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Hope in a Time of Darkness and Despair

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‘Tis the season of hope. Not if you’ve been listening to the daily news, of course, but it is if you’ve been going to Mass and listening to the readings. We’ve been showered daily with hope-filled readings from the prophets — mostly Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Zechariah. There’s been a lot of the “wolf being a guest of the lamb” sort of thing; promises of “rich food and choice wines” (indeed, “juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines”); the deaf will hear and the blind will see; God will wipe away tears from every face.

With these, we’ve heard about making the lofty mountains low and filling in the valleys; promises about making the parched land exult and the steppe rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers; about turning the desert into marshland and the dry ground into springs of water; and a whole lot about people singing and shouting for joy, being glad and exulting. These are the readings we get every year at about this time. It’s Advent, and the Church thinks it is a good time to remind us that we’re to be a people “looking forward” to something – something very good.

A colleague reminded me recently, however, that all these very hopeful exclamations were made by men with good reason to view their times as not at all hopeful – whose historical situation was, to put it mildly, less than optimal. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Zechariah all foresaw or experienced the utter defeat of Judah at the hands of her enemies and the exile of her people to an alien land.

All of them could see there was slavery and hardship in the future of a people who believed that nothing could defeat them since they were God’s “chosen,” and He had given them the “Promised Land.” And yet, there they were, on the verge of the abyss, looking over the edge, feeling the earth starting to give way beneath their feet. It would a long, hard fall. But in spite of it all, they were singing God’s praises and promising a bright future. Were they out of their minds? We don’t think so now, but it wouldn’t have been a bad bet at the time.

What is the ground of our hope? According to Thomas Aquinas, the motive or formal object of hope is God’s infinite power. We can hope because we believe that “for God all things are possible.” Fr. Benedict Ashley remarks in his wonderful book Living the Truth in Love (and repeats in his International Catholic University lectures based on the book) that “God’s mercy and promises would not be grounds for hope if God were powerless to fulfill his promises.”

BenedictAshley
Fr. Benedict Ashley. O.P.

Despair suggests Ashley, can be defined as “the deliberate acceptance of the thought that even God cannot save us from disaster.” Accepting this thought is to give in to what a friend of mine calls “the illusion of the powerlessness of God.” You have probably experienced the power of the illusion – the voices inside you that insist: God is not present in my suffering. He can’t “make straight” what is crooked. He can’t “right” what is “wrong.” He can’t fix what is broken. The forces of evil in the world and within us cannot be conquered.

Christian hope is the hope you have when there is no hope. In East Coker, T. S. Eliot bids his soul to:

. . .be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

When the present is dark and the future darker, as it was for the prophets whose words of hope and joy we read in this season of Advent, it is at these times especially when we are called to walk by faith, not by sight – faith: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

“It would be a great mistake, however,” Fr. Ashley wisely warns, “to judge that every person who seems without hope has committed this grievous sin of despair. A very common pathological mental condition is what is called depression, which can have many causes, genetic, hormonal, or the result of severe shocks such as the death of loved ones or the traumas of wartime combat. . . .When a person is suffering from mental pathology or simply grieving over tragic losses, or suffering under the heavy burdens of life and sickness, as Job was, their temptations to despair are spiritual trials not sins. One has only to read the Psalms to see how those who truly love God and hope in him, nevertheless complain to him, and find hope very hard.”

In these trials, we become purified of every other motive except confidence in God’s almighty power: “Trust in the LORD forever!” we read in Isaiah 26:4, “for the LORD is an eternal Rock.” The word “trust” here in the Septuagint is the Greek word for “hope.” He is a strong rock; He cannot be overcome. And in that, we find hope to go forward, even in the midst of great trials and tribulations and during times of darkness.

Do you not know
or have you not heard?
The LORD is the eternal God,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary. . . .
He gives strength to the fainting;
for the weak he makes vigor abound.
Though young men faint and grow weary,
and youths stagger and fall,
They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
they will soar as with eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint. (Is 40:28-31)

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Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments relevant to columns that are civil, concise, and respectful of other contributors. We do not publish comments with links to other websites or other online material.
  • Mr. Graves

    Good article. May I add one point? Disbelief in God’s omnipotence isn’t the only logical argument for why people might despair.

    Years ago, I read the book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner’s ultimate contention (that God is unable to control all events) was unsatisfying, for even my then-Protestant denomination accepted that God was omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.

    It occurred to me while thinking on the book that another possible explanation for why an all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful God allows evil like the terrible disease of Kushner’s son, is the terrifying thought that maybe He doesn’t care. Kushner never considered this option, if memory serves, but it oocured to me as a logical possibility for non-believers.

    Of course, our Catholic faith teaches us that God “hates nothing He has made,” but I often wish that Aquinas had listed this in his objections to the goodness of God in the face of evil — if only to see how he would answer it. On its face, it makes sense: the person confined to a wheelchair or living with a terminal illness may ask repeatedly for relief or even healing, but so few of those prayers are answered as to make it a seemingly “reasonable” supposition that God is indifferent to their suffering.

