As destruction, injury, homelessness, austerity, poverty and loss appear to prevail in so many parts of the world, where is hope? How was it that in the trenches of Verdun, as a thousand shells rained down upon him, the Jesuit priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin was full of enthusiasm for the geological grandeur and beauty of God? How was it that on the mortuary streets of Calcutta Mother Teresa exulted in divine joy as she carried living skeletons in her arms? How could the Jewish author Etty Hillesum proclaim her uneasy hope as she climbed aboard a train to Auschwitz, and refer to how “a luminous current of invisible Goodness irrigates the world no matter how virulent evil may be?”
Throughout history poets, seers and mystics of a wide variety of nationalities and belief systems have pointed to a connection between adversity and suffering, and growth and joy. Perhaps the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, popularly acclaimed as the “Father of mindfulness”, put it most succinctly:
“Happiness and suffering inter-are.
Good and evil inter-are.
The lotus needs the mud in order to grow.”
It is a question of vision. Unless we have vision, the people perish, the book of Proverbs tells us (29:18). Jesus spoke repeatedly of vision in his public ministry. What do you want, he asked of the blind man, Bartimaeus? “Rabbi, I want to see.” Open your eyes then, Jesus says, and behold the light. (Mark 10:46-52)
We are called by the teachings of Jesus no longer to wander in darkness devoid of hope but to a new vision that allows us to see God and the divine plan for his creation more clearly. We are called to look with the eyes of the heart, not the heart as the seat of the emotions but the heart as referred to by St Paul when he writes to the Ephesians, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” (1:18)
To our usual way of seeing, hope is tied to outcome. It is a feeling that arises when we experience ourselves moving towards the object of our desire. For biblical examples we have but to look to the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus’s healings. There is, however, another kind of hope represented by Habakkuk who says, “I will be joyful in God my Saviour” (3:18) even when the outcome appears to be no crops, no flocks and no food; or by Job who proclaims when his wives, health, children and goods are taken from him, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.” (19:25)
Our usual sense of hope is tied to egoic thinking that experiences our personal identity as separate, defined by what holds us apart from the whole and craves satisfaction, praise and security. Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation, however, is – if we are open to it – the spiritual awareness that we are bound in an unfailing link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. It does not come and go. It is unconditional and underlies everything.
“I believe that there is an ideal hovering over the earth, an ideal of that Paradise which is not the mere outcome of imagination, but the ultimate reality towards which all things are moving,” claimed the great Hindu poet, Rabindranath Tagore. The eyes of the contemplative see Paradise in the green of the earth, in sunlight, flowing streams, in the repose of a snowy winter morning or the fertile beauty of springtime. They also recognise that any moment, no matter how ostensibly dreadful, can be sacramental.
This is not to deny the ineffable horror of war or poverty or suffering. The pain is there, the sadness, the grief, the hurt, but somehow we know that it is not the end. There is something – the great Beyond that calls us from within and transforms the whole reality of the world.
Nor does such a vision absolve us from active compassion and concern as Mother Teresa defined it – namely, the “practical expression of God’s love”. Everything we do in life goes into the treasury of the heart. The ideas with which we fill our heart determine the way in which we live our life. They transform our within, they shape our vision and are simultaneously the things on which we draw in those moments when we need to reach deep down inside ourselves for character, courage, endurance and HOPE.