Saturday, October 24, 2015

Some restless thoughts on hope

One helpful way I have found to understand the most elusive of the theological virtues, hope, is by saying it is the flower of faith and its fruit is charity. I think there is an interesting correlation between the theological virtue of hope and the spiritual discipline of fasting, just as I think there is a correlation between prayer and faith as well as between alms-giving and charity. At least for me, hope remains elusive and so I am always looking for better and deeper ways of understanding it.

I am about to finish Michael Zantovsky's biography of Václav Havel: Havel: A Life. It is a book I highly recommend. After resigning from the presidency of Czechoslovakia, which he did shortly after the decision to dissolve the Czech and Slovak federation was reached in 1992 (the formal dissolution of the federation happened 1 January 1993), Havel was made a member of the French Academy of Humanities and Political Science.

Václav Havel greets crowds in Prague's Wenceslas, November, 1989

In his speech accepting membership in the French Academy, delivered 27 October 1992, Havel reflected on the meaning of hope, a reflection that arose very much from his experience of serving for three years as president. According to Zantovsky, "In the speech he drew a line between two different kinds of the phenomenon of waiting. One, waiting for Godot, is provoked by hopelessness. People who feel powerless to change the conditions of their life pin their hope on some indeterminate 'salvation from outside... It is the hope of people without hope'" (421).

"The other type of waiting 'was based on the knowledge that it made sense on principle to resist by speaking the truth, simply because it was the right thing to do, without speculating whether it would lead somewhere tomorrow, or the day after, or ever... waiting as a state of hope, not an expression of hopelessness" (421-422)

According to Zantovsky, this short discourse on hope led him to talk about impatience, which Havel identified as the "vain belief in the primacy of reason" and the false belief that "the world is nothing but a cross-world [not a misspelling of "word"] puzzle to be solved" (422). "Without even being aware of it," Havel confessed, "I, too, submitted to the perverted belief that I was a master of reality, that the only task was to improve reality according to some existing recipe" (422). He admitted that he gave into the illusion of thinking time belonged to him. "It was, of course, a big mistake. The world, Being and history have their own time. We can, of course, enter that time in a creative way, but none of us has it entirely in his hands" (422)

Properly understood, Christian hope must take the form of the latter because it has nothing to do with the former. In the book The Surprising Pope: Understanding the Thought of Pope John Paul II, which is a series of eleven interviews with Fr Maciej Zieba O.P., a close associate of then-Cardinal Wojtyla in Poland, and, prior to ordination, a Solidarity activist, conducted by Adam Pawlowicz, responding to a question that Christianity is somehow opposed to success in the world, Zieba responded:
success is not a Christian category, but nor is failure. The real categories are 'for Christ' and 'against Christ' - and the first will lead to success, the second to defeat. These categories, however, do not translate as success and failure in the world. Besides, we know that in time there are no ultimate successes or ultimate failures. That is clear from the Gospels. Faith in Christ makes it possible for us to perceive within the temporal dimension the weightiness of spiritual reality and opens up the horizon of time to a dimension larger than human life (77)
Both of these expositions on hope show us that it has little to do with optimism.

Pope St John Paul II in Poland, 1983

It always helps to use examples. Therefore, the intervention at the now-concluding Ordinary Synod on the Family, made a week ago yesterday, by Dr. Anca-Maria Cernea, President of the Association of Catholic Doctors of Bucharest (Romania) serves very well: "Material poverty and consumerism are not the primary cause of the family crisis. The primary cause of the sexual and cultural revolution is ideological" (read the whole thing here).

Hope that is truly hope bids us to engage time "in a creative way." Christian hope is not hopeless. Because of the Incarnation, a Christian does not look for "salvation from outside," but rather sees it arising from within.

Speaking of waiting as an act of hope, the season of Advent begins in little more than a month. Enjoy "Donchás" (i.e., "Hope") by The Crossing.

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