Blessed Fr. Sopocko
How Does Divine Mercy Deliver Us from Despair?
As a seasoned spiritual director, Bl. Fr. Michael Sopocko was no stranger to the human struggle against spiritual desolation and even despair.
In fact, the most devout Christians — even great saints such as Bl. Mother Theresa of Calcutta and St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower — have experienced strong temptations to give up hope. Some have journeyed through many months, even years, in spiritual desolation when they felt that God was far away. They did not despair, but they were grievously tempted to do so. Although our Lord did not succumb to despair either, He passed through an utter desolation of spirit when He cried out on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34)
Blessed Sopocko, who served as the confessor and spiritual director of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, reflected on the causes of outright despair in his book God is Mercy (Marian Press, 1965, p. 81):
Despair is passion arising in us because of the impossibility of escaping evil. The name covers not only the feeling of despair itself, but also the inclination to it. ... It is opposed to hope and trust, so much so that while hope enlightens, despair kills. ...
The causes of despair can vary. Temporal or spiritual misfortunes, incurable illness, loss of respect and honor, financial ruin, threat of inevitable danger, etc. Under the influence of such disasters there follows a terrible depression which takes away all energy, paralyzes the nerves, renders clear thinking impossible, and even impedes breathing and the normal circulation of the blood, so that the brain is not supplied sufficiently with oxygen and ceases to function sufficiently. ...
If we search for the very first, deepest cause of despair, we always find a lack of trust in the Mercy of God. ...
Racked by grief and misfortunes, many people would be tempted to fire back: "You're darn right I find it hard to trust in Him. Just look at what He permitted to happen to me! How can I trust a God who treats me like that?"
This is similar to Job's protest in the Old Testament when he complained bitterly to God about the suffering he and his family had endured. We need to remember that although Job got it wrong, he was commended by God for his honesty. God was pleased that Job refused to accept the facile, pious platitudes of his friends ("If God is making you suffer so much it must be because you are an especially big sinner") or the temptation to despair of his wife ("Just curse God and die").
What did Job get wrong? He forgot that his own knowledge is finite and God's wisdom is infinite. If God permits us to "go through the wringer" in our life, we have to trust that — as He is infinitely wise and we are not — He knows the reason why it was best to permit such things, even if we cannot see that reason yet ourselves. Protestant writer Dan Story puts it this way in his book, Defending Your Faith (1997, p. 16):
Christians recognize that God does not always do what we would like Him to do, or in fact what we think He ought to do (see Ps 115:3). Christians also know that it is presumptuous and dangerous to claim that God ought to act in ways which seem good to us, and if He does not, it will weaken our love and respect for Him. God has the ability to see the whole picture; we mostly just see our immediate needs. God is sovereign and infinite; we are limited and finite (Is 55: 8-9). Humans will never fully understand why God chooses to act as He does in many situations, or why He allows events to happen that seem inconsistent with his character. Nevertheless, although much of what God does is a mystery, we do have His assurance that what He does is ultimately in the best interest of those who believe in Him. If we know God, we will learn to trust Him, even if we do not fully understand what He is doing.
In the Old Testament, Blessed Sopocko cites the example of King David, who wrestled with this matter of trust in God throughout his life:
The poor shepherd David goes forth to battle against the well-equipped Philistine giant, and defeats him because he trusted in God's help. "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of Hosts" (I Kings 17:45). This same David reproaches himself in other instances for exceeding fear and lack of trust in God. "Why art thou sad, O my soul? And why dost thou trouble me? Hope in God" (Ps 41:6). "Therefore will I not fear when the earth shall be troubled and the mountains shall be removed into the heart of the sea" (Ps 45:3). (God is Mercy, p. 11)
In other words, I need not give in to despair even when the world seems to be turning upside down with tribulations and sorrows. Almighty God would not permit such things to happen unless it was possible for good to come out of them, indeed an even greater good than if He had not permitted them at all. That is why St. Paul wrote: "All things work together unto good for them that love God" (Rom 8:28).
It is not that the greater good will always necessarily be found, and everything will automatically turn out for the best for everyone; it is only so for them who "love God," St. Paul says, and the first and most fundamental way we can love Him is to trust in His merciful love for us. For to trust in Him is to lovingly give to Him the thing He most wants in all the world: the very depths of our hearts. It opens the door to all the graces and blessings He wants to give us.
Our Lord invites us to trust in Him, as sheep trust in the leading of their shepherd without always knowing the path ahead themselves. Blessed Sopocko writes:
Through the most tender words and pictures does Jesus call to the soul to follow Him with child-like simplicity and trust. "I am," He says, "The Good Shepherd" (Jn 10:11) and it is this title which should awaken boundless trust in every heart.... [He] likens Himself to a Good Shepherd, Who knows and loves His flock, feeding it with grace, with doctrine, and with His most Holy Body and Blood. ... Would our Redeemer so indefatigably encourage us to trust in Him, if He did not want to reward this trust with mercy? ... Jesus, I trust in Thee. I trust that Thou wilt forgive me my sins and that Thou hast prepared Heaven for me. I trust that thou wilt provide all the graces I need to save my soul. (p. 12)
This last point is important. One of the reasons why people often slide into despair is that they assume that the goal of life on this earth is our "happiness." (After all, doesn't the United States Declaration of Independence tell us we have the right to pursue happiness? Since such a right is ingrained in us, it's not unreasonable that many of us turn to God saying: "If I have done every reasonable thing within my power to find happiness, then You ought to grant it to me!"). God certainly doesn't want us to be miserable in this life. But His first goal for us on this planet is not our temporal happiness — in other words, our comfort, health, happy family, financial security, and everything going pretty well, etc. These things will come and go. Rather, His first goal for us is our holiness, our sanctification, the transformation of our souls in repentance, faith, and love, for it is only souls like that which can share His infinite joy and eternal life.
We so easily let our hearts become possessed with other, lesser things. Is it any wonder that God so often lets these lesser things be taken away from us along our life's journey?
C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book, The Problem of Pain (chapter 7):
We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Thus, when we are tempted to despair, we need to ask ourselves, "What am I asking God to do? To lead me on the path I am sure is best and to do things my way? To find me all the temporal happiness I want and the fullness of heart-filled sanctity and true preparation for eternal life at the same time?"
We can know for sure that there is a God of mercy and love, though His ways often seem dark to us (see the previous column in this series entitled "Divine Mercy Takes the Shape of a Cross"). Can we then trust Him in the midst of trouble and sorrow to provide for us what He knows we most need and not just what we think we need most?
Blessed Sopocko writes:
I know that God wills my sanctity, that He acts for this end, that He possesses a thousand means to bring it about. Joys and sorrows, light and darkness, consolation and dryness, health and sickness — all this for my salvation. So I will follow Thine advice, O Merciful Savior, which Thou gavest to St. Gertrude: "Make an act of giving yourself to My good pleasure that I may freely dispose of everything concerning you. ... In all unite your sentiments with the sentiments of My most Merciful Heart!" (P. 104)
For more information on Blessed Michael Sopocko, the confessor and spiritual director of St. Faustina, visit thedivinemercy.org/message/Sopocko.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge Mass.