Karl Rahner once defined hope this way: A woman sees the tiny rivulet of her life and fears that it might not mean anything, that it might die out completely. Yet she somehow still believes it will flow significantly into the great ocean, despite the immeasurably huge, dry sand-dunes it must cross to get to an ocean it cannot even see.
What an apt image for hope. John Henry Newman affirmed that a person can be a “theoretical believer” even as he or she is a “practical atheist”, namely, someone who lives life in fact as if there wasn’t a God.
What Newman says about faith is true too for hope. We can espouse hope theoretically, confessing that because of what Christ did and revealed we can live in the assurance that we are significant, individually loved, put on this earth for a high purpose, and destined for eternal glory. That’s a theoretical expression of hope.
But hope is also practical. As such it is congenital, in the gut, a trust, not deflected by anything, that our lives are not mere accident, that we are more than brute chips fallen off the conveyor-belt of chance, that we have individual significance and destiny, that every small act of conscience and fidelity has meaning within the eternal schema of things, and that the tiny rivulet of our lives is flowing into the great ocean of meaning and eternity where, far from being absorbed or obliterated, we will enjoy perfect, self-conscious mutuality in love in an ecstatic, communal, yet individual, eternal fulfilment. This is hope, as we feel it practically.
If we could grasp and appropriate this, even inchoately, it would help us accept (in Rahner’s apt words) “that in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we eventually learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” Hope is about making peace with the unfinished symphony that constitutes our lives.
We are fired into life over-charged with energy and desire, suffering from a perpetual disquiet. Life is never enough for us because what we want really is everything: to be everywhere, to know everything, to be known by everybody, to embrace and sleep with the universe itself and everyone and everything in it. Such is our desire, though never our situation. Always we find ourselves somehow fenced-in, on the outside, suffocating in some way, limited in our choices, not quite where we want to be. In our daydreams we attain the adequate object of our desires, but in our actual lives we find ourselves grounded, in one place, married to just one person, and not able to find a place where we can adequately express ourselves. Searching for our name among the stars, we find instead that we are unknown, not heard, a light-year’s distance from that of which we secretly dream.
And there comes a moment, whether we are conscious of it or not, when we say to ourselves: “I have all these dreams, all this energy, all this desire, this one and only life – and it finally comes down to this: this imperfect body, this individual person I’m married to, this particular family I’m part of, this small town, this less-than-fulfilling job, this house, this neighbourhood, these friends, this little place in history. That’s it. That’s my life. I’m to have nothing more.”
There’s an aphorism that speaks of seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Well, there comes a point in life – and what a critical, defining point it is – when what stares at us from the other end of the tunnel is crushing limit. Coming to peace with God, ourselves, our loved ones, the world, and our mortality has a lot to do with how we appropriate this moment in our lives.
One of the tasks of hope is to help us in this precise task. But hope takes root in different ways: Christian hope, as we profess it in our churches, takes its root in our creeds, in what Christ revealed and did for us. Practically, though, hope takes much of its root in the congenital impulses of the private soul. Ultimately why do we keep on – with our chins up? Because even as our insignificance and the brute facticity of our mortality try to stare us down, something deeper, underneath keeps directing our lives. What? A deeper part of us has retained the dark memory of having once been given a loving promise by a power more real and more trustworthy than anything in this world. The soul remembers that it was once caressed and kissed, individually, by God. Nothing erases that. Thus the soul knows that it means something, that it is known, that its private joys and heartaches are not insignificant, and that it is destined for an embrace, a glory, and a significance beyond the most grandiose of daydreams. Yes, the tiny rivulet of our lives will flow into that great ocean that we cannot yet see, but, deep down, we dimly sense that we came from there.