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Trusting God when He seems to be failing you


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 06/12/22

The famous poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins can teach us a few things about what success really means in life.

When I was in college, I went through a dark, depressive period. Because of my mental health issues, I was having trouble sleeping and would sit awake late into the night reading philosophy books, finally fall asleep for a few hours, and then drag myself to an early morning class where I would promptly nod off while trying to take notes.

I was studying theology but developing major problems with my Pentecostal heritage. I didn’t want to become a Pentecostal pastor anymore and, even though I studied Scripture all day, refused to attend church on weekends.

I felt betrayed by a number of scandals that had hit the churches and pastors I trusted, resulting in a cynical, hopeless attitude. I became unmoored, isolating myself from friends. I would disappear for long periods of time to run until I couldn’t think straight anymore. As far as I could tell, God was failing me and my future was very much unclear.

Hopkins’ view of success

One of my favorite poets is a man named Gerard Manley Hopkins. He, too, had a vocation as a pastor and became a Jesuit priest. He, too, struggled with depression. Part of the problem for him was that, in order to become a Catholic priest, he first had to leave behind his childhood Anglican faith.

In mid-19th-century England, the vast majority of people practiced Anglicanism. In order to convert, he had to depart from Oxford and give up his promising career. He ended up feeling isolated and alone. Even after being admitted to the Society of Jesus, he was considered something of an outsider by the more workman-like Jesuits.

Hopkins wasn’t particularly successful as a parish priest, and always ended up with parishes that were too much for his abilities. Finally, when his superiors didn’t know what else to do with him, he was assigned to teach at the distant Catholic University in Dublin, where he graded student papers long into the night until he couldn’t see straight.

He died there, in a sort of exile from his home, at the age of 44 from a fever. Hopkins certainly had his dark moments, but unlike me, he never considered that God was failing him.

A decision to change

After a few years of feeling miserable, I made the decision to change my attitude. I couldn’t magically erase my depression, which is an ongoing health issue, but what I could do was take care of myself and react differently to what was bothering me.

I was so hurt by the flaws that were being uncovered in the Pentecostal church – pastors having affairs, televangelists embezzling money, double standards everywhere – that I was transferring the blame to God. He seemed to be failing me in every way that counted. Perhaps I’d let him down or simply wasn’t lovable.

I realized, though, that even though the trauma was real, my attitude didn’t have to contribute to it. Really, it was a matter of perspective. I had an egocentric worldview and filtered everything by the criteria of how it affected me personally.

Focusing on the good

So often, God seems to be failing us because we focus on the negative or are forgetful of the positive. We’re swayed by the present moment, distractable, and stay surface level with our evaluations. Because of this, we don’t have a good sense of what fidelity really is, what it means to make a reasonable choice and stick with it.

In my situation, I was forgetful of how much God had blessed me in the past, how he’d stuck with me already through some difficult times. I unreasonably blamed Him for anything at all that wasn’t perfect in my life, and I overlooked his faithfulness.

Once I focused on the good happening in my life instead of the negative, my outlook dramatically changed. I was engaged to a beautiful girl I was in love with (and still am); I was getting good grades, enjoying my classes, I was healthy, and had friends and family that cared about me.

Instead of wallowing in depression, I decided to get proactive. I found a lovely Episcopal Church nearby and began to worship there and found spiritual healing. Eventually, I became Episcopalian, went to seminary, and was ordained a pastor. After a number of happy years, for various reasons that essentially were part of my continued spiritual growth, I became Catholic. Looking back, I don’t think my present-day happiness would exist without the struggle of those college years that formed and shaped the direction my life has taken. In that regard, they were happy years indeed.

It’s all in how you look at it

I thought God was failing me when, in fact, he held me in his arms the whole time. At the time, I wasn’t looking deeply enough yet to see that, but now, decades later, I can see that God never failed me even in my darkest moments.

Hopkins had a rocky period that lasted much longer than mine. To outside appearances, his ministry was less successful, he had fewer friends, and his family was less supportive. And yet, the whole time he was writing gorgeous poetry. He stared deeply into the heart of creation and discovered the love of Christ. Then, with a talent and inspiration unmatched by any poet before or since, he described what he discovered.

He created beauty, heart-breakingly stunning beauty of such vulnerability and passion that, to this day, his poems regularly bring tears to my eyes. He never took the easy path of blaming God for failing him. He never gave up. He kept pastoring and poeting. And then, as he lay on his deathbed hot with fever, he declared several times, “I am so happy.”

This isn’t a statement of denial. Hopkins knew that he hadn’t been successful in the way success is usually measured. Further, he knew he struggled with melancholy. In one poem, he writes of, “Grief’s gasping,/ joyless days, dejection.” He compares himself to a ship sinking at sea but, even so, knows God has not failed him, has never failed him, writing,

“Across my foundering deck shone/ A beacon, an eternal beam.” And then, suddenly, “I am all at once what Christ is,/ since he was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,/ patch,/matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.”

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