From Depression to Hope: Pentecost Letter 2004
Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Questions people ask
At times in our lives, despair and a kind of darkness can loom large, even threaten to overwhelm us. Depression is an all too common experience: we have seen it in others, and many of us have known it in ourselves. In times of depression, we inevitably question God and the Church. We wonder if we really matter. We wonder if God cares about us. We can even wonder why he made us in the first place, if he’s there at all. These are the sort of questions which the first disciples must have asked in the dark time between Calvary and Easter.
Sometimes the question is put like this: “If God knows everything, and he creates everyone and gives them free will: why did he create the world and human beings when he knew that Adam and Eve would sin and that his Son would have to die? Wouldn’t it have been better not to make the world in the first place?” You could ask the same question in more personal terms: “If God knows everything, why did he make me and give me free will, when he knew that I would fail again and again? Wouldn’t it be better if I just didn’t exist?” In the darkness of depression, these are the questions that weigh on us: “Why does God bother with it all? Why does God bother with me?”
In the Creed, we begin by affirming the basis of our understanding of God and of ourselves: “We believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”. And the first words in the Bible are these: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3).
A giving love
In both Scripture and Tradition, the first thing we say about God is that he is a Creator. He is the God who speaks into the darkness and says: “Let there be light!” And when he commands it, there is light! So why does God bother with his creation? What motivates him to create light and life out of the void of darkness and chaos? One thing alone: Love. There can be no other answer.
God’s whole work of creation, from the furthest galaxy to the smallest atom, from the infinite varieties of life to my own personal existence, is a vast overflowing of his love: not a selfish love that wants created things for his sake, but a giving love that values his creation for its own sake. In the eyes of the loving Creator, “to be” is good, and infinitely better than “not to be”.
Hope in the scriptures
In the Scripture, there are moments when God seems so fed up with his creation that he is tempted to destroy it. The story of the great flood (Genesis 6-9) tells how violence and rebellion had spread throughout the human race. Then God, we are told, decides to put an end to it – but not to all of it. One man, together with his family and two of every species of living thing, are kept safe from the flood. What is striking about the story is that, for all the evil of human beings, God does not give up completely on his creative project. He is prepared to try again, even though he knows that the seeds of the new world, safe within the ark, still bear the imprint of the old world that had been destroyed (Genesis 8:21).
From the same story come two great images of hope: the dove and the rainbow. Noah releases the dove and it flies over the waters of the flood, just as the Spirit of God had hovered over the waters of the first creation. The dove seeks dry land – somewhere to stop and rest and make its home. Later, God sets the rainbow in the sky as a seal of a covenant, his eternal promise to keep his creation from destruction (Genesis 9:13). And so the Creator God, whose love is the cause of existence itself, is also a faithful God (1 Corinthians 10:13). He is faithful to his creation and will not let it be destroyed.
The Easter Christ
The greatest sign of this is in the feast, which we have just celebrated: Easter. Christ died shrouded in darkness, and his wounded body was laid in the darkness of the tomb. God, it seemed, had abandoned him (Mark 15:34). But God did not let his Holy One see destruction (Psalm 16:10; Acts 13:35). He remained faithful to Jesus. Jesus passed through the valley of the deepest darkness (Psalm 23:4), but the darkness could not overcome him (John 1:5). Even in the darkness of the tomb, the light of life was shining in Christ. In him, light overcame darkness, life overcame death, hope overcame depression. Even before the sun had risen on that first Easter Sunday, the light of a new day was shining from the darkness of the tomb itself, and it has never ceased shining since then. With Easter, the flood of death subsides, and a truly new creation has dawned. And so the faithful God makes a new covenant with his new creation, and we are heirs of that covenant, sons and daughters of life!
Pentecost today in the church
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. It is no coincidence that we see the Holy Spirit as a dove. The Spirit moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2); he overshadowed the Virgin Mary at Jesus’ conception (Luke 1:35); and he came down upon Jesus as he rose from the waters of baptism in the Jordan River (Mark 1:10). Now at Pentecost, the Spirit comes to rest upon the Apostles (Acts 2:3). From that moment till now, the same Spirit “blows where he pleases” (John 3:8), looking for somewhere to make his home.
The Spirit is looking to come to rest in you. You are so important – you matter so much – to your Father in heaven, that he wants to give you the greatest gift he can: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the breath of his own life! You are God’s new creation. The Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are like the rainbow after the flood. In them, God seals the promise he makes personally to you.
“Do not be afraid”
In times of despair and depression, when nothing seems to mean anything, you may ask,“How can it be that God bothers with me when darkness seems all around me and inside me?” Perhaps you ask, “Can the Church say anything to me that might make a difference in my life?” Well, this is what the Church says to you on this day of Pentecost: Don’t be afraid! God loves his creation, and he loves you. God is faithful to his creation, and he is faithful to you. God is the hope of his creation, and he hopes in you.
Out of the chaos of despair, the Holy Spirit brings order; out of the darkness of depression, the Holy Spirit brings hope and light. This was the experience of the first disciples; and it is the experience offered to us today. God always loves; God is always faithful; God never gives up on the work of his hands, on us whom he has called his children. Few have understood this as deeply and as simply as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who herself knew times of deep darkness. From those depths she says to us on this day of Pentecost:
“Trust the Father. And the darkness will lose its terrors.”
Invoking upon you every gift of the Holy Spirit, I remain,
Yours sincerely in Christ,
+ Denis J. Hart,
Archbishop of Melbourne