My Advent of Magnanimous Despair: Doubt and Depression Mediated Through Poetry
For me, Advent means that God is coming into your life — is already there, in fact, has always been there, but you are about to experience that fact in an unprecedented way. I have come to view my experience of losing my faith and falling into anxiety and depression, into fear of damnation, into hopelessness, as being God’s advent into my life.
My first 25 years as a devoted member of a conservative, Protestant Christian tradition were never easy, and I had always been plagued with doubts and fears from early childhood on, but I never anticipated the traumatic loss of faith that I experienced in my 25th year.
About a year and a half ago, my doubts became unrelenting. And suddenly the only framework I ever had for understanding life and for making meaning was whisked away. This coincided with an event that sparked a year-long cycle of severe anxiety and depression unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was going through each day in terror and despair, literally shaking — for months.
On the one hand, I no longer believed in hell; on the other, I very much believed that I was destined for it because of my loss of faith and that I was experiencing only a foretaste of untold suffering in my anxiety and depression.
This spiritual agony was exacerbated by an anxiety disorder I have had since I was very young as well as concomitant depression, which I had never before experienced.
My intention is not to elicit pity or to exaggerate my experience for dramatic effect. I simply want to give a context for the poem below — and, as unlikely as it may seem, to link it to the idea of Advent.
In that time, I often remembered some of those who had experienced the same darkness I was undergoing. There was the ultimate example of Christ on the cross, when the Father turned His back, and I really should invoke that example more than any here, as I’m discussing the Christian idea of Advent. But, as you can imagine, that example was problematic for me in my loss of faith, and it often served only to increase my distress. Instead, I turned more often to the book of Job, the most distressed psalms, and to poets like George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In “The Search,” Herbert addresses God, writing, “Be not Almightie, let me say, / Against, but for me.” Hopkins writes, “That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
There were others who had fallen into darkness, who had wrestled with God before me. This fact did not often feel like any consolation at all, but it did keep me from the danger of ultimate self-absorption — perhaps the primary danger for anyone undergoing anxiety or depression or trauma of any kind — thinking my situation utterly unique.
My situation was not unique, of course, and my sense of that was mediated through the work of poets, both ancient and more recent. And when I found myself able to write during this period of darkness, it was the styles of those poets that were meaningful to me, that showed up in my own writing and enabled me to explore my own experience.
For that reason, the styles of the sections of “Weak Devotions” are various; they are different ways of examining, thinking about, expressing my struggle; they are hands reaching out to those who had undergone similar struggles. Much of the poem was written over the course of the most acute period of my difficulty.
I have not returned to and do not anticipate returning to the kind of orthodox Christian faith I once had. I do, however, in my better moments, believe in God and God’s goodness, and say with Herbert, “if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me”.
I have a very strong sense that I have been taken through these experiences. That sense has often caused me terror and anger, but I know that the way I think and feel has been changed and will never be the same, and out of my despair I have been brought to a place of faith, weak though it may be. Now perhaps I have some idea of what Andrew Marvell meant when he wrote in “The Definition of Love”: “Magnanimous Despair alone / Could show me so divine a thing, / Where feeble hope could ne’er have flown, / but vainly flapped its tinsel wing”.
We have faith; we lose faith. We have times of peace; we have times of great distress. And I have found that God enters life not only through belief but also through unbelief, not only through rejoicing but also through fear and outrage. As the angel says to Caedmon in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, “Nevertheless, you must sing.”
Why do You leave
some recess of my mind,
my heart, unlorded?
Leave nothing behind
that will linger in shit
and wallow and grind
itself in filthy defiance,
in masochistic, blind
groping after further
blasphemies. Furnace, kind
Lord, the furthest reaches
of me—make me refined.
Make me new. Take me to You.
Why have You assigned
this torture to me,
this desperate mind
that thinks inevitably
what it fears to think? Be kind
and do not let me be.
Need I remind
You, Lord, that You lay claim
to even the blindness of the purblind
worm—not only its righteous
wriggling? Be kind and be, kind
Lord, what You rightly are.
Rule what—whatsoever—you find.
Rein me in and reign in me.
There is freedom only when You bind.
Take me wholly, holy God.
Wholly, Holy. Mind my mind.
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul longs for You, O God.
I would rather be afflicted at Your hand forever
than be coddled by the hand of the devil.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
I trust Your affliction, and hardship from Your hand gives me hope.
