Hope begins where hope begins

Hope begins where hope begins

By Michael Downey, c

Vocation ministers trade in hope. Without hope in the future of their congregations, in the future of religious life, in young adults—they may as well hang up their hats and call it a day. Knowing that there can be days when hanging up the hat is all too tempting, we offer this reflection on hope—the bedrock of Christianity.

WHAT IS THIS “THING” without which we cannot live, without which we have no reason to go on? A story told me by my grandmother may capture something of the meaning of hope. As a very poor farm girl growing up in the hinterlands of Ireland’s northwestern coast, it was quite common for her and the others in the family to go to bed hungry after having worked in the fields from dawn till dusk. Meat was usually in short supply, and potatoes, the staple of the Irish diet, were not always abundant. Milk was often scarce, and butter was sheer luxury. Year by year, as the days became colder and darker in the drawing near of winter, her father would set a candle in the window in anticipation of Christmas. In the aftermath of one very bad harvest, when nearly everything that had been planted had not yielded fruit, there was hardly anything in the cupboards. But on Christmas Eve, amidst the protests of his family, my great-grandfather took a bit of butter, melted it on a little plate, lit the wick of his makeshift candle, and placed it in the window. The family was shocked. His response to them was quite simple: “We know that we can get by on a little food for several weeks. We’ve done it before. A little water and milk can keep us going for several days. That we also know. But, listen to me now and listen to me good, we cannot go on for one day without hope.”

Hope in Scripture and theology: the middle child

Hope is the very heart and center of a human being. There is simply nothing more central to human life. But, strangely, we human beings who need hope more than anything else in life have written so little about it. In a good deal of Christian theology, hope seems to be something like a proverbial “middle child,” sandwiched in between affirmations about the priority of faith and the excellence of love. Since hope was the original impulse of theology, the relatively meager attention given to hope is particularly striking. It was precisely in anticipating, waiting, hoping for the return of Christ in glory that members of the early Christian communities began to reflect on the meaning and message of Jesus.

In the early Christian communities, as Christ’s coming in glory seemed to be delayed indefinitely, their understanding of hope changed. Christians began to realize that their hope had to include patient waiting. Hope came to be understood more as an immense openness toward the promised future, a future affirmed by faith and realized through God’s saving acts in history in and through the person of Jesus Christ. History— what actually goes on in the world—came to be seen as the place where hope is enacted.

Many Christians appeal to the writings of the apostle Paul in asserting that while in the end three things last—faith, hope and love—the “greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13: 13). Properly understood, faith, hope and love are of a piece. The distinctions we make among the three theological virtues only serve to help us understand different dimensions of a single reality, the reality of the human person’s relationship to God. This relationship is possible because of God’s gift to us of faith, hope and love, and our response to this gift.

Indeed there is a great deal of overlap among them. On the one hand there is considerable similarity between hope, confidence and trust, although confidence and trust are most often associated with faith. On the other hand, hope is quite close to desire, waiting and longing, which are most often associated with love. So is there anything distinctive about hope? Is there something about the human person and the relationship between the human person and God that is properly named “hope,” in contrast to what we name “faith” and “love”?

Hope is the very condition for the possibility of believing and loving. It is openness to the light of faith and to the action of love. Hope is the capacity in each of us that is open to God’s truth and love. It is that quality in the human being that is open to possibility, to new things happening.

The energy to move forward

Hope is also the driving force of all human initiative, the undercurrent of all human activity. It impels and propels. It looks for the coming of the new; that which has never been before. Hope is the dynamism that carries us from now to then, inclining us to look from the present to the future, from what is to what is still to come, and on to what might yet be. Hope is the great virtue of the human person in via, on the way. The betrayal of hope lies in despair as anticipated failure and presumption as anticipated fulfillment. In both betrayals of hope, traditionally known as sins against hope, we try to deny our existence as pilgrims, wanting instead to assure the end results, control what lies beyond us, and have our lives otherwise than from the hand of God.

In trying to understand hope, one of the difficulties we face is the fact that the English language has only one word to describe a complex reality. “Hope” is a term pregnant with meanings. We might hope it doesn’t rain or snow. We might hope to do well in an interview. We might say to the bank teller, “Hope you have a nice day!” We can also hope our health holds, or our children are preserved from illness or an accident, or that a friend’s surgery is successful. Here we draw closer to the deeper meanings of hope—hope as a movement within humans that sees the present and all its prospects, or lack thereof, in the light of some other prospect, something good, or even slightly better, that is to come. It recognizes that what is presently possible might not be all that there is. Hope holds out and holds on. It looks in expectation toward some other—a person, a thing, an event, a time or a state—in the realization that if and when it does come, it comes only as a gift.

This kind of hope is rooted in the conviction that there is still more to be said and that there might yet be some good news. Hope waits, and it longs for more. It looks to the next moment and the next. Hope always moves through and beyond the present moment. It is not restlessness but anticipation.

