Given at the SMA Summer School at Dromantine Retreat and Conference Centre, Newry on 1st July 2018
A few weeks ago, I took part in an Iftar, the moment marking the end of the day’s fast during Ramadan. The event took place in one of the largest synagogues in London and was hosted by the Chief Rabbi. The Church of England Bishop of London was there, as were other Muslim leaders and the event was attended by over a hundred young people from these different religions. It was cheerful and marked by a strong, strong desire to see a better society, one more compassionate, more open to the beauty of religious truth, more marked by peace.
At the end of the evening, as I was leaving, a young Jewish scholar came by and said to me, no, he passionately declared to me: ‘We need more anthropology! We need more of St Thomas Aquinas!’ That was a special moment: a Jew, talking to me, a Catholic, at a Muslim event, about Aquinas.
So let us do just that and turn to Aquinas to get us started on this reflection on hope.
Aquinas treats hope in two distinct but related parts. We can do the same. He first presents hope as a natural passion arising from a desire for something that is understood to be good, although it is not yet possessed: difficult, but not impossible, to attain. Hope, then, is a movement of the will. It is a striving towards a future good. It is an appetite which stirs up confidence and grants assurance. Not surprisingly, hope abounds in young people, and in those who have had too much to drink.
So here we have a key starting point: hope is not the fruit of argument alone. We do not become hopeful just by having a particular point of view, or by winning a debate. Rather there has to be an impetus to act. There has to be a vision, something from within our understanding that fires our imagination and drives us to act in an effort to achieve a possible yet a still future good. Hope then is a partnership between our understanding and our will. Hope gets us out of bed in the morning.
Understood in this way, our world is full of signs of hope, countless fragments of hope. They are like the countless fragments of a mosaic, the tesserae, which can go together to make up a fine picture, even if we may not have an overall vision of how we would like things to be.
These fragments are to be found in so many characteristics of daily life: the warmth of a greeting, a word and smile of thanks, the compassion shown to someone in need, the generosity of love, the honest generation of wealth, the countless works of charity. These stories do not fill our newspapers but they do fill our hearts and encourage us along the way. These are the countless ways in which we use our gifts and contribute to a transforming hope.
What is more difficult is to see how each of these tesserae can become a part of an overarching vision, understood yet difficult to achieve. Yes, we want to see the relief of suffering, to see love flowering into faithfulness, the creation of new wealth and the ending of poverty. But the difficulties seem immense.
Somehow our vision and our efforts so often fade in a context marked by world-weariness and cynicism. Our public culture often urges us to view with suspicion reports of goodness. It tutors us to attribute to others the worst of motives, or at least to be cynical. Of course, the misdemeanours of many institutions, including the Catholic Church, reinforce that lesson. Yet, nevertheless, we have to learn afresh to see what is actually before us: the innate goodness of so many people.
There is another cultural problem, too: the embrace of relativism. By its logic, nothing that others do in pursuit of their hopes or ideas makes any demands on me since notions of what is truly good, and truly evil, are privatised. To nurture and benefit from the signs of hope around us, we have to give more attention to how these fragments can be brought together so as to defeat both cynicism and relativism. To set out on this road, I want to explore a little of the generative capacities of hope, how acts of hope can give rise to a wider whole. Then we can return to St Thomas Aquinas.
The first place to look is the family. Only the most obstinate, or those deeply wounded, can fail to see in the family a place in which both vision and action are formed. The experiences of a healthy childhood, with all its joy and trust, with its failures and forgiveness, in which we learn to say: please, thank you, sorry, deeply influences our adult lives and our capacity to create and offer hope to others. All your work in support of the family, then, is a fine example of the use of gifts transforming and transformed by hope. The lessons for society are clear, too: we must care about the family, in an objective and systematic way, tackling factors which impact on the family, such as unemployment, addictions, violence. The first purpose of state intervention should be in support of the stability of the family, and not a response which facilitates its breakup.
Then we can look more widely. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written attractively of the three spheres which make up our social interactions. He speaks of the spheres of economic activity, of political activity and of what he calls ‘covenantal’ activity, where we get together in pursuit of something of benefit to all the participants and in which we participate with generosity and with something wider than self-interest. In these activities, we act primarily for the common good. He points out that whereas economic and political activities certainly depend on a fair degree of trust, they tend not to generate that trust. Rather they consume it. In contrast, social, ‘covenantal’ activities actually generate trust among their participants. We enjoy joining in; we give of our best efforts, freely offered, shared for the sake of a common vision, be that a charity, or an educational endeavour, or a creative leisure pursuit, with all its beneficial offshoots. This is what generates trust and generates hope. These are often the activities that are most rewarding, in which we encourage each other and leave feeling much better.
