CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #25
HOPE IS NOT OPTIMISM
Optimism can be a useful thing. It may assist us, for example, to approach otherwise difficult situations in a positive manner and that, in turn, can often mean the difference between success or failure, winning or losing. For instance, a sick person who is able to maintain a positive disposition is probably more likely to get well or, at least, deal with the illness better than someone who becomes overwhelmingly negative about their illness. Our culture, not surprisingly, makes a lot of optimism – so much, in fact, that it is often confused with hope. Optimism is not hope – hope is something much more.
Optimism has nothing to do with reality as such. It is an attitude that may or may not be founded on what is real; it may in fact be generated by telling yourself lies. Or it may be a sign of naiveté or ignorance or even stupidity. Optimism may have more to do with a naturally sunny disposition than with any realistic perception of what is actually going on. Optimism – and its opposite, pessimism – cannot carry the weight of human experience when we get down to what really matters, when reality starts to assert itself and we must respond. Ultimately, the only categories that will work in the face of reality are hope and despair.
Hope, on the other hand, has everything to do with what is real. More precisely, hope is born of our connection with the Real. It is an expression of transcendence, for it sees the immediate in the context of the ultimate. Hope is the confidence that we are participators in an unfolding mystery whose ultimate intent is creative not destructive, good not evil. Hope recognises the "more than" and the "beyond" in every person, event or thing. It is, therefore, able to stand amidst failure and disappointment and even the blatant triumph of evil in this or that situation and remain hopeful. Hope says this world and this life we share are dim echoes of the Great Mystery beyond the mystery. Human existence finds its consummation in communion, the union of all in the All.
Last night I dreamt that Pius XII was suddenly and inexplicably possessed by the spirit of John Paul II; just as the latter was later to publicly and deliberately oppose the Communists, so Pius was going to publicly and deliberately oppose the Nazis. He was standing on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square. It was 1939 – I am not sure whether the war had been declared or not; it does not matter. Pius announced to the thousands of people gathered below that he had just completed an Apostolic Letter to the bishops of Germany. In that letter he spoke very strongly against Nazism; he forbad any of the German bishops or priests or brothers or nuns or any Catholics, in any way, to support the Nazis; those who did support the Nazis would be excommunicated; he directed the Catholics in Germany to do all in their power to thwart Hitler.
You could have heard a pin drop in that square. Then, as if a signal had been given, the huge crowd fell to their knees and Pius blessed them. I have never seen a blessing like that – so solemn, so full of things to come.
Hitler, in his fury, outlawed Catholicism. He ordered the immediate arrest of bishops, priests, brothers and nuns and prominent Catholics throughout Germany. Like the Christians of old, these Catholics were given an option: Choose the State and live or choose the faith and die. Most took the horrible choice – they chose to die rather than live under Nazism. Trains drawing endless numbers of cattle cars behind them, carrying Catholic bishops, priests, brothers and nuns and prominent lay people, daily went off to places of extermination. In a few weeks the persecution began to round up all Catholics; Catholics were required to wear a yellow cross stitched to their jackets and shirts. Millions were savagely exterminated.
As if that were not enough. Hitler ordered Goering to have the Luftwaffe bomb St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. In a matter of days these grand old buildings were reduced to dust, nothing but dust.
And, all of a sudden, as happens only in dreams, there I was. I knelt in the dust, somewhere near where those thousands had knelt to receive the Pope’s blessing in 1939, and I wept; I picked up a handful of the dust and it streamed through my fingers. I wept for the vandalism and the destruction of priceless works of art, magnificent and matchless expressions of the human spirit, destroyed out of sheer nastiness. Never again would there be another ceiling to the Sistine Chapel or another Pieta; gone were the priceless treasures of the Vatican Museum and the sheer majesty of St Peter’s.
Through my tears I looked across to an ancient, small building on the edge of the dust. There was no one else there, except a fragile old man in a white soutane, walking stick, bent double, as if he were intent on finding something he’d dropped. He slowly straightened up, to a half bend – it was Pope John Paul. He looked across at me; slowly his face broke into a smile.
This "dream" has a life of its own. Once released onto the page, it is open to all sorts of interpretations and meanings. As author, I do not "own" it, nor can I tell you exactly what it means. It was given to me and I pass it on.
Initially, at least, it prompts me to think a couple of things about hope. The strongest and most real hope springs from despair, or the nearness of despair; it grows out of the dust of our broken dreams, when we have become desperate to do something "real" rather than something "right". The categories of optimism and pessimism cannot carry the weight of our struggles – the proper categories are hope and despair.
The dust of that place of destruction reminded me – together with the Pope’s smile – to wonder what matters in the end. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to heaven must surely be strewn with useless baggage. And the emptiness of that place put me in mind of the emptiness of the empty tomb. Maybe our greatest hope is found in our emptiness and the Church’s emptiness? Maybe the Spirit of God is working mightily through purgation, stripping, deconstruction and disintegration? Perhaps the gift of hope is more readily available to our generation than any other generation for a long time? What do you think?
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
How would you describe optimism? Give an example from your own life.
How would you describe hope? Recall your own experience of hope.
What difference does Jesus make to your daily life?
What was your first reaction to the story above? Reflect on that.
Reflect on some image from the story that caught your attention.
How might the Spirit work through purgation, stripping and deconstruction in your life?
How might martyrdom generate hope?
Do you think there might be some connection between affluence and despair?
In your experience, do you think Christians are more likely to be hopeful than others? Reflect.
What do you think it means to say "the road to heaven is paved with useless baggage"?
Catalyst Suggestion Sheets are written by Michael Whelan SM and published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated in conjunction with the Catalyst journal, The Mix. For further information please contact: Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville, NSW 1675, Australia. Tel/Fax: +61 2 9998 7003.