Too often we are inclined to think of hope as an emergency virtue. When things are really bad or when we have nothing else, there is always hope. Hope is something we tend to save up for a crisis. Indeed, it is true that hope is what we have, precisely when we do not have something else. And hope may spring forth at the very moment when we are really at the end of our rope. It is precisely in those times when we are really “on the edge,” when we are most prone to despair, that we can lean into hope and rise, moving past darkness and despair in and through hoping. But it is also true that hope is present in each moment of daily, mundane, ordinary life as we look to the next.

Hope, in this deep and strong sense, is not the same as the lightheartedness we feel when things are going well for ourselves or for our loved ones. Nor is this deep hope at the root of our willingness to invest energy in tasks that apparently have a good chance to succeed. Hope, rather, is the capacity to work for something, to continually “go for it,” simply because it is good, desirable or “worthy” and not because we have a fairly good chance of succeeding, and not necessarily because there may be some juicy reward in it for us. The more desperate the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the more forbidding the circumstances, the greater the odds against things turning out well, the deeper the hope. The more hopeless the present may appear to be, the more ardent our hope for something better.

Hope is most assuredly not the same as happy-go-lucky optimism. And it is not a forced chumminess or a saccharine naivete in the face of incontrovertible facts. Hope is not the dogged defiance that everything will turn out well—“By damn, I will make it so!” Rather, hope is the serene conviction that something makes sense, that it’s worth it, regardless of how it might turn out.

Even though hope lies at the core of every human life, it is first and finally a gift, like life itself. Though hope is a gift, it demands we recognize it as such, accept, cooperate with it, make it our own. Hope is a virtue, a theological virtue explicitly and directly concerned with our relationship to God. It is at once a gift and our activity. We grow in hope precisely by being hopeful, by acting hopefully. Hope must be exercised, even in the face of what seems to be hopeless, and especially in the face of our own feelings of hopelessness. Now, how do we grow in hope?

There are three elements in the act of hope. Or, said another way, hope moves through three steps. The first is the recognition that what I hope for I do not yet possess or see with any clarity. Second, I recognize that what I hope for may be difficult to achieve. Third, I see that even though what I hope for may be difficult, seemingly beyond my grasp, I do stand some chance of having it. It just might be possible. Hope is always directed to a future good that is hard but not absolutely impossible to attain.

Hope strains ahead, rooted in the conviction that there may be a way out of whatever difficulty is at hand, that things can work out even though it may appear to the contrary. Hope is that inextricable sense of the possible, of what might be. Without guarantees, hope struggles to find a way over each hurdle, one by one, and to find or make a path past every dead end. Hope emerges as our own resources seem to fail us, when we come undone in the presence of a paralyzing situation that seems without possibility. What brings us to despair is the feeling that we are at an impasse from which there is no escape. Yet, even if we are stopped in our tracks, hope finds a way.

In an explicitly Christian sense, hope rests on what has already been affirmed by faith. Faith makes the first move. I say, “Yes, I do believe,” and put my hope in what I have affirmed. But what happens when what I have affirmed in faith is no longer believable? What happens to hope when faith is shattered, when one’s beliefs crumble? Without faith, how can hope be anchored? If the all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God is beyond belief in light of the enormity of human suffering and pain, is hope in God to be jettisoned along with the tattered and shattered belief in such a God?

It is precisely in the weakness of faith, even in the loss of faith, that we uncover the deepest meaning of hope. The deepest kind of hope goes on hoping precisely when there is no consolation to be drawn from it. Real hope does not constantly look for assurances of God’s nearness, nor does hope try to determine how God’s providential plan is being manifested in one’s life, in the lives of others, or in the world at large. Hope may even take the form of challenging traditional explanations of God’s will. By hope we navigate through the mistake of taking the hiddenness and silence of God for the non-existence of God. Hope remains open to all new and often astonishing manifestations of the divine life, even the presence of God that may be known in the experience of absence or utter darkness.

Karl Rahner, arguably the most significant Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century, has written on the nature of hope. Rahner’s insight, put in very simple terms, is that our faith in God is expressed in the affirmation of certain truths about God, and our love of God is expressed in and through our love of neighbor. But the nature of hope is different, says Rahner. Hope is more immediate, more direct in the human person’s relationship with God. It is more basic, more fundamental. Hope does not hope in God, but “Hope hopes God.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Taking a cue from Rahner, we can conclude that hope remains even when the “what” or “whom” of our belief is no longer believed, or even when we no longer love the object or recipient of our love. But hope does remain. And it hopes no less than God—beyond belief and beyond our loving God or neighbor.

Michael Downey is a professor of systematic theology and spirituality at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA. He is also the Cardinal’s Theologian for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the author or editor of more than 20 books, as well as numerous journal articles, essays and book chapters. This article is from Hope Begins Where Hope Begins, published by Orbis Books in 1998. Reprinted with permission.

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