adoration, being more consistent in daily prayer, coming to church when you aren’t ‘obliged’ to be there. Make yourself available for the Lord’s healing touch. The Shepherd who rejoices when He finds the lost lamb, rejoices even more when we want to be found by Him—in whatever state that might be, no matter how lost or downhearted.

Hitting bottom and finding hope waiting for us shows the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be tailor-made for fallen people in a fallen world. It speaks to the tempted and the fallen, the sorrowing and despairing. Jesus described His own mission as “glad tidings to the poor, freedom for captives, and sight to the blind,” and this is the hope enkindled in us each time we look up from our own depths and find it to be a divine rendezvous.

[1] The Way, no. 712.

[2] This and the following reference paraphrased from Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, Discourse 9: “On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary,” by Blessed John Henry Newman.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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