Climate Despair and Liturgical Hopefulness

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, the most recent book on the climate crisis. With unflinching starkness, the book paints an unfortunately accurate picture of the changes coming to the planet in the next few decades. Even the best-case scenarios are grim. The scientific predictions that the book summarizes have led to widespread psychological distress or “climate despair,” according to a recent study, especially among young people.

Climate despair: hopelessness and powerlessness

Climate despair names not only the feeling of hopelessness but also and especially the feeling of powerlessness to intervene in a problem that is so vast. Wallace-Wells calls climate change a “hyperobject”: a “conceptual fact so large and complex that…it can never be properly comprehended.”[1] Unable to comprehend the menacing whole, we cannot see how it will end or where we will be when it does.

The problem with climate despair is not only that it feels bad. It also disempowers us to do the crucial work that can and must be done. Why should I work so hard for something when I can’t see the end and don’t believe my efforts will make a difference?

In a recent interview, playwright and screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry said that her regular attendance at Mass helps keep climate despair at bay. The weekly practice of churchgoing trains her not to seek the false hope of happy endings: “You show up every day, and that’s the rest of your life. And no one comes and says, ‘You got it! Enlightenment! You can stop now!’” Her point, as I see it, is that liturgical worship doesn’t really “go anywhere.” It is an ongoing, repetitious, and even playful act (to invoke Romano Guardini) that is meaningful precisely in its non-finality.[2] The repetitious act of liturgy can train us to undertake repetitious actions on behalf of the planet and find them meaningful even if we can’t foresee the effects they will have.

This strikes me as an important insight worth investigating further. How might the liturgy instill hope to take the kind of action we need to take? Can liturgical hopefulness be an antidote to climate despair?

The Eucharist in the here and now

In his classic book, Eucharist and Eschatology, Geoffrey Wainwright provides a theological roadmap that can help articulate what a specifically liturgical hopefulness is all about.

Wainwright describes the Eucharist as a “projection” of the coming Kingdom of God, and this in two senses. First, it is a projection in the temporal sense that it “throws” the End into the present. The liturgy presents to us the object of our future hope–the final transfiguration of all things–in a way that nevertheless suspends the finality of its full advent.

This means that liturgical hopefulness is not the assurance of a “happy ending” disconnected from the present. No, todayhodie–is the moment of salvation, in all its mysterious depth.

Wainwright’s second sense of eucharistic “projection” is that of the cartographer: the Eucharist makes an incomprehensibly large reality comprehensible by means of a set of symbols.[3] The entire Paschal Mystery is present here in the elements, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.”

This means that liturgical hopefulness does not look for some other world to which we can “fly away” as this one burns. If in the eucharistic elements, fruit of this earth, the Kingdom of God is made manifest, it means that our hope is in the final transfiguration of this creation–the only one we have. We experience the final transfiguration of the cosmos proleptically in the Eucharist in all its earthly materiality.

Liturgical hopefulness: ora et labora

Wainwright’s insights help us see that liturgical hopefulness is concerned with the here and now. But how might this hopefulness provide an antidote to climate despair and the deadly passivity it produces?

In the face of something large and incomprehensible, liturgy teaches us to attend, prayerfully, to smallness–the smallness of a few ounces of wine and a morsel of bread. For it is this very smallness that contains the uncontainable, and forms the kernel of the transfiguration of all things. William Blake understood this:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour[4]

Against the passivity of despair, liturgical hopefulness can awaken an active hope that is carried out through the “work of human hands,” even if our work does not exhaust God’s grace. The liturgy offers us the consciousness that even seemingly small actions and interventions become seeds of transformation that God will bring to ultimate fruition.

The eucharist, feasting and fasting, reconciliation, the repetition of rites and hymns and prayers–this is the stuff of hope. The liturgy provides us with the materials we use to hope with and a vision of what to hope for. The “common work” of liturgy is in fact the common work of life itself: the divine-human work of healing and transfiguring creation.


[1] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), 13.

[2] Here I would invoke the Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov who argues, contrary to much of the tradition, that eucharistic worship will never end. Even after the second coming of Christ, eucharistic worship continues in a new situation in which “the whole world present itself as a single eucharistic altar, and all life is a single Eucharist.” From Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, trans. Mark Roosien (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), 74.

[3] Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 92-3.

[4] The opening lines from “Auguries of Innocence,” found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His most recent book is a translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, released this year by University of Notre Dame Press.

3 comments

  1. Outside of the end / beginning of the liturgical year, the readings we normally hear are upbeat and point to an earth and a people blossoming, rejuvenating. Chapter 35 of Isaiah has plenty of these images. In view of the ongoing catastrophe for the earth and increasing numbers of people who suffer its effects, I think it is an appropriate time to rethink a cycle of readings that downplays if not disregards the threat. I recommend chapter 24 of Isaiah and the middle part of Matthew’s chapter 11 as texts that warn of an unwanted but possible fulfillment of our collective blindness.

    1. Thanks, Paul, for this insightful comment. I’m especially struck by Isaiah 24:6-7:
      6 Therefore a curse devours the earth,
      and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
      therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched,
      and few men are left.
      7 The wine mourns,
      the vine languishes,
      all the merry-hearted sigh.

      “The wine mourns.” Even wine, the work of human hands, destined to become the Blood of Christ, mourns. There is a lesson here, perhaps, in the darkness that hope forces us to confront in order to really understand what it is we are hoping for.

  2. Thank you for this, Mark. It is a hopeful post, about liturgy. I will admit to — sometimes at least — thinking in the opposite(?) direction: namely one in which the ending of planet earth as inhabitable to an earth community that includes human beings may not/will not/must not mean the end of all worship, which is always cosmic, in the true sense. {And no, I am not fantasizing about billionaire-astronauts going to church on Mars with this…}.

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