Hope against hope

Hope is central to the church. In First Corinthians, Paul upholds three spiritual virtues – faith, hope and love; and although he notes that love is the greatest of these, hope is still central.

Hope is so central to our work that I strive to end every reflection on a hopeful note; and I pray that all the activities at Mill Woods United — whether Sunday morning gatherings, study group sessions, The Bread Run on Saturday morning, even committee meetings – send us out the door feeling hope and joy.

Now, do we always succeed? Hardly. Take Sunday mornings. During the almost five years I have been the minister at Mill Woods United, I have been criticized several times for preaching doom and gloom instead of hope and optimism.

I appreciate this feedback; and I believe it is related to my non-standard perspective on hope. The usual meaning of hope is an expectation that something wished for will happen or that something feared can be avoided. And of course, this is often how I use the word “hope.”

But as with faith, which was my focus last week, and love, which will be my focus next week, there is another way to view hope. From a more spiritual perspective, hope allows us to accept what is real even though reality contains not just the things we cherish, but also many things we dislike.

Last week, I looked at the challenge to faith that comes from living with intractable social and economic problems like climate change.

The usual meaning of faith is holding beliefs in the supernatural despite the findings of science. But instead of using faith as a synonym for religious belief, I often use it as a synonym for trust – trusting in the cosmos despite its awesome mystery; trusting in our bodies despite their fragility and mortality; and trusting in love despite our essential aloneness.

In a similar vein, next week I will look at love from two angles. Sometimes love becomes unhealthy attachment. But as we grow up, love helps us to rise above our egos, including our fears, desires, and attachments. Such selfless love connects us to the source of life and Love we call God.

I am drawn to these non-standard perspectives on faith, hope and love because — like T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” – at several moments of crisis in my life, I have found that trust, acceptance, and love flow from disillusionment more than they do from the fulfillment of desires.

It was Karen Armstrong’s memoir, “The Spiral Staircase” that introduced me to Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” when I first read her book about a decade ago; and as I noted last week, I re-read her memoir this summer.

In it, Armstrong details how in 1973 she felt the first flicker of recovery from physical and spiritual illness while listening to a public recital of Eliot’s poem. She was suffering from un-diagnosed epilepsy as well as from spiritual damage she had suffered in her training as a nun in a convent in London England from 1962 to 1969.

Armstrong writes:

“As I listened to Eliot’s poem being read, for the first time in years, I felt profoundly and spontaneously moved by a poem. I no longer had to wait for someone to interpret it, and my appreciation was no longer wholly cerebral. It was an emotional and intuitive response that involved my entire self. I thought I had lost this capacity forever, but here it was again . . . The poem, with its quiet, haunting accuracy, perfectly expressed my own state, and endorsed it, showing that I had not weakly abdicated from the struggle for life and health, but had somehow stumbled upon a truth about the human condition and the way men and women work (p. 139-140).

I had resolved to stop fighting my sickness and to accept what my life had become, and — “consequently” — for the first time in years I had responded spontaneously and with my whole being to a poem, just as I had before being damaged. It was a sign of life, a shoot that had suddenly broken through the frozen earth. This must be the way that human life worked. He who loves his life shall lose it; he who loses his life shall save it. This was not an arbitrary command of God, but simply a law of the human condition.” (p. 142)

“Ash Wednesday” is T.S. Eliot’s “conversion” poem, one that he wrote after he converted to Christianity and joined the Church of England. It alludes to the confrontation between the disillusionment of modern life and our hopes in childhood to live in paradise. Eliot’s poem points to an ability to rejoice despite a seeming lack of hope. “Because I do not hope,” the poem repeats over and over again. Somehow, in hearing his words, Armstrong begins to recover.

For me, the Royal Road to Love is found in accepting what is — both ourselves and our social circumstances. Both kinds of acceptance can be painful because of personal brokenness and of how this wondrous society seems so irredeemably violent and out of control.

But with Grace, we may be able to stop hoping to be someone else or to be somewhere else. Then after tears of grief, we might finally respect and love ourselves and so also be able to love our neighbours.

We are who we are; we exist in this wonderful and awful moment in time and place; and with Grace we can love ourselves and this world of wounds and blessings just as they are. We can love this precious and fleeting moment and so enter the Realm of God, right here, right now.

I close by reciting T.S. Eliot’s 1930 poem, “Ash Wednesday 1”

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

As Eliot suggests, sometimes in the silence of disillusionment we can hear the voice of Sacred Reality. It says: “Wake up, wake up. All is forgiven, all is healed. In this moment as in any moment, we are saved.”

May it be so. Amen.

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