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Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.

Catherine of Siena

The Dissenting Saint answers:

Not Enough Hope for a Question

Catherine of Siena in a frame

Dear Badass,

With everything going on in the world, from climate change to spiraling inequality, I am beyond depressed. I don’t have any hope that things can get better. It feels like the world will just get scarier and scarier. I spend every day with the taste of despair at the back of my throat. I love my boyfriend, so I’m trying to function for him, but I just want to curl up and sob my soul away.

Not Enough Hope for a Question

Dear Not Enough Hope for a Question,

To despair is to be deaf to the voice of God, blind to His grace. It is also occasionally the only rational response to the cruelty He allows His children to exercise upon each other. When I was a very young girl, I saw the Face of God. I spent my life in the sure knowledge of his grace. But even that was not enough to overcome what I saw of man. I too know the taste of despair.

The Church calls that acedia. Down the ages, this was mistranslated to give rise to the idea that Thomas Aquinas called laziness a deadly sin, as if a disinclination for doing laundry was the doorstep to perdition. Acedia is to lose the spiritual will to seek God. Our beloved Dante called it a deficiency of love, that to live without even the hope of His love is to sever the connection with all others.

When I despaired, I believed that man’s sins could be greater than God’s mercy. They seemed so horrible, you see. Everywhere I looked, I saw suffering. I saw mindless savagery inflected by the leaders whose sole responsibility was to protect. There was a bishop who massacred an entire city of women and children in the name of the Holy Father. He was elected Pope shortly after. I saw men learn cruelty from their leaders and then inflict it on their families and anyone who came within their power. I was born during the time of the Great Death, and it felt that the spine of the world had been broken and we were just waiting for its breath to cease.

“This sin of despair injures them much more than all the other sins which they have committed.”

All I could do was lay my sacrifices before God. He had granted me a vision, after years of aestheticism and celibacy, of becoming Jesus’s bride and being brought into the warm safety of the Heavenly family. When that vision became faded and worn, I renewed my sacrifices unto him. In my daily communion, I would dedicate the hunger and thirst I imposed upon myself to his glory, discarding my confessor’s injunction for self-care. Between the loss of using my limbs on the loss of my life, I had seven day’s of thought – the time in which the Holy Father made the earth – to review the life I was giving up to God.

I came to wonder if the Savior had rewarded my faith, not my penitence. I enjoined others to fight against despair and never questioned if it was driving my own faith. I never noticed if my starvation and isolation crossed the line between freeing my eyes to search out God and blinding me to His presence.

I lived my life seeking God in the rubble, urging my lost fellow men to seek with me or at least refrain from driving Him away. I do not have an answer for you, merely a practice. Despair is not a monster to be vanquished and banished. Despair is the constant pull of quicksand beneath your feet, and you must constantly pull away from it to stay in the air.

“Be who you are meant to be, and you will set the world on fire.”

Seek out your light, whatever it is. For me, it was my Lord and Savior and our future eternity together. For you, it is whatever gives you even the smallest sense of hope. It is anything, anything at all that draws you out from your own sadness and connects you to the world around you. Make that light your prayer. Draw your mind to it as you are waking up. Reach for it during the day whenever the fog comes in to choke you. Give it whatever gratitude you can muster as you fall asleep at night. And reach for your loved ones.

With love and light, you can keep despair at bay.

Catherine of Siena

About Catherine of Siena

Born on March 25, 1347, in Siena as the 23rd child of cloth dyer Giacomo di Benincasa and poet’s daughter Lapa Piagenti. Died on April 29, 1380, in Rome of either a stroke or complications due to intense fasting. Saint Catherine of Siena is one of four female saints who have been named Doctor of the Church. (Previous Badass Hildegard of Bingen is another.) She was a mystic whose extensive writing describes a Divine Love beyond comprehension and the human place inside it. The purity of her faith often set her at odds with the Catholic church in the midst of one of the great political schisms.

Atlas Obscura has an entry on the reliquary of St. Catherine’s head.

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