To Live Is to Hope
We are pilgrim people. So the Second Vatican Council proclaimed 16 times in its documents. Ever since Catholics heard these words, they have echoed them in songs and chants: we are pilgrims on the march, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). We are on the road from a vale of tears to the place where “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17). For such a journey, much energy is needed, and hope provides it. We are on the go because we hope that we shall see what no eye has seen, hear what no ear heard, know what no human heart conceived (cf. 1 Cor 2:9). Our hope is the driving force.
If hope keeps pilgrims on the march, the greatest calamity that could befall them is the loss of hope. Should that happen, their journey would no longer make any sense. It would be a march into an immense void.
To be without hope is to be a prisoner in an empty space, to be locked up in time that does not move ahead. Where there is no hope, there is no life.
When I was a child in Hungary, we had a good and holy bishop. True, one of his books was put on the Index (it “smelled” of Modernism, as it later transpired), which hurt him deeply but did not bother his people. After he died they built a church in his memory; to this day it continues to be a place of pilgrimage. His beatification process is in progress.
At any rate, as I was struggling with my first lessons in Latin, I became intrigued by the motto on his coat of arms: Dum spiro spero, “As long as I breathe, I hope”—or, in a more liberal rendition—“To live is to hope.” I have never forgotten this motto. In all my comings and goings, the simple rhyme of his words has stayed with me. Over the many years, their meaning unfolded: God joins life and hope together and no human being should put them asunder.
We live as long as we hope; we live as much as we hope. Loss of hope is a loss of life. Blessed are they who dare to hope, for they will have life.
If hope is such a blessing, it is both sad and alarming to know that there are among us, in our household, in our Catholic communion, people who are losing hope.
Why would good pilgrims lose hope when this amounts to a loss of life? Surely, the heavenly Jerusalem is still there, granted, in a distance and unseen, but “built as a city which is bound firmly together” (Ps 122:3), with its gates open wide. Surely God’s promise aboutno tears, no crying, no pain and no deathis as valid as ever! Surely God cannot fail to wait for the homecoming of his earthly children!
Why then the loss of hope? Is it conceivable that good people find themselves on the verge of despair because inwardly and outwardly they have built up false expectations: because they put their hope into human constructs—laws, rules and institutions—that failed them miserably? Or, because they waited on persons for their redemption—popes, bishops and priests—who did not deliver?
Yes, such misadventures are conceivable. And if they teach us a lesson, it is that to hope well, we must rid ourselves of the expectations of our own creation that may blind us to God’s luminous promises. Advent is a season for conversion; the days are good ones for housecleaning.
Yet our task is not to judge anyone. God alone understands what happens and why. With him there is always a fresh start.
We should rather be guided by a spark of hope—to reflect and to pray—no matter how we feel now: weak or strong, full of hope or in despair. The time is favorable;the feast of our Savior’s birth is approaching. It is a special time of light and grace. Light we need to understand correctly what hope is; grace we need to live by it.
Our Advent prayer can be: Lord, I do hope; help my lack of hope!
This is the first of four pieces on hope in the life of Christians offered to the readers of America over the seasons of Advent and Christmas. They will not be exhaustive expositions but promptings for meditation, fragmented insights into the mystery of Christian hope. Mysteries reveal themselves in this way: they let us glimpse some of their qualities but never comprehend their inner core. The best a writer can do is call attention to an unusual reality in our midst so as to awake wonder in the readers. Then they must take over. They must turn to the inner gift, watch it and let it unfold.