"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

What Hope IS by looking at What Hope IS NOT


H
ope is NOT optimism. Pope Francis said "one should not confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude toward life. Hope goes further than that... God is involved."

Optimism relies on what the world alone could give. It is based on human efforts to build one's security; it is self-centered and lonely. Its foundation is mere 'sand' rather than 'rock.' When the storm comes it could easily be washed away. In fact, one does not have to believe in God to be an optimist. We can use the analogy of a bricklayer in the process of building an arch. As he lays the stones, piece by piece, he looks to the capstone or the "crown" that will be put on the topmost part of the structure. Capstone, to me, is like a hopestone, which is the last stone placed at the topmost part of the arch. During the building process even if it is not yet there, it is 'already there' which gives direction and meaning to the entire building process. Every brick laid atop each other is possible only in view of the capstone. However, there is this unavoidable stage in the journey, e.g., the 'not yet', which corresponds to all the moments as if our petitions had fallen on deaf ears. But it is not as if we are the only ones waiting for God to answer our prayers, He too is waiting for us just as the capstone is waiting for all the other stones to be laid by the bricklayer.

Secondly, hope does NOT mean no more wounds or scars. There will always be a temptation to reject pain and suffering just to feel optimistic about one's lot. Some even suggest erasing forever the year 2020 or 2021. We cannot avoid suffering and the inconveniences of the pandemic. It is worldly to do that. Rejecting or denying pain might just lead to mediocrity, lukewarmness or slumber which could even make us neglect the genuine "cure" or genuine resolution to this pandemic. This happened to the ten bridesmaids. Those who only want the victory, but reject the sacrifices and the pain are like the five foolish virgins who, at the last minute, went to buy further oil and as a result missed the bridegroom's arrival and were disowned.

Hope is acceptance rather than avoidance. Another image of this is the physically and emotionally scarred shepherd who gets injured so often while tending his sheep. That includes one's own sheep—our own selves. But the shepherd’s wounds turn into permanent scars, which are signs of healing and transformation. With the coming advent Jesus would be asking us to be on guard always and to be watchful. Definitely it is not from getting wounded per se for getting wounded is unavoidable. What is it then? Pope Francis talks about conversion that "involves sorrow for sins committed, the desire to be free from them, the intention to exclude them from one’s own life forever...  [Leave behind] a worldly mentality, excessive esteem for comforts, excessive esteem for pleasure, for well-being, for wealth" (Homily of Pope Francis, December 6, 2020).

The optimist's desires are not necessarily wrong, but they need conversion. St Augustine in a letter to the pious “Lady Proba” says, “Looking to this, you do well to regard the evils of this world as easy to bear because of the hope of the world to come. For thus, by being rightly used, these evils become a blessing, because, while they do not increase our desires for this world, they exercise our patience; as to which [Paul] the apostle says, We know that all things work together for good to them that love God: all things, he says—not only, therefore, those which are desired because pleasant, but also those which are shunned because painful; since we receive the former without being carried away by them, and bear the latter without being crushed by them, and in all give thanks” (Letter 131). We might think St Augustine is being insensitive to our present lot. But Jesus would say the same thing. In fact, Jesus did not just say it, he went through it himself. In the words of the mystic Lady Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416), “Our wounds are our glory.”

Such is the paradoxical nature of an illness or a pandemic, it converts us and heals us leaving behind scars. The pandemic is a global illness that is not only viral or ecological, it is also greatly social and spiritual. That is why the "cure" must also be more than just anti-viral but conversion and change of heart—metanoia. Now more than ever we are less and less worldly and more and more human. Thanks to the daily metanoia that has been taking place within us throughout the whole years 2020 and 2021. Scars from the pandemic will remain just as the scars from the wounds of Jesus remain.

Lastly, hope is NOT conviction or a belief system. A firm conviction may even masquerade as religious optimism, but it still is NOT hope. Something is greater than convictions or belief systems, i.e., certitude. Last Saturday I helped out in an International Advent Online Retreat as one of the group facilitators. At the opening talk the retreat master, Fr Monty Williams SJ based in Toronto, Canada quoted Jean Paul Sartre, a French existentialist, regarding his strange take on hope. According to Sartre “hope begins on the other side of despair. That’s when everything is taken away from you and you have nothing and you discover you are still living, you start discovering that something has carried you and what has carried you is hope." There is a certitude to Christian hope and it is not just one of many belief systems which are psychological at best. We are still alive after almost two years of battling a pandemic because something or someone has carried us. Fr Monty said that this something or someone doesn’t even particularly care to be named. What calls or carries us only desires that we listen to its call. Life, especially when it turns unbearable, can strip us of optimism, but not hope. Only we can give up hope. Only the human spirit can give up hope. Fr JM Manzano SJ

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