One of the most prominent paradoxes of the last year has been that the silence of the streets has been accompanied by a chaotic cacophony in what we might loosely term ‘the culture’. Everyone seems to have an opinion on everything. Opinions might not be well-judged. Sentiments might be ill-concluded or speculation unwise. Regardless, all will find a way to be expressed to anyone and everyone who will listen. A cursory look at online platforms over the last year, for example, reveals a morass of desperation and unhappiness in societies the world over. This is not a self-propagating phenomenon. It does have an origin. Whatever its legacy, COVID-19 has laid bare humanity’s lack of hope.
No-one can claim a monopoly on pandemic loss or lockdown fatigue. Nevertheless, suffice to say that the prospect of a second Easter locked outside of the church was a bleak one. A great many feel the absence of the Church’s ‘ordinary’ life existentially. The seeming ‘invisibility’ of hope, while very present outside the Church, can also cloud the spiritual senses of those in the Church. Nevertheless, this year more than most, people all over the world seem to just ‘wish’ things to be better than they are. This was very much on this writer’s mind on the 17th of February of this year – that is Ash Wednesday.
In 1966 the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper gave a series of five lectures in Salzburg, Austria. The subject of his lectures is that of hope. Originally entitled Hoffnung und Geschichte – that is Hope and History – Pieper sought to explore what hope might be…and also what hope could not be. The translated version of this series landed in my collection just in time for Lent. Hope still seemed distant, but at least I had the obligation to read and find out.
Pieper begins his series with an astute observation: ‘The concept of hope…must necessarily become a controversial one.’ Hope is something which most of us have some sort of investment in. We find the word everywhere. It is used by sports fans the world over – even on opposing sides - as a sort of cautionary prefix as to which way their weekend mood will swing. The word was used to great effect by Barack Obama’s 2008 successful campaign for the US Presidency. Of course, the word has since and continues to be used by others of very different political persuasions. The word ‘hope’ is shared by many, though not in the same way. Ultimately, few of us agree on what ‘hope’ is, apart from what we wish it to be. True hope then, at its heart, is controversial. True hope must be unique.
Of course, today we speak of hopelessness as much as hope. Be it due to church closures or the seemingly ever extending lifetimes of lockdowns, hopelessness is something which seems ever-present. Indeed, many succumb to it. Pieper recognises this: ‘Nobody must hope. One can also refuse to do so; one can lose fundamental hope and reject it.’ However, he continues: ‘Nevertheless, it (hope) cannot, strictly considered, be disappointed; rather it is exactly as unshakable, for its part, as existence itself.’ Hope, while we may struggle to define it, is something as pivotal to human existence as a heart, mind or soul. That much is as true today as it ever was.
Might the difficulty be not that we live in a hopeless age, but that we do not know where to find the remedy to the apparent mist of hopelessness? Ever do we strive to ‘create a better world’ by electing the right politicians or embracing the right causes. Ever are we disappointed as the latest banner we have committed ourselves to personally, emotionally and existentially fails to clear our clouds of despair. Again, the time of COVID has given rise to countless movements in and outside the Church which seek a new tomorrow not in God’s time but in our own. Might hope, then, look different to what we imagine it to look like? Might hope not merely coincide with our own cries for reparation, but come from elsewhere? Pieper, again, offers a proposal: ’The one who hopes, and he alone, anticipates nothing; he holds himself open for an as yet unrealised, future fulfilment while at the same time remaining aware that he knows as little about its scope as about its time of arrival.’ Hope, then, is not something which we simply create according to our perceptions about the world and the Church.
And yet, we intuit this. We may not recognise the insufficiency of our own projected wishes in their infancy, but may come to see their listlessness in their longevity. We come to know, however painfully, that hope is not something which we craft, but which we receive. Pieper again: ‘It is obviously characteristic of men by nature, as those who truly hope, to be directed toward fulfilment of just the kind that they cannot bring about themselves.’ Perhaps there is a lesson here. We all commit to ideas, trends and ideologies and most often we do so with good intention and these ‘hopes’, as the present situation demonstrates time after time do not fulfil. True hope, then, is not born of us but comes from elsewhere. True hope, is born of Christ.
Hope, understood properly, is that which comes from a gaze not on the horizon, but on the eternal. It seems that this last year, including this Lent outside the church, has thrown human society into the throngs of despair. And yet, as all good writers of fiction understand, light is found even in the depths of darkness. So it is for us, and so it is gifted to us in the Church most of all. As we exit Lent, perhaps let us all recall what we have in faith and how it applies to a world so bereft of it. Josef Pieper has one more remark to add: ‘The “distinctiveness of Christianity” (and therefore of Christian hope) remains a perpetual task.’ Indeed it does, but that task is not on hold – no matter how chaotic the culture seems to be. Even in the midst of hopelessness, hope reigns supreme. And so goes Lent with Josef Pieper.
Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Ruairidh MacLennan is a journalist based in Glasgow.