Posted August 14, 2016
Today’s second Reading, from ch. 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, brings together the ideas of believing and hoping: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ I don’t know about you, but I find hope a far warmer, inspirational thing than faith. We Catholics, especially, have tended to associate faith with creeds and doctrines. So we have come to see faith above all as an act of the intellect. Hope, by contrast, engages not just your intellect, but your emotions, your heart, your whole person; it is what makes you tick, keeps you going, gives meaning to your life.
In a sense I also find it more meaningful to hope than to believe. Do I believe in heaven? Yes: but don’t get me arguing about it, because even if I win the argument, I am not sure where that will leave me. Do I hope in heaven? – Yes, my heart is drawn to it instinctively: I don’t need to argue about it, any more than ‘the deer that pants for streams of water’ stops to reason about them. As the angel says to Gerontius in Newman’s poem: ‘It is thy very energy of thought which keeps thee from thy God.’
Faith, it seems, is the conclusion of an argument, whereas hope is the unstoppable expansion of the human spirit, as spontaneous as the unfolding of petals or the growth of a sapling; it is the expression of their essential being: the key to it all. When the Second Vatican Council sought to explain what the Church has in common with humanity at large, the first words it hit upon were: ‘Gaudium et spes’ – ‘joy and hope‘.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is not the only New Testament writer to mention faith and hope in the same breath. St Paul does too, in that classic fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, where he speaks about faith. Straightaway he presents Abraham as the model of faith: ‘Abraham believed God.’ But when he wants to explain what Abraham’s faith consisted in, he says: Abraham ‘hoped’ – ‘hoped beyond hope.’ It was hope for the future that energized his life, motivated all his actions.
Not that hope is based on verses of the Bible any more than it is the conclusion of a philosophical argument. It is based on our experience of God’s love for us, perhaps as we sense his sustaining presence in our daily lives, or perhaps when we re-live some moment in the past when we were deeply, deeply touched by the experience of his grace, and first tasted that the Lord was good. ‘Hope’, St Paul says, ‘does not disappoint, for God’s love has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.’
Increasingly, in a secular world, faith is seen as the eccentricity of a minority. Tony Blair said that he was reluctant to speak of faith in case people thought him nutty. And many Christians nowadays, especially the young, feel uneasy about their faith, or have doubts about it, or even abandon it, because it seems to put them out of step with the rest of humanity. I say: If you find it difficult to believe, then try hoping instead – and you will find faith as well. Hope is faith turned to the future and set ablaze with love. There is nothing nutty or alien about hope. Hope wells up from the deepest springs of your humanity: it is how you were made. You were made with a capacity for limitless joy and with an irresistible yearning for it. God has made us for himself and we shall never find peace until we come to rest in God. Made us for himself.
As for me: I expect at the moment of death, if I’m still thinking, I shall tell myself that this hope of mine has made sense of my life, amidst all the pain and darkness; and I take the small risk of hoping that, a split second after my death, I shall not be disappointed, and hope will give way to fulfilment. Will the petals and the saplings come to their fulfilment, and this human heart of ours, after experiencing all the pain and loveliness of life, be left unfulfilled, and all of life prove meaningless? Who could believe that?
Fr Tom Deidun