Hoping against hope

Without hope, there is no bridge between faith and love. Hope gives us the confidence to soldier on, in spite of the inevitable difficulties in life. Thus we can put our faith into practice by deeds of love and service.

As a theological virtue, of course, hope has God as its object. Pope Benedict reminds us in his recent encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi,” that “Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God.” Advent and Christmas remind us that Jesus is our one true hope, and so Mary is also our hope in a derivative way, because she brings Jesus to us and brings us to Jesus.

Christmas is a time of joy and happiness, of gifts and parties and families. It can also be a time of trial. Many people suffer depression and anxiety at this time of year, perhaps because their inner dispositions are not in sync with the season, perhaps because this Christmas is not “like the ones I used to know,” perhaps because loved ones are missing. Maybe you or your children don’t get the gifts they were hoping for; maybe family tensions erupt and people’s feelings get hurt. People’s lesser hopes for themselves or others are disappointed by a hard and somewhat bitter reality.

The pope says, “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”

I just saw the 1973 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh,” a dramatic expose of the illusory hopes and self-delusions, “pipe dreams,” of the low-lifes frequenting Harry Hope’s saloon and rooming house in lower Manhattan in 1912. Life is full of secondary hopes and illusory hopes, which keep us going. Sometimes those hopes are fulfilled; sometimes they are dashed, and rightly so, because they are just pipe dreams. In any case, failure to achieve such lesser hopes should remind us that God is the only hope that cannot fail.

As Ruth Pakaluk, a convert and saintly mother of seven, wife of philosopher Michael Pakaluk, and former head of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, wrote before she died in 1998, “Many people claim to be thoroughgoing atheists and materialists, but I don’t believe that many, if any, of them really are. If someone seriously believed that death is the absolute end of a person’s existence -- that there is no continuing personal existence; no God; no righting of injustices; and no compensation for the unequal distribution of suffering and pain of this life -- then I cannot see why anyone would put up with the inconvenience of another day.

“Hope is more than a comfort: It is what keeps one from concluding that life is utterly meaningless: ‘When the honest soul is confronted with the cruel injustice of this life, how it rejoices when it remembers the eternal justice of its eternal God! With the knowledge of its own wretchedness, it utters with a fruitful desire that Pauline exclamation: ‘Non vivo ego’--it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And he will live forever’ (St. Josemaria Escriva, “Furrow,” 892).” With hope comes joy.

The pope in his Angelus address on Sunday, Dec. 17, said, “Hasn’t Blessed Mother Teresa perhaps been an unforgettable witness of gospel joy in our times? She lived in daily contact with misery, human degradation, death. Her soul knew the trial of the dark night of faith, and yet she gave everyone God’s smile. We read in her writings: ‘We await heaven with impatience, where God is, but it is in our power to be in heaven here on earth right now. To be happy with God means to love like him, to give like him, to serve like him.’ ...

“But if one makes happiness into an idol, the way is mistaken and it is truly difficult to find the joy of which Jesus speaks. This is, unfortunately, the suggestion of cultures which put individual happiness in place of God, a mentality which finds its symbolic result in seeking pleasure at any price, in the spread of the use of drugs as escape, as refuge in artificial paradises, which then are revealed as completely illusory.”

Author Samuel Johnson said, “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope.”

One of my nephews, who shall remain nameless, was getting a bit old to still believe in Santa Claus. So his parents told him that they were actually the ones responsible for giving Christmas gifts, and not Santa Claus. He responded in all innocence, “Well, thank heavens for the Easter Bunny!” There were still grounds for hope.

Jesus Christ is so much more than Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.