PRAYER: Hope—Openness For Surprise (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Hope—Openness For Surprise (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

A Passion For The Possible

In moments when we are truly alive, we experience life as gift.  We also experience life as surprise.  Faith is the heart’s response to life as gift.  The heart’s response to life as surprise is hope, as we shall see.  The more the insight that life is freely given takes hold of us, the more our life will be a life of faith, a life of trust in the Giver.  Of course, that trust itself is gift: God gives us faith to respond to God’s own faithfulness.  And so we come to understand faith as an aspect of God’s own life within us.  Hope is another aspect of that same fullness of life.  The more the insight that life is surprising takes hold of us, the more our life will be a life of hope, a life of openness for Surprise.  And Surprise is a name of God.  In fact, Surprise is a somewhat more successful name than others, though all names miss the mark when we aim at naming the Nameless One.  Like all other names, the name Surprise fails to name God.  But in doing so it succeeds at least in holding our heart open for the insight that such failure can be success.  And this puts us right at the center of the paradox of hope.

Hope, too, is an aspect of God’s very life within us.  If faith is trust in the Giver (a name of God we quickly recognize), hope is openness for Surprise.  The surprise of surprises is God within us.

This makes us ask: How can we grow more open in hope?  The poet Rilke looks at the wide open star of an anemone and is struck by the same question.  He marvels at the flower-muscle that opens the petals bit by bit to the morning light.  That muscle of limitless welcome tensed in the still star of the blossom is sometimes so overwhelmed by the fullness of light that it is scarcely able to pull back the wide-sprung petal-edges when sunset beckons to rest.  And we, the poet asks – when, when will we at last be open to receive like that?

Again, those moments come to mind when life in fullness overwhelms us.  We are surprised by joy.  No matter how fleeting the experience is we know now the joy of being open for surprise.  For a moment we feel unconditionally welcome, and that makes us able to welcome life unconditionally.  The taste of that experience awakens in us a passion for life with its sheer limitless possibilities.  That passion is hope: “a passion for the possible.”

The phrase, “passion for the possible,” was coined by a prophet of hope for our time.  It is the last word on the last page of William Sloane Coffin’s autobiography, Once to Every Man.  That book moved me deeply.  My love and admiration for the author surely played a part.  But, more objectively, I was struck by the way he addressed himself to the crucial issues we must face today.  Courageously he takes those issues to heart, with all the pain this brings, and allows that passion (in the double sense of fervor and anguish) to purify his hope.

Life itself will purify our hope step by step if we live with a passion for the possible.  As we go forward, the apparent limits of the possible will be pushed back further and further into the region of the seemingly impossible.  Sooner or later we realize that the possible has no fixed limits.  What we mistook for a limit proves to be a horizon.  And, like every horizon, it recedes as we move on toward fullness of life.

This exploration animated by a passion for the possible is, of course, our religious quest, spurred on by the restlessness of our human heart.  Hope makes our religious quