A SEMINARIAN I know recently sent me a message that ended with the words – “Don’t lose optimism!”
Being a Dominican, the innate “sed contra” that dwells within me could not help but respond – “Optimism is the belief that things will keep getting better and better; it is not the same thing as the infused Christian virtue of hope”.
“An optimist is someone who lacks information.”
“A man of hope has encountered Christ.”
After many furious WhatsApp messages back and forth, we eventually concluded we probably mean the same thing.
I had pointed out that optimism is the illusion that the human journey is simply progress in one enduringly improving direction.
Hope, on the other hand, is the strength to endure and not give up in situations where everything is becoming more and more arduous.
Hope, in the words of the philosopher Peter Geach, is the “virtue that preserves us alike from a fatuous presumption that blinds us to the difficulties and dangers of the path, and from despair that would make us give up, lie down, and miserably perish”.
The seminarian – who seems to possess a not insignificant degree of the disputative Dominican spirit within him – responded with a rather good point.
“Everything is getting better and better, insofar as everything is the will of God and a means of sanctification.”
Despite the amicable conclusion to this friendly-fire war of words, this distinction between optimism and hope is worth bearing in mind as we approach Christmas.
After all, it would be rather difficult for anyone in their right mind to be “optimistic” about the current and future state of the Church in this country.
To draw an appropriate comparison, what word would you use describe the director of a large corporation who, in the midst of a hemorrhaging customer-base, nose-diving profits and the open hostility of the market to his product, continued to express himself as being “optimistic” about the future – claiming that things will simply turn around at some point?
“Delusional” would be close to the top of your list, no doubt.
When we were sent to a week-long seminar on celibacy some time ago, the priest who was conducting the sessions gave us a homily delivered by Pope St Paul VI on the 29th of June 1975, when the Holy Father ordained 400 deacons to the priesthood.
Having read the text, we were asked if anything had stood out to us.
“Yes,” I answered, “It is remarkably buoyant in its tone – remarkably optimistic.”
Not a particularly startling characteristic, you might think, for an ordination homily.
Yet we must remember that this was the same Paul VI who, in the mid-1970s, would spend his evenings reading and granting the petitions of scores and scores of priests and religious who wished to be dispensed from their vows.
Knowing that fact, there seemed to be a rather startling disconnect between the apparently cheery attitude expressed in the homily and the reality of the Church at the time.
This is not to say that Pope St Paul VI was simply a blithe optimist – on the same date three years earlier he famously remarked that “the smoke of satan has entered the temple of God”.
Yet if someone is optimistic in the face of a demonstrably appalling reality, it may well be that such optimism is simply a cover, behind which lurks despair.
It seems our efforts and endeavors have failed.
All our innovative ideas and methods of recent years have resulted in nothing other than the catastrophic collapse of effective catechesis.
Pretending otherwise is a denial of reality.
Yet to cover the despair over what almost seems like several generations of wasted effort, some people remain stubbornly optimistic and continue to forge on ahead into the abyss.
Christian hope responds rather differently.
As Benedict XVI once wrote, “Those who despair do not pray anymore because they do not hope”.
St Thomas Aquinas says that prayer is the interpretation of hope. (ST II II, q. 17, a. 4)
Prayer is an expression of our recognition of our utter dependence on God; the more we pray, the more we are made aware of this fact.
We who pray, hope in a goodness, power and beauty that utterly transcends us, our capabilities and our efforts.
Our prayers throughout the course of our Christian lives thus increasingly become an expression of our hope that Christ will come again to liberate us finally from the painful realities of life that daily confront us – o come, o come, Emmanuel.
Yet this is not to say that Christian hope is simply the virtue of ignoring difficulties here on earth in the expectation of better things to come.
It is rather a serene habitual response to the distresses and disasters of this life; it is expressive of our faith in the salvific will of God that was placed startlingly before our eyes in the Incarnation.
“In this hope we are saved.” (Romans 8:24)
After all, if God does indeed will all people to be saved and “come to a knowledge of the truth,” then that is what will take place, somehow or other. (1 Timothy 2:4)
Our plans may go awry – our own efforts may appear dismal failures.
But rather than despair and attempt to ignore reality with a blithe optimism, we ought to live lives expressive of our hope that, somehow, our apparent failure is an indication of the will of God.
As the anchorite Julian of Norwich ultimately concluded after a lifetime of contemplation on the ways and means of God – “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.
Through the Incarnation, God entered our reality in order to save us – it was not we who did it.
The serene hope of a life lived in recognition of this fact, radiating the love of God that it realises, is more likely to convert or convince people of the truth of Christianity than the most innovative program of catechesis or evangelization.
And this, I think, is what saint Paul VI grew to realise between his horror at the way things were progressing in 1972 and his more hopeful homily of 1975.
While we might work towards a certain end, we do so hoping that we are acting in accordance with the will of God and His plans for the salvation of the world.
We are not concerned with the “success” of our own projects, but with fidelity to Christ.
And our Christian hope that “all will be well” means that even when our own edifices crash and burn around us, we can take heart that – as my seminarian friend wisely remarked – our plans nevertheless remain an essential part of our sanctification, just not in the way we had initially thought.
If we had been put in charge of saving the world, I doubt we would have had the Saviour conceived out of formal wedlock, born in a stable to a poor family in an obscure town, and eventually led to a horrible death reserved for the worst of criminals.
But it worked out nonetheless.
No wonder Christians are hopeful people.