Monday, May 25, 2015

Giotto: The Virtues and Vices ~ Despair


I'm beginning this with a longer-than-usual quote defining despair because I think it's important to understand what it is and what it isn't.
Despair, ethically regarded, is the voluntary and complete abandonment of all hope of saving one's soul and of having the means required for that end. It is not a passive state of mind: on the contrary it involves a positive act of the will by which a person deliberately gives over any expectation of ever reaching eternal life. There is presupposed an intervention of the intellect in virtue of which one comes to decide definitely that salvation is impossible. This last is motivated by the persuasion either that the individual's sins are too great to be forgiven or that it is too hard for human nature to cooperate with the grace of God or that Almighty God is unwilling to aid the weakness or pardon the offenses of his creatures, etc.  
 It is obvious that a mere anxiety, no matter how acute, as to the hereafter is not to be identified with despair. This excessive fear is usually a negative condition of soul and adequately discernible from the positive elements which clearly mark the vice which we call despair. The pusillanimous person has not so much relinquished trust in God as he is unduly terrified at the spectacle of his own shortcomings of incapacity. 
Despair as such and as distinguished from a certain difference, sinking of the heart, or overweening dread is always a mortal sin. Catholic Encyclopedia
There is, too, another still more objectionable sort of dejection, which produces in the guilty soul no amendment of life or correction of faults, but the most destructive despair: which did not make Cain repent after the murder of his brother, or Judas, after the betrayal, hasten to relieve himself by making amends, but drove him to hang himself in despair. Institutes, Book IX, John Cassian
The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption: (1864) By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2091

Despair seems to have let go of all hope. Her hands are clenched but holding on to nothing. Her hair is loose. Unfortunately, this picture seems to have been deliberately defaced. The sash from which she hangs is almost totally obliterated, as is her face. What's all too clear, though, it that demon who has come to snatch her immediately to hell. Even though he has been partially damaged, there is no mistaking his malice. Look at that claw in her hair.

The visible part of the inscription reads:
Instar cordis desperati Sathan ducta suffocati/Et gehenne sic dampnati tenet haec figura.
My friend, Paul Arblaster, translates this as, "This figure holds the image of a desperate heart suffocated by Satan's leadership and so damned to Hell." That is so very sad. 

Most of the people that we know who seem to be despairing, and even those who commit suicide, are not really committing the sin of despair, which, as the definition says, is a very deliberate choice. They are suffering from that anxiety that the quote describes. Still, every once in a great while, I have met someone who is deliberately rejecting hope--almost setting up their own sins as idols. It's chilling.

Instead of posting about Charity next, I'm going to change my usual order and post on Envy next. Envy is very nasty indeed, and I don't want to end on that note, and I also wanted to save the best for last.



  1. "envy is very nasty indeed": what a cliff-hanger to end the post on!

  2. Hmm, I thought I had left a comment on this post yesterday. Obviously not. Anyway, I think the gist of it was that this is quite a chilling image.

    1. I left a reply to Paul, and actually saw it published, but now it's gone. Yes. Chilling.


    2. All this chill reminds me of that verse for the sequence for Pentecost.

      Bend the stubborn heart and will
      Melt the frozen, warm the chill
      Guide the steps that go astray.

      The chill of despair invests that first line with a deeper meaning.


  3. Do you know Dr Faustus? It rather puts me in mind of the final scene.

    1. Marlowe? I know this is terrible because I've read it, but all I can remember about the final scene is the movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.


    2. SECOND SCHOLAR. Yet, Faustus, look up to heaven; remember God's mercies are infinite.

      FAUSTUS. But Faustus' offence can ne'er be pardoned: the serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus. Ah, gentlemen, hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches! Though my heart pants and quivers to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years, O, would I had never seen Wertenberg, never read book! and what wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself, heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy; and must remain in hell for ever, hell, ah, hell, for ever! Sweet friends, what shall become of Faustus, being in hell for ever?

      THIRD SCHOLAR. Yet, Faustus, call on God.

      FAUSTUS. On God, whom Faustus hath abjured! on God, whom Faustus hath blasphemed! Ah, my God, I would weep! but the devil draws in my tears. Gush forth blood, instead of tears! yea, life and soul! O, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands; but see, they hold them, they hold them!

      ALL. Who, Faustus?

      FAUSTUS. Lucifer and Mephistophilis. Ah, gentlemen, I gave them my soul for my cunning!

      ALL. God forbid!

      FAUSTUS. God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired; the time will come, and he will fetch me.

      FIRST SCHOLAR. Why did not Faustus tell us of this before, that divines might have prayed for thee?

      FAUSTUS. Oft have I thought to have done so; but the devil threatened to tear me in pieces, if I named God, to fetch both body and soul, if I once gave ear to divinity: and now 'tis too late. Gentlemen, away, lest you perish with me.

      SECOND SCHOLAR. O, what shall we do to save Faustus?

      FAUSTUS. Talk not of me, but save yourselves, and depart.

      THIRD SCHOLAR. God will strengthen me; I will stay with Faustus.

      FIRST SCHOLAR. Tempt not God, sweet friend; but let us into the next room, and there pray for him.

      FAUSTUS. Ay, pray for me, pray for me; and what noise soever ye hear, come not unto me, for nothing can rescue me.

      SECOND SCHOLAR. Pray thou, and we will pray that God may have mercy upon thee.

      FAUSTUS. Gentlemen, farewell: if I live till morning, I'll visit you; if not, Faustus is gone to hell.

      ALL. Faustus, farewell.
      [Exeunt SCHOLARS.—The clock strikes eleven.]

      FAUSTUS. Ah, Faustus,
      Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
      And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!
      Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
      That time may cease, and midnight never come;
      Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
      Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
      A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
      That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
      O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
      The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
      The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
      O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—
      See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
      One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!—
      Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
      Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!—

    3. Thanks! That brings it back.


    4. I find it a chilling passage (much as Giotto's is a chilling image).

      Just last night I read something on one of the blogs I think you once recommended to me about a foolish children's incantation to induce some ghost or spirit or demon to move a pencil to point to "yes" or "no", and just today I overheard a couple of recently confirmed 12-year-olds discussing this very foolishness over pancakes. Had I not read that blog I wouldn't have known what they were talking about, but as it was I could respond immediately (and I hope appropriately).

  4. That must be the "Charlie Charlie" thing I keep seeing references to. One probably sounds to most ears like a crank for saying that it's dangerous. But it certainly strikes me that way, now that you describe it.

    1. Yes, that's the one. This is the blog post:

      I'm not sure now whether Janet explicitly recommended the blog, or just put a link to it on Facebook once with some endorsing words. But I have read it now and then for a year or so, and the other day was particularly well-timed. I think it's more stupid than dangerous, but not entirely without danger.

    2. What most surprises me is how quickly these crazes can now spread, even across language boundaries.

    3. Well, Simcha is my Facebook "friend" so I may have shared one of her posts. I haven't read her blog for about a year now. I just don't have time.

      I hadn't heard of that, but then I don't have children or grandchildren in the appropriate age range--no that there's any age when that stuff is appropriate.