    When confronted with evil in our lives, it is often hard to believe in God’s goodness and omnipotence even as Catholics. I return to Rabbi Kushner in memory (he passed away some years ago) from time to time and feel compassion for him in his search for answers.

    • Mr. Graves

      Correction: It appears rumors of Kushner’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Mr. Smith. God is the only One in which we can have hope (confidence). There is no one else. Just look around you. Where is your savior? The government? The President? The Pope? Your money? Someone else’s money? Forget about it! There is only ONE. God or nothing.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    At times I find myself despondent in these uniquely trying times which I suspect your title suggests. Your faith based well structured article is a needed reminder. If I may add I find rejuvenation when I abandon my comforts for someone or others in need. As an exponent of Thomas Aquinas I commend faith coupled with acts.

    • Sheila

      Yes, I agree. Acts specifically made for those with a true need, bring our faith out into the open. And brings joy and hope to our soul.

  • Alicia

    This is a wonderful article, and as Fr. Morello says, a needed reminder. I believe it was Padre Pio who said – pray, hope, and don’t worry – Faith and Hope are inseparable.
    Thank you for this excellent article Prof. Smith.
    Merry Christmas to you, your family, everyone at TCT, and all its subscribers. God bless you all.

  • John Nagy

    This is consolation, Professor Smith. Thank you for writing it.

  • Dave Fladlien

    I’m amazed there aren’t more comments on this great article. The author makes a number of points we all need to keep in mind.

    As a person somewhat prone to discouragement, I’m (slowly) learning to remind myself that God always has known what He is doing, and that He does now too. I agree with Michael Dowd (comment below): ultimately our hope has to be in God, no matter whether we are talking about heaven or earth. God isn’t in the “fix everything” business, but He is on top of things, often intervenes powerfully for His friends, and above all, He *does* always care.

  • Michael DeLorme

    As Steven Foster wrote; as Nanci Griffith sings:

    “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

    There is Hope. God bless us. Every one.

  • GrahamUSA

    One reason why I have drifted from talk radio — secular and Catholic — is the sense the hosts convey that all can be fixed by the next election, by editorials, by legislation. We are, as Fr. Morello implies, no longer in that place, that America. As it happens, I find myself in a lengthening moment of near despair regarding the America I live in and particularly South East Michigan. The workplace in particular is a hostile place. And there isn’t a city hall in this area that does not hold my Catholic faith (never mind lesser civic values) in complete contempt. The accommodation to the times of so many Catholics I meet has only strengthened the temptation toward hopelessness. Prof. Smith’s words and reminders of Scripture are timely and consoling. But the “dark night of the soul” has never seemed more real. Still thank you Prof. Smith and Catholic Thing for publishing your words.

    • Dave Fladlien

      It sounds like you’re even worse off than we are. I am sorry to hear that. Where I live, San Jose CA area, there is still a lot of strength to Christianity, Catholic and Evangelical, and I think LDS also. But while the militant secularists seem, thank God, to have lost the battle to totally secularize Christmas, they did win the battle to de-Christianize it.

      Finding nice gifts for people in my life, even in a year like this one with a limited budget, is very important to me, so I tend to spend time in the major shopping centers. I actually enjoy it. But it has really changed. First the nativity scenes disappeared, then came the “happy holidays”, and many Christians, like me, started assertively replying “Merry Christmas”. Apparently the secularists couldn’t hold their position any better than we had held ours. This year there were very few decorations of any kind, and clerks often seemed uneasy saying anything, seeming to wait for me to take the lead, almost as if they had been instructed to do that.

      I don’t know how this all plays out, but I am finding Christians quicker to identify themselves as such, and secularists becoming as bewildered as we often seem to be. But while I did end my shopping with an emptiness at the absence of Christ from the scene, I also came away with some hope. There are a lot of people who want Him back in the scenario.

      I wish you — and all readers — a wonderful Christmas.

    • Tony R

      I feel the same way. If there is a good candidate, there will be so much corruption around them that they will not be able to function.

      Interesting thing is that I live north of you in the Saginaw
      Mi diocese. You think you have it bad. We have a shortage of priest’s like
      most diocese’s. We do have 4 very good priests. One, Fr. Daniel Roha was
      actually banished for about a year to a small apartment above a garage between
      the football field and the high school. Now he has been sent on a “mission trip” to California. You can look up his location in the diocesan
      directory.

      We have to travel at least ½ hour to get to a decent Mass. Before people start to think I am just being picky, I am talking about not using proper Hosts for Consecration. Using baked bread. Not using the proper words for Consecration. Being told not to kneel during Mass. If you were to come here and randomly pick a Church you would find one or all of these things there

      We are the only diocese in the state of Michigan that does not allow the Latin Mass.

      We are the birthplace of a call to action.

      Also, my work environment is difficult.

      I just don’t see how we can pull out of this tailspin
      without God’s direct intervention. I cansee the direction we are going as an entire planet. We are hell bent on our own destruction.

      I am tired.