Sunday, November 20, 2016

Faith and hope; poetry, scripture, and death

My homily for today's Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus, King of the Universe is about hope. Without faith there is no hope (and without hope there is no love, no caritas). Last night after preaching at the Vigil Mass, eating supper with my family, watching a Charlie Brown program on the pilgrims who came to the shores of what is now Massachusetts, and just before retiring, I read Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem Interim.

It's clear that Interim is an expression of grief at the very recent death of someone close, someone with whom you live and who you love in that deepest of ways, someone whose absence is palpable. In light of my homily on hope and considering the necessity of faith in order to have hope, I was very struck by lines 177-194:
—What do I say?
God! God!—God pity me! Am I gone mad
That I should spit upon a rosary?
Am I become so shrunken? Would to God
I too might feel that frenzied faith whose touch
Makes temporal the most enduring grief;
Though it must walk awhile, as is its wont,
With wild lamenting! Would I too might weep
Where weeps the world and hangs its piteous wreaths
For its new dead! Not Truth, but Faith, it is
That keeps the world alive. If all at once
Faith were to slacken,—that unconscious faith

Which must, I know, yet be the corner-stone
Of all believing,—birds now flying fearless
Across would drop in terror to the earth;
Fishes would drown; and the all-governing reins
Would tangle in the frantic hands of God
And the worlds gallop headlong to destruction!
The touch of faith, which produces hope, makes the most tenacious grief fleeting. Writing in what was likely the very first of his New Testament letters, 1 Thessalonians, St. Paul exhorted the community, who expected Jesus to return right away, which expectation caused them to worry and doubt when some their number began dying - "We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thess 4:13-14 emboldening and underlining emphasis mine). Such faith, along with the hope it generates, is a gift from God, one unwrapped by suffering.

I also like that she asserts that faith is "what keeps the world alive." We have faith because we hope that what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians is true. Hope is audacious or it is nothing at all. If faith were to even "slacken," the poet observes, the birds would fall from the sky and the fish would drown; everything would unravel sending even God into crisis. It's a serious question, one fitting to ponder on today's solemnity, when Jesus asked, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8).

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