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How do we cope when it is hard to hope?

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Every year we spend most of the season of Advent uttering this prayer: “May [we] inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.” Why is hope a dare?

Hope can be understood as a kind of reaching out for something in the future perceived as good, and for the anticipated fulfilment that comes once it is possessed.

What goads hope is a sort of “real absence”. In his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”) Benedict XVI stresses how it is endemic to the human condition to feel driven to what we would really like – to true life. Yet, even though we do not know what that thing is toward which we feel driven, we cannot stop reaching out for it. What is more, this Ultimate Something cannot be reduced to anything we can personally accomplish. “This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us,” he writes.

Our indefatigable yearning pushes us into the realm of the infinite. The human being has need of a hope that goes further than all worldly hopes, insists Pope Benedict. “It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain.” Because, as the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky observed, if things were only what we see, then we would be in despair. If a person were to be deprived of the infinitely great, they would refuse to go on living, and die of despair.

The virtue of hope, then, can be defined as a reaching out for ultimate goodness, namely God.

That is why no degree of struggle or affliction can tear from the human heart the hope for fullness. “In hope, man reaches ‘with restless heart’, with confidence and patient expectation toward the arduous ‘not yet’ of fulfilment,” wrote the philosopher Josef Pieper. The very nature of the human heart is hard-wired for hope. In this respect, hope is the most perfect form of realism.

And even though hope looks toward the future, what ignites hope is a proper regard for the present. Hope is the reasonable expectation we have of God and his goodness that, as Spe Salvi says, arises “from the perspective of a present that is already given”. In other words, hope erupts from the lived awareness that there is Someone who loves us with an indestructible love, having pity on our nothingness. Whatever befalls us,  says Spe Salvi, “we are awaited by this love”. St Thomas Aquinas sums it up pithily: “We have hope because we belong to God.”

The author Studs Terkel tells a story about a lawyer – a formidable person. One of her clients was a prostitute. During her court appearance, the young defendant’s hands were trembling with fear as the judge called her any number of names. With that, the lawyer put her arm around the young woman, who instantly straightened up. Terkel writes: “That’s where hope comes from, just standing up.”

No wonder that Aquinas is adamant that sins against hope are more dangerous than sins against faith or charity: “For when hope dies we lose heart and flounder in wickedness.” In one of his homilies Pope St John Paul II quoted Blessed Michał Kozal, a Polish bishop martyred in Dachau: “What is more terrifying than military defeat is the fall of the spirit in the people. The one who doubts becomes a friend of the enemy, one way or another.” Those lines drew loud applause from his congregation.

Aquinas tells us that hope and despair have something in common: “Neither hope nor despair is directed towards anything that does not move our desire.” Even despair acknowledges what the preacher Henri Lacordaire called “the incomparable capacity of our being”. As the poet Gertrude von Le Fort confesses: “I have gone down to the waters of despair / but they are not deeper than my own heart.”

How do we cope when it is hard to hope? The key is to remember that hope is not directed toward a change in our circumstances but toward the possibility that we can be changed within those circumstances. That is because hope is the fulfilment of what we are made for.

A good question to ask in prayer is not “Why is this happening to me, Lord?” but rather “Where are you in this, because I am certain that you are near?” St Anselm models this for us: “Take from me, Lord, whatever is not from you, for I hate whatever is from me; and still I hope in you.”

Fr Peter John Cameron, OP, is the director of formation for Hard as Nails Ministries (hanm.org)