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Only the imperfect choose to hope


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ -

Testimony from a melancholic believer.
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy. (William Butler Yeats)

I’m of Irish descent on my father’s side, and of Italian descent on my mother’s side (“Gaelic and Garlic” I was called as a child). That means that while reading maudlin poetry or singing sad songs, I’m at least having a very good meal along with it.

I speak of these things because last week, I promised that this week I would speak of “retrieving Christian hope.” That’s a bit of a stretch for me, because I’ve a melancholic temperament. In preparation for this column, I re-read Josef Pieper’s masterful essay on hope. (Found HERE.)

I’ve been reading that essay repeatedly for almost 40 years. It has carved and arranged much of the interior landscape of my soul. Then I searched through the archives of my column here at Aleteia, and found that I’d written about hope several times before, and I also found, without surprise, that Pieper’s influence is evident throughout.

If you review those previous columns (about the vocabulary of hope HERE; about despair HERE; about hope and time HERE; about wishful thinking HERE; about fulfillment HERE; about panic HERE) you can find the ingredients of a summary about what I can teach about hope. In this column, I offer not so much teaching about hope, but rather testimony. That is, I want to offer a brief, and if I may be so bold, perhaps even a useful account of my own struggle to receive from God the theological virtue of hope.

I recall a conversation I had with a lovely religious sister from Asia. English was (at least) her third language. Yet she spoke with great illumination when she said, “Father, sometimes I have the not-patience. And when I have the not-patience, then I suffer from disturbings and worry-ness.” Who could not recognize the truth of what she said?

I’ve long suffered from “the not-patience,” with all the ill effects that Sister had described. I’ve come to see that hope is a choice—a choice sustained by patience.

Second-century theologian Tertullian said that, “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” What a powerful and suggestive image! Hope is the choice to persevere in the darkness; it’s a choice that stems from a plan to do what’s required to endure a dark season. Hope brings the oil needed to keep the lamp lit. Hope includes the commitment to relight the lamp in the midst of storms. Hope is a choice to act for goals rather than from feelings. Hope doesn’t stem from what we feel like doing. Hope acts towards where we want to go, even when we know fully that the journey is beyond our strength.

Several years ago, I spoke with a young daughter of dear friends. She was giving serious consideration to a religious vocation, even though she wasn’t yet out of high school. We met weekly for six months. Finally, I told her: “If you do not submit your application to the order, you will not have freedom or peace. I cannot guarantee the outcome of your application. That’s between our Lord and the Sisters. But I know for certain that you will be haunted and inhibited into all of your future if you do not submit your application.”

She did apply. She made an act of profound hope. In response to divine promptings, she made herself available to a possible good future that she couldn’t fully understand, predict or control. Last week, she made her final profession within her community. Deo gratias! That happy outcome could not have happened without hope.

Very recently, I spoke with a young Jesuit who is preparing for his ordination to the diaconate. His formators have rightly reminded him of the challenges, trials, dangers and crosses inherent in faithful and heroic ordained ministry. I found myself compelled to remind him about the joy he has to look forward to: “Ordained ministry is a matchless opportunity for unity and intimacy with Christ, to draw near to him in identity as you are configured to him, loving as he loves, living and dying for the same reasons for which he lives and has died.” 

I went on to say: “Even on my darkest days—and there have been many—I believe that a light, a flame, has been implanted in me that nothing can extinguish.”

That’s true of the grace of Holy Orders. It is true, in an analogous way, to the grace of Baptism. All Christians have received an imperishable light—Christian hope demands that we act accordingly, even when we find ourselves in darkness.

When I write next, I will speak of retrieving devotions that should be better known. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Spiritual LifeVirtue
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