Catholic Optimism

Catholic Optimism May 2, 2013

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Vaclav Havel

Years ago, in the midst of my parents’ divorce and my family’s move to a new school district, I found myself in a dark place. Now this is not the kind of dark place that leads to drug addiction, violent outbursts, or suicide attempts, but rather the kind that turns your world quite upside down leaving you uncertain about that which you can truly rely on. With a cracked family foundation (yet very loving parents) and a formless peer group, I was in search of solace and stability. These were my teenage years and they were my dark nights of the soul. It was time for forming my faith.

Faith had always played a large role in my family’s life. Regular church attendance (Protestant, at the time), Sunday School, Confirmation, prayers before meals and bedtime, and discussions about God were commonplace in our household. The divorce and relocation, however, brought God into deeper relevance and sharper focus for me. My sure-footed firmament of family and friends was dramatically shaken. As a consequence, I felt called to better understand the strength and nuance of my faith. I began having conversations with pastors, reading the Bible and works elaborating on it, praying more actively and paying more attention to God’s presence in my life. Although growing in my faith, I still had my share of anxieties. It was around this time that my dad introduced me to the book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. For days and weeks, in the midst of his stressful and high-profile job, my dad coached, counseled, and simply listened to me as I poured forth anxieties both rational and irrational. It was in the midst of one of these discussions that he laid Peale’s book in front of me and said, “Read this. It’s got some good points.” Ever-eager to crawl out of my despondency, I gave it a try.

The premise of The Power of Positive Thinking is fundamentally religious. Rooted in Biblical passages and spiritual anecdotes, it is an attempt to bring fundamental Christian principles to everyday living. Yes, there is somewhat of a dated pop-psychology, self-help feel to the book that could make many simply dismiss it. Yet buried in the book’s superficial verities are deeper roots of wisdom. Unlike so many of the post-modern, rudderless self-help philosophies, Norman Vincent Peale’s approach was built on the bedrock of Christ. The reader is encouraged to be in frequent dialogue with God and to bring prayer to Him about anything and everything. The book reminds us that we were designed for joy, not fear, and that Christ is our unwavering Strength and Source for this joy. Unfortunately, our modern age deforms our worldview enticing us to wallow in guilt and entertain our anxieties. Peale instead prompts us to reform our vision and reshape our outlook with an unwavering focus on the true, the good, and the beautiful in our lives. (Of note, a disappointing epilogue to Norman Vincent Peale’s story is the anti-Catholic campaign he undertook specifically regarding the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy. That said, on with positive thinking…)

Needless to say, this simple, yet profound “positive-thinking” worldview was a tonic during the dark times I was experiencing. It appeared that the  entreaties, anecdotes, and home-spun wisdom of a New York Reformed Church pastor were a subtle and invaluable prodding by God. I found that a renewed and revitalized lens through which I could appreciate the world was being shaped. The foundation of my life was re-forming underneath me with a greater and more relevant sense of God in my life. The worldview I was adopting was, effectively, one of hope instead of anxiety. And I came to appreciate the notion of “Optimism”. Peale defined Optimism as:

“A philosophy based on the belief that basically life is good, that, in the long run, the good in life overbalances the evil.”

Now while this seems simplistic, it is at the same time deeply theological. The intrinsic good of Creation is recognized as superior to the parasitic evil that persistently gnaws at it. The Dignity of man and our Redemption in Christ trumps the Original Sin that tainted paradise. In rapid fashion, however, modern times (and philosophy) have created a curious afterlife for the original notion of “Optimism”. Optimism is no longer rooted in a theological sense of good and evil. Nor does it recognize the innate dignity of man. It has sanitized God out of the equation. Rather, what is left of Optimism is a hollowed-out, starry-eyed, “whistle a happy tune” detachment from reality so that good karma (or fate or destiny or whatever) will lead you to success, riches, or fulfillment of whatever shallow ends are being pursued. Modern “Optimism” is groundless cheerfulness – perhaps even a warped hope. And this kind of worldview that is not deeply rooted risks being utterly crushed at the first signs of true trial and tragedy. Ultimately, it is easy to see why modern Optimism is mocked or discarded. And rightly so.

