Every fall, I feel the urge to read adventure stories. Being a creature of habit, I typically turn to some personal favorites during the change of season and revisit those. Currently, my reading has me following the stories of Frodo, Samwise, and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring as they seek to save Middle Earth from Sauron’s destructive, evil power.
As I was listening to chapter two, book two of The Fellowship of the Ring today, I was struck by something Gandalf said. The Council of Elrond is trying to figure out what to do with the Ring, when every possibility would seem to end in failure and the fall of the world. Someone in the council says that to attempt to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom (the only way to destroy the Ring) would be “the path of despair.” To which Gandalf replies, “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”
I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of despair right now. The combination of the pandemic completely upending our lives, the increasing death toll, the emotional, mental, spiritual, and economic fall out, the feeling that human connection only happens electronically anymore, the continuing violence perpetrated against people of color even as our societies struggle to reckon with the history of that violence and (hopefully) overcome it, plus an upcoming contentious election in the United States…there seems to be a deep well of despair threatening to swallow us whole.
It makes sense. This is a situation we did not anticipate, for which we did not prepare, and for which we don’t really have a playbook. We are left drawing on ever-dwindling reserves of energy (if we even have any left) to keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to carry on. But how do we do so when there seems to be no end on the horizon to the death, disease, and division that surround us? How do we do anything other than look around thinking “DOOM!!!”
What should our response to this be as part of the Church? Should we despair as well? This is where I think Gandalf’s words can be helpful. Despair, he says, is “only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.” On the one hand, none of us can see the end of this pandemic beyond all doubt—we don’t know what that end will look like, and some may even doubt that it will end. On the other hand, and more importantly, as Christians we know the End. It’s an end that may seem like folly, but as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). What is that End? It’s that the one thing that seems to be universally true for everyone—that one day we will all die—is, at the end of the day, not True, thanks to God’s love for us in Christ.
Thus, our response to the present situation is not one of despair. Rather, we are called to be a people of radical hope; and not a hope that is easy, bright, or cheery. Instead, it is a hope founded on Christ. A hope that is grounded in the faith that even in the midst of these desperate times, Christ is among us and working through us. A hope that the story may, right now, be dark and scary with no end in sight, but that the end will be more incredible than anything we could ask or imagine.
May we all see glimmers of that hope as we walk through these difficult times.
This message was written by Director of Pastoral Studies Hilary Bogert-Winkler for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.