I feel very pessimistic when I look around me today. Honesty and human decency and respect for life seem to be becoming things of the past. In the Church too there's just too much division and confusion, not to mention the many scandals. What hope can you offer me for the future? - Robert

   I've been turning similar questions over in my mind. And I think now (against all English usage) that Christian hope is not, and never was, for the future! It is for the present.
     May I speak about the word 'hope' first? In English, hope is almost a negative word: you hope when you don't know what the future will be; and you hope when there is nothing you can do about it anyway ("we can only hope"). It's tied up entirely with the future, and of course the future is always out of reach. Basically therefore it is a feeble word. But we try to improve it by mixing it up with optimism. Optimism is always a sitting duck for satire, as was Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" for Voltaire. It's nice to be optimistic, I'm sure, but I don't think that the Christian faith has anything much to do with that.
     St Paul spoke about the greatest of all gifts, the "three things that last: faith, hope and love"
(1 Cor. 13:13). But we make hope the poor relation of the other two. In the New Testament the word's usage is generally much stronger than in English. It's not something you indulge in when all action fails; on the contrary it's the fruit of persistence: "Perseverance brings hope," he said elsewhere (Rom 5:4). It's not a dreamy outlook on the future; it's about daring and enduring in the present.
     We are always willing to postpone good things, someone said, but bad things we do right away! We would like to postpone faith, hope and love: to put them over the horizon and into the future; but fear, greed and anger we attend to immediately. Hope is one of the good things - one of the best, St Paul said. So it must be for now or never.
     Yes, the contemporary world takes our breath away. We're on the high seas of change with no land in sight. It came on most of us suddenly, or so it seems: we haven't had time to get our sea-legs. Most of us would like to be ashore, never again to set out to sea. We are unhappy, we blame one another for being where we are, and we are nostalgic for old times when everything seemed fixed and safe. In this predicament, I tell myself, optimism would just be the mirror image of nostalgia: a safe harbour ahead mirroring the safe harbour behind. Both are somehow a refusal of the present. We are at sea, whether we like it or not.
To refuse that experience is to have an aversion to sailing. Yet sailing (the 'barque of Peter') is an abiding image of the Church.
     There was One who calmed the storm (the account doesn't say whether it was the inner storm of fear or the outer storm at sea), and said, "Why are you fearful, O men of little faith?" (Mark 4:40). Through the centuries Christians have remembered this image in times of terror and despair. I pass on to you the words of the 4th century Desert Mother, Syncletica, who said to a group of monks, "Those who put out to sea sail at first with a favourable wind…. But later the winds become adverse. Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder…. So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us; we hold to the Cross as our sail and so we can set a safe course." Notice that the storm is still raging, the anchor and the rudder useless: she is talking about a different kind of safety. She was a tough woman: she once said to a group of monks, "You're the women and I'm the man!"
     I don't know if these thoughts are helpful to you. I myself find it useful to look for echoes of our present experience in the Christian classics, particularly in the early ones (before we became too settled on dry land!). It's like reaching for an identity that is wider and deeper than our individual ego. I feel that that is what being members of the Church means: beyond our individual selves we have the Christ-nature in us. "When we were baptised," Paul said, "we went down into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too might live a new life" (Rom 6:4). There is no refusal of reality there, no flight from the present - however terrible - no rejection of death, no nostalgia, no optimism; just a pure expression of hope.
     Every age is terrible. In the Church too. We tend to idealise the early Christian period as opposite in every way to our own. But St Clement of Rome (to pick an example at random), writing to Christians in about the year 95, said, "Why is there strife and passion and divisions and schisms and war among you…?" Clearly, all was not well at the end of the first century! And all is not well at the beginning of the twenty-first! As Voltaire's Candide said (and it is the final sentence of the book), "Everything is not so good as in El Dorado; but everything is not too bad."

Peace, Robert!


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