Friday, 15 March 2013

Pope Francis and the Poetry of Hope


A seagull sits on the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel while another flies overhead in St. Peter's Square during the second day of the conclave to elect a new pope at the Vatican on Wednesday.To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another - that is surely the basic instinct. Baser even than hate, the thing with teeth, which can be stilled with a tone of voice or stunned by beauty. If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope. The thing with feathers.

Hope and optimism are not at all the same thing. Indeed, optimism is perhaps the most cunning and deceptive counterfeit of hope. 

Optimism mortgages the present in the name of an always-deferred future. It ignores the ground beneath our feet, the wind in our faces and the starry sky above, because it is always scanning the horizon looking for signs of a brighter tomorrow. Optimism is the fuel that feeds the insatiable appetites of consumerism, for it is the voice that clamours inside us and tells us that things ought to be better than they are, we can make them better than they are, we deserve for them to be better than they are. An optimist can never truly delight in what is, for he or she is always distracted by the nagging question, 'Is this all there is?' Is this, in the title of a great film, 'as good as it gets'? 

Hope is the sustaining breath of life in the here and now. Without hope, maybe we wouldn't be at all. Maybe we would lack the will which connects one breath to the next, one moment to the next, one event to the next, knitting together our bodies and souls to make us creatures of poetry and imagination and music and meaning and yearning. 'Unless' is a word associated with optimism. 'Nevertheless' is a word associated with hope. Optimism grits its teeth, endures what is, and awaits what might be. Hope plunges into what is and turns its naked soul to the drenching of joy or the drowning of sorrow, knowing that only one who is fully alive can experience either.

These are my reflections during this week when, for the first time in many years, being a Catholic creates a sense of freshness and delight about the Church and its possibilities and promises. In the last few years, and particularly in the last couple of weeks, I've reflected a great deal on the difference between hope and optimism. As we awaited the announcement of the new Pope, I was not optimistic. Who would it be? I read the biographies of the papabili with a heavy heart. I feared that things could get worse, not better. 

But hope is not about waiting for things to get better. Hope is having the commitment and the determination to struggle on in that space where one feels called to truth,  that space of language and meaning and gesture which evokes some response in the depths of one's soul, however much debris gets in the way, however many distractions and disappointments clutter the pathways of hope. I have no doubt that God calls the human heart along many avenues of truth discerned in faithfully following different religions and philosophies, but I also believe that we have a certain responsibility to truth - to seek it, and to recognize that it is not an objective fact about the world but a way of being within the world. For me, that way of being is inseparable from the overgrown and tortuous path that began to unfold - moment by moment and in the smallest and most hesitant of steps - when I was received into the Catholic Church.

I believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. In my own life, I have struggled more than I can say to remain Catholic, and I have many, many questions and doubts. Nevertheless, I experience the Catholic Church as the sacramental community wherein I glimpse - obscurely, elusively and fleetingly - the incarnate divine life continuously materializing in the mystery of creation, in the fragility, beauty and endurance of human love, in the fidelity and tenderness of friendship, and in the sorrow and failure and loss that cast their shadows within us. There is a quotation by Nicholas Sparks, in his book The Last Song: “Love is fragile. And we're not always its best caretakers. We just muddle through and do the best we can. And hope this fragile thing survives against all odds.”(Nicholas Sparks, The Last Song) That sums up for me what the last few years have been like as a Catholic. 

Cynicism is the enemy of hope, but I have often been tempted by cynicism. Optimists go in search of something better and that too has been a real temptation. But when I think of doing that I remember what Groucho Marx said: 'I don't care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.' If I move elsewhere, I take with me my own baggage, my own unresolved issues, my own failings and meanness of spirit. If I magnify those faults a million times, I realize that I'll be in another church full of people like me, and therefore it will be a church or some other community that can't begin to be what I think it ought to be. 

This restlessness and dissatisfaction are not to be compared to the motives of those who leave because they can no longer bear the cruelty and suffering that has been inflicted upon them as Catholics - victims of abuse and neglect, victims of indifference, but also victims of harsh moral judgement and condemnation by those who refuse to accept the fragility, complexity and struggle of human sexuality as it seeks meaning within the body of Christ. Those people leave a tangible absence. Their leaving casts shadows which must not be covered over or denied. These are not meaningless absences, such as might be associated with people who were never present and are not missed. They are the dark and meaningful spaces which must remain empty because unique and irreplaceable human beings once occupied them, and they continue to inhabit those spaces as people who die contine to inhabit the lives of those who love them. No matter how many people join the Church, no matter how rapidly the Church is growing in certain parts of the world, a multitude of converts will never be enough to fill the infinite space left by even one individual who sought the love of Christ and encountered only abuse and condemnation. When God looks at the Catholic Church today, I sometimes wonder if the divine gaze rests upon those shadows of absence and names them one by one, for each one marks a crucifixion and an abandonment.

All this has to be held in trust. All this is the meaning of hope. I am not optimistic for Pope Francis, but I am delighted nonetheless. Hope doesn't have to be vindicated to be realized, for hope is realized in the very act of living. Hope can't be disappointed, but optimism can only be disappointed. Perhaps if it had been some other Pope, the delight would have been less but the hope would have had to become more intense, more closely focused and attentive in order to discern the shimmer of redemption working among us. We should beware an easy optimism which will only lead to disappointment. 

Yet there are moments when hope and delight coincide, when a watery sun rises through the mist to greet the coming day, and one realizes how cold it has been, how severe the winter was, how harsh the wind felt on the naked skin of hope. Every moment of every day is in itself a manifestation of hope, but how wonderful it is when hope glows warmly and shimmers with surprise and delight, as it does this week.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis (Cardinal Bergoglio) visits an AIDS hospice in 2001