Today, I learned of a terrible tragedy. It didn’t happen to me, but to dear friends. And it made me question hope. In the deep blackness of incomprehensible loss, how do we hope? When we are utterly sickened and mute by what has happened, how do we hope? And when exhausted yet fitful sleep leads us to awaken once again to the awful, taunting truth, how do we hope?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
Perhaps, there is no strategy or mindset to answer this. Perhaps enveloped in anguish, all a person can do is breathe and cry and collapse and heave. Blackness of this sort affords room for little else.
But then, when trying to understand hope, I recalled that there were two sins against hope: Presumption and Despair. How, in the most hopeless of situations can one feel anything but anger – indignation – that a lack of hope could have an element of sin in it? Is this a cruel barb from God stabbing an already pierced person? But then I reconsidered what this really meant.
Hope is the essence of a loving God.
It is hope that brought the Prodigal Son home. It is hope that reunited the lost sheep with its flock. It is hope that led an adulteress to reform after a brush with death and a virgin to say “Yes” to an angel. It is hope that led a Roman centurion to ask a Jewish Rabbi for help and a gruff fisherman to leave his nets. It is hope that led disciples race to an empty tomb and risk their lives evangelizing the world. Hope suffuses the Christian narrative.
But so does suffering.
Christ was marginalized as an infant, hunted as a toddler and rejected as an adult. He suffered the death of friends and the betrayal of disciples. He could get exhausted, frustrated and sad. And ultimately, the God-made-man would taste bitter torture and wicked execution. Christ preached hope and endured suffering.
So a Christ intimately, viscerally aware of the hell that suffering could inflict, asked us – no, commanded us – to hope anyway. But how?
I don’t know. But, humbly, let me try to answer.
We cannot give into despair. Despair is endless blackness. It is ruthless isolation from God and man, but also from love, faith and hope. It sees no way out. And yet there is a way out. There is light. There is an unbreakable thread that forever connects us to God and man. The suffering Christ hoped. Because he saw the key, the redemption, the paradise that we in our deepest despair cannot see. And he bids us to believe. And look with new eyes. G.K. Chesterton once wisely counseled,
“Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”
French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos had no illusions about suffering. In The Diary of a Country Priest he writes,
“The first realization of misery is fierce indeed…It is a thing most people know so little about, or forget it because it would frighten them too much.”
But that is not the end, Bernanos continues,
“And yet I feel that such distress, distress that has forgotten even its name, that has ceased to reason or to hope, that lays its tortured head at random, will awaken one day on the shoulder of Jesus Christ.”
“Will awaken one day on the shoulder of Jesus Christ.”
We must not despair.
We must not presume. Despair is to fall in the inky darkness of pessimism – a place of deep alienation. Presumption is to rely on ourselves, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, firmly fix our jaw and our gaze and move forward. It is alienation of a different form. It is a hazy optimism of work, self-reliance and self-actualization powering through tragedy which in fact denies suffering and the bitter healing that must come inch by difficult inch. Not only does presumption seek to circumvent suffering…it also circumvents the Healer of suffering. We make God superfluous. We are in charge because control now defends against the uncontrollable.
Christ knows us. And knows our sufferings. He is not aloof to it for he suffered himself. But halfway between the blackness of despair and the unreality of presumption is found the terrible, at times intolerable walk of suffering. And no man or woman, but God can console us. But we will be consoled. Be it in days or years, grace will win out. Even if it is in the long-awaited reunited embrace in heaven with one lost so young and so tragically. We will be consoled.
To paraphrase the Greek playwright, Aeschylus,
“He who [loves] must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
How do we hope?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
But may God in his mercy show us.
May God bring comfort to my dear friends.