The third brief excursion into the generation of hope is in the role of imagination and art. I heard of a group coming together in a poor area of Bristol to discuss deep-seated social problems and to resolve as to how they could be tackled. Halfway through a difficult and dispiriting meeting, there was a performance by a local choir with members ranging from 10 to 80 years of age. The effect was dramatic. When the meeting resumed, the mood was totally different. Hope was rekindled. Their imagination had been re-fired and what seemed almost impossible became again the desired goal, demanding fresh effort.
These are some of the ways in which we sense that individual acts of goodness can generate hope on a wider scale. These are some of the generative capacities of hope, the ways in which we can bring isolated fragments into something more coherent, into something more approaching a work of art. In these activities, in the family, in our social cooperation, in the enlightening qualities of the arts, we find our horizons stretched and a new vision of possibilities opening up. Indeed in some of these moments, we move into a perception that has a timeless quality about it. We sense a touch of a truth that is bigger than all of our efforts: the sweep of a family history; the summons of a common good; the transforming effect of beauty which transports us, even if only temporarily, onto a new level.
This leads us back to Aquinas and to the second part of his consideration of hope. He reminds us that hope has as its ultimate object our radical happiness. That happiness comes with our presence before the mystery of God. This is sensed in certain moments in this life but finds its fulfilment when the limitations of earthly living no longer hinder us. The ultimate good towards which hope compels us is the mystery of God and eternity. This also means that we are given, by the same God, all that is required for us to attain that goal. Here is Aquinas’ full description of hope: ‘Wherefore, in so far as we hope for anything as being possible to us by means of Divine assistance, our hope attains to God himself, on whose help it leans’ (Summa Theologiae II-II).
This is what helps us to understand our fundamental human nature and the essential part in it played by hope. This is what makes us truly pilgrims. Over and over again, with every act and gesture of hope, we are recognising that we are ‘not yet’ there. We know there is more. We are still to achieve our true and deepest purpose. In the language of faith, we recognise the deepest structure of our lives as creatures, striving to reach a fulfilment for which we have been created. Either we recognise this fundamental pattern in our existence, or we are journeying towards nothingness and our present is without lasting meaning. God’s grace infuses our natural hope – our stretching forth with restless hearts for the future good, difficult but possible to attain – with the imprint of its true purpose. Our home lies beyond us. Our hearts and our reason reach out to that home and the gift of God makes it truly attainable.
This is the anthropology for which my Jewish friend was calling. It is also the hope at the core of Christian humanism. For me the first insight into this vision came in the papacy of Blessed Paul VI, soon to be canonised. This vision drives Pope Francis to embrace the profoundly disfigured man, to criticise global capitalism not for its successes but for its disdain for people, especially the poor. This vision of Christian humanism makes sense of the gifts we have all received and opens for us all the use of those gifts as transformed by the true virtue of Christian hope.
There is, in the overall theme of your conference, strong reference to a ‘wounded world’ which is very relevant to these few reflections on hope. I have already made reference to the cynicism and world-weariness which pervade aspects of our public culture and, at times, our personal experience. Perhaps they are, to a large degree, the consequence of the wounds inflicted on our world, on so many people and even on our ways of thought and speech.
Here we must start with ourselves and look unflinchingly at the wounds inflicted by the Church. They are many. They include all those characteristics listed by Pope St John Paul II at his act of penitence marking the new Millennium. At the ceremony on 12 March 2000, the Church sought forgiveness for a range of failures, which we all recognise and in which we are often complicit, at least in some: the use of force, pressure and even violence in proclaiming the Truth of the Gospel, an ecclesial version of ‘might is right’; causing or strengthening the division among Christians; lack of respect for other cultures and other religions, including a history of anti-Semitism; offences against the dignity of women; contributing to the marginalisation of the poor and, most contemporarily, abuses against children and the vulnerable. Today we are learning, painfully, the full extent of the damage caused to the victims of such abuse, and by its concealment. Each day we have to learn again how to confess our faults and learn new ways, in a slow and painful process of renewal and repentance, while never losing sight of the innate goodness of people about which I have already spoken.