But the ease and luxuries of the evil one I despise.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
All Your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Religion is a Crutch
but not at first—first it is the diagnosis
and the medication prescribed,
it is the scalpel and the surgeon’s hand,
it is the surgery and the hospital bed,
the death of anesthesia and the waking up.
And yes it is the crutch by which one heals
and learns to walk and live all over again.
And you say crutch as if it were an easy thing.
In my mind there is a population of squirrels
in a field of doubt, each one a question
about You. They are not pretty squirrels.
They are mangy, trembling things with teeth.
They are rummaging in the grass and darting
up and down the trees, gnawing and twitching.
But when they feel the wind of Your passing,
they freeze where they are and lean back on their haunches,
hands folded in front, asking forgiveness.
They become so beautiful I forget they’re mine.
Sometimes I’m afraid that I am damned
by God. Such blasphemies have entered my mind
as I dare not repeat for fear of making others stumble.
And once something enters my mind,
I have to wonder if it originated in my heart.
(Let it not be so!)
Sometimes the only relief
is this feeling that, even if I were damned,
I would say: If it be Your will, may it be so.
Is this something someone who was damned
would say—or hope to say?
Our holiest act is to enter into mystery,
just as God’s holiest act was to enter
into mortal flesh, into death—
the only mystery available to Him.
not of Hell only, but of the earth,
and not in strength of arms, but in assumed
vulnerability, in mortal flesh,
in sacrifice. What kind of God creates
a world that will necessitate His own
suffering, His harrowing of Himself?
That God and no other would I have
harrow my heart and be hallowed in it.
Sometimes I don’t want to praise You, Lord.
I’d rather let the stones cry out
and see if they can shame me into song,
rid me of my muting doubt.
Here’s my voice in praise—though it seems wrong
for You to prefer my stony song to the stones’ accord.
Rain showers beat the dogwood and lilac.
Glory petals strew the path
of my undeserving.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
The next day, I walk by again.
The petals are sliming in the sun,
stricken with flies,
and the world is briefly
telling the truth about me.
and if in spring it suddenly turns
cold and a dead brown leaf scritches
against a branch
are You saying to me
over and again
My heart is creaturely before You.
And if I am full of anger, have mercy.
And if I am crooked, remember me.
And if my thoughts are (all my thinking isisis)
perverse, release me.
And if I know love only from a fearful distance,
take me to You, writhing and undone.
I do not want I want I want I want
(kicking and yelping) Your law,
a leash around my neck. (Have mercy.)
Without it I am not fit for company.
Do not leave me
feral and alone—yank
my heart that it may come heeling
and creaturely before You.
Remember my partitioned
hearts, sevenly seeking to
love You, little seats for Your
smallest mercies to topple
in their lightest sitting down.
I grew older. The terrors of my childhood—
anxious days, sleepless nights weeping,
gasping for breath, afraid of the strangeness
of death and afraid of the strangeness
of existence—became mostly a memory.
I thought I had become a man.
I thought I had learned how to live.
But You said, Look, you are a child again,
and in that moment I suffered Your terrors anew,
and they did not end. Week one. Week two. Week three.
Over and over I despaired of peace, of life itself.
You said, Look, you are a child again.
And in my self-pity and in my anger
I was not listening. You terrified me,
You terrified me, You brought me down
into the pit. And You said, Look,
you are a child again. And I said,
How dare You? I cannot endure.
And You said, Nevertheless.
And I said, Why? And I raged
and I shook and I wept for weeks,
and then I fell silent in my despair.
And You said, Look, you are a child again,
and now you can call me Father.
I have envied, yes,
the dog that cannot think of hell—
I have envied the dust mite,
the palm tree and the stone.
And can I say
(can I tell You something
I’ve never told You before?)
that I have envied nonthings
because they do not exist.
There is so much anger in me
because we are mortal and suffer
in body and soul—
I am full of bile,
but won’t You turn it into sweetness?
If You can make honey
in the carcass of a lion,
can’t You do this in me?
Though there is a sorrow comes
that cannot be dissuaded,
and a fear that will not subside,
little imperfect trumpet
of God’s glory blown into purple bloom
on the chain-link fence. And you see it.
“Weak Devotions” originally appeared in Poetry East (#69, Fall, 2010).
Image above: “We Wait Bowing I” by Grace Carol Bomer
Luke Hankins is an associate editor of Asheville Poetry Review and lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His poetry, translation, and prose have appeared in many places, including The Cortland Review, New England Review, and Southern Poetry Review. A chapbook of his translations of French poems by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu is forthcoming from Q Ave Press and regularly posts to his blog A Way of Happening.
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