It wasn’t until I became Catholic that I truly came to appreciate what I might call a “Catholic Optimism”. What is “Catholic Optimism”? Let me provide a few illustrations.

G.K. Chesterton was a British journalist, novelist, wit and debater of great renown. And I would argue that he is one of the greatest “Catholic Optimists” I have ever encountered. Chesterton wrote one hundred books, published thousands of essays, and debated countless individuals on matters ranging from theology to economics, politics to social mores. The topics could be controversial. The opposition could be grim. Yet in spite of the gravity of issues about which he wrote and diversity of individuals with whom he debated, G.K. Chesterton was unconquerably childlike in his wonder. He was a man of wit and mirth. He exuded joy. He was a friend to countless individuals – many of whom vehemently disagreed with his worldview. He was a source of hope to many in dark times. And yet, G.K. Chesterton was a man of suffering. His early life found him loosely agnostic and professionally rudderless. His happy marriage would be pained by the inability to have children. His dear brother would die only weeks AFTER surviving World War I. And Chesterton’s health would suffer several harrowing chapters.

Flannery O’Connor was a Southern writer devout in her Catholicism and brilliantly steeped (self-taught) in Thomas Aquinas. Through her characters she had an uncanny ability to jar a reader with her graphic, gritty representation of man’s imperfection. Yet she could further amaze with brilliant “intrusions” of God’s grace into the imperfect character’s life. When reading O’Connor’s letters, one would be hard-pressed to find writing that is more clear and wise, yet rich with humble wisdom and insight. She was known as wry and witty, but deeply principled and loyal. And yet, Flannery O’Connor was a woman of suffering. At age fifteen, her beloved father would die ravaged by lupus. At age twenty-six, she too would contract the disease, endure progressive debility, and die at the tender age of thirty-nine.

Georges Bernanos was a French writer who wrote hypnotic works rich in the Catholic mystical tradition. He rose to prominence in an era awash with rabid secular ideologies (Fascism, Communism, National Socialism) by writing about devout priests and suffering saints. In the wake of World War II, he would be recognized as a visionary thinker by none other than Charles de Gaulle. And yet, Georges Bernanos was a man of suffering. Struggling financially, he would take on odd jobs to support his large family. He would witness, take part in, and be wounded in the carnage of World War I’s most grisly battles. One political movement and leader after another would dash his hopes for a more just and principled society. Ultimately, he would find himself in self-imposed exile from his dearly beloved France – a witness to its tragic self-immolation in World War II.

Yes. Yes. That is all very well, you might say. But what do G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and Georges Bernanos have to do with “Catholic Optimism”? Quite simply, they epitomized it. All of them had incredible gifts. All of them had uncanny insights. And all of them suffered… and that suffering provided them a measured, sweeter, richer form of Optimism. As Chesterton would intone,

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

As O’Connor would recognize,

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.”

And as Bernanos would implore,

“Hope is a risk that must be run.”

These pieces of wisdom are borne of pain, of tragedy, of suffering. And yet, through the lens of Catholicism, to know suffering is also to yearn for, appreciate, and joyously await redemption and deliverance from that suffering. By seeing through their tragedies, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and Georges Bernanos didn’t simply possess the modern conception of Optimism. It was a Catholic Optimism. This is not to say I haven’t witnessed this among Protestants, but I have seen a striking and enduring depth among so many Catholic figures that I simply want to provide that description. Catholic Optimism is tempered by fire. Not shallow. Not about to blanch or flee at the slightest or gravest of tragedies. It is an Easter Sunday fully aware and still a touch raw from a Good Friday. “Hope”, Chesterton reminds, “means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” As such, a Catholic Optimism is not devoid of reality, but is immersed in it. And the very recognition of our sinful vulnerability makes God’s redeeming grace that much more beautiful.

Catholic Optimism more properly named is Hope. True Hope. And in the dark night of my youth, hope is exactly what I needed. Norman Vincent Peale suggested it. These Catholic thinkers confirmed it. God delivered it… Hope. Thanks be to God.

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