Society, too, inflicts wounds upon itself. The unrestricted uses of the internet, for example, are causing untold damage, with a reluctance to take effective steps to limit its use and reach.
But there are other wounds being inflicted too which came into sharp focus for me in a recent article by the columnist of the British newspaper The Times, Matthew Parris. He was reflecting on the recent debate in advance of the Referendum Vote on 25 May. He noted, with concern, a growing lack of tolerance and respect, especially, he said, among those who eventually won the vote. He said that his column was about moral triumphalism, shown especially towards those who, in his words, ‘take a conservative view’. This lack of tolerance, he said, is developing into what is called ‘identity’ politics. I quote: ‘People are starting to talk as if one group, the group most directly and personally affected, should have the final say (or some think any voice at all) in the argument; and it would be ‘cultural appropriation’ to take a stand (or even express a view) on any issue on which you could not speak from your own experience.’
I agree with these comments of Matthew Parris. The process he outlines is well known to us and, on many issues, it is leading to such an impoverishment in public dialogue. This is a wound in our society and it inhibits the generative potential of hope because it seeks to banish vision, experiences, commitments and a vision of humanity which have great contributions to make.
The article I have been quoting was also illuminating in its philosophical foundations. Matthew Parris is in favour of abortion. His reasons, he states, are these: he does not believe that human life is sacred; he is not opposed to embryo experimentation; he does not believe that killing is always wrong, either for the born or the unborn. He describes the question of abortion in terms of an adjustment of ‘the licence to live’.
Now we are familiar with the notion of a licence to kill. But to put forward, as a basis for society, the notion that we each receive ‘a licence to live’, which may be withdrawn at the will of the legislator, is to empty the human person of all inner autonomy, of all reference to a source of life which transcends the ebb and flow of human power struggles. The notion that we ‘live by licence’, stripped of all reference to God, extinguishes the foundations of hope and leaves us locked within the horizons of fate. Within such horizons, our ability to trust another person is also threatened, for they may quickly become no more than a competitor or, indeed, a threat.
Hope becomes fully transforming, then, only when it is seen in the context of a transcendental anthropology, part of a real and achievable vision of the human person in which we can live in trusting faith. The natural virtue of hope, such as we have been considering, cannot exist without bonds of faith in one another. That faith is the prerequisite for a shared striving for a difficult but attainable good. The full version of the theological virtue of hope cannot exist without the bonds of the fullness of faith, without a victory over death, the full vision of Christian humanism. And at both levels, love is the third partner, the love which inspires so much astonishing self-sacrifice on a daily basis in families and in countless organisations and movements, and which finds its full expression and outpouring in the sacrificial love of Jesus.
But hope also stands in need of another partner if it is to break beyond the woundedness of our world and of our Church. The virtue of hope has to be strongly coupled with mercy and mercy understood as the form which love takes when it comes face to face with failure and sin. Only when mercy is at work can hope survive. Without it, there is only power and with power, there is little hope for those who do not possess it. Mercy is the key which unlocks hope in the face of woundedness.
Pope Francis has made a great priority of mercy, from the very first moment of his pontificate to the astonishing initiative of the Year of Mercy. On that first Sunday after his election, on 17 March 2013, he spoke about the mercy of God and how it endures beyond all our waywardness, and how our loving Father never tires of pouring out his mercy, even when we become weary of asking for it. He urged us to constantly show mercy towards one another, explaining that we can do so only when we ourselves have been ‘caressed by the loving mercy of God’. I think we all know of the response that poured forth to the Year of Mercy, many people saying that it had helped them find hope again in their lives. Mercy and hope are inseparable and, if today we are seeking greater understanding as to the use of our gift for transforming hope, then mercy must be always on our lips and in our hearts.
People are immensely gifted. We can use our gift to construct so many tiny mosaics of the great picture of hope. Among the greatest of the gifts we have received is, of course, the gift of faith. Faith, hope and love, the hinges on which life turns. Let these hinges never grow rusty so that the door of our hearts, the doors of our churches, become stiff and unyielding. The oil, I suggest, is mercy. Then these doors, these ancient doors will, in the words of the Psalm, grow higher so as to let the King of Glory enter!
But enough from me, otherwise it will a different door that you will be showing me!
Thank you for your attention.