This is the first in a series of Advent reflections.
By Sr. Sarah Doser, F.S.E.
Special to The Catholic Weekly
It’s amazing how the simplest things can make you paranoid. This occasional state of mind is not only exasperating, but irrational. Take those hard, plastic chairs that torture you during conferences and meetings. The kind that get stacked on a small cart the minute you leave. I have a nagging notion that the maker of this form of bodily abuse designed plastic stacking chairs with me in mind.
Recently at a meeting, as I squirmed to find a comfortable position, the speaker began to talk about hope. I was just cynical enough to picture hope as the latest massage chair or the immediate termination of the meeting. Granted the speaker was animated, but hope was beyond me at the moment. I sipped cold, bitter coffee and feigned interest. My mind drifted to my understanding of hope as a child — certainty Santa would bring the exact presents I had carefully described in my letter to him. Then I yearned for car keys and my parents’ willingness to trust me with the family car. The list grew longer as I continued this revelry.
Without warning the plastic chair once again brought me back to the painful reality of its hard unyielding surface. The person next to me was texting — probably some big business deal or maybe his kids. I reached for my iPod when something the speaker said caught my attention. She was quoting from a writing of Pope Benedict the XVI. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not into primary texts but I tend to think Benedetto often hits the nail on the head. Simple sentences attract me, so I wrote this one down: “The one who has hope lives differently.” Moments ago I was thinking of my experience of hope as a kind of campaign where I did what it took to get what I wanted from Santa, my parents, a friend. This one liner seemed to push beyond my self-absorbed definition. Well, that was grist for future consideration. Now my greatest hope was to evacuate the room. As I left I mechanically accepted the speaker’s one page handout — something more for my circular file. Gratefully I escaped, stuffing the paper in my briefcase and heading home.
Several days later I was looking for a contract in my briefcase when I found a crushed single sheet of paper. Great — it was the thing on hope. What I needed was the contract, not some pious stuff on living a different life. After minutes of futile searching, I sat down in my comfy den chair leaned back and closed my eyes. The tagline from the talk on hope came to mind. Since it was the only thing I wrote during the whole presentation it wasn’t hard to remember: “The one who has hope lives differently.”
I shifted in my chair to get more comfortable and resigned myself to the fact I was being spiritually poked to think about living differently. And the grist for this delayed reflection was hope. I felt defensive for some reason. I know hope is going after what you want until you get it. It’s a conquest: the lady in the Gospel who obnoxiously gets her neighbor to give her a loaf of bread in the middle of the night. What more is there to say? As if to answer my question I realized I was holding the one page handout about hope in my hand. God can be sneaky. So with an interior sigh I opened my eyes and read: According to Thomas Aquinas, hope takes as its object “a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.” The explanation given said hope is a way of relating to the future, a way of moving beyond and transcending the limitations, the darkness and the injustice of the present day. Now that was in my league: there are lots of limitations, confusion and unfairness in my world at home and at work. It was the next part I didn’t like. I was being told there is a particular way to do this.
The author, M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame University, had fit all four steps on half a page — short and to the point. Her brevity was itself a challenge because I had to fill in the blanks from my own life. First, she made it clear that hope is not a sunny, cockeyed optimism. It doesn’t pertain to easy or certain outcomes. Hope is tough. Memories of phone calls in the night about my mother dying or my sister being in trouble; the visceral fear on learning three friends were in a car accident; the anguish over a young person addicted to alcohol and drugs — each demanding tough hope.
Second, since hope deals with such difficulties it requires work. My pursuit of the car keys or cramming the night before a final exam or scheming for a raise paled before the kind of engagement needed here. In my experience I recalled that hope enabled me to act in difficult situations. It was the hope of succeeding that got me going and quickened my step.
The next step made me pause. Hope is not solitary. It often means reaching out to others for assistance. Being an “I can do it myself” person, trusting help from others is threatening. But there is still more in the third step: it is moving beyond our own good to hope for the good of another — someone I love. This kind of hoping for another takes me deeper into the mystery of hope that is inherent in the heart of every person. Here the faces of patients vividly came to mind. Persons who asked for a compassion and tenderness I did not know I possessed. It meant forgetting my fears and embracing the suffering of the person before me. Ultimately it was entrusting to God my helplessness that a transcendent hope would nourish these relationships.
Surprised, I noted it was dark in my den. I switched on the lamp next to the chair and held that crushed paper in my hand like a good friend, a pearl of great price. I understood the final step — well, partially. What I truly hope for is not of this world. I know I reach for it, move toward it with a longing that will only be sated in eternity. That is the Advent journey — moving anew toward Christ’s enfleshment in our lives and in the world. In His becoming human we are catapulted into a process of becoming that takes our entire lifetime. Advent seeks to awaken within us this deepest hope so we can live differently. Pope Benedict reminds us that “the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
With paper in hand I savor the invitation to be a person of hope. Do I want that new life? Do I have the courage to live differently? Can I set my eyes on the horizon and “see what is not but yet will be?”
Sr. Sarah Doser is director of LIFE/retreats program at the Franciscan Life Process Center in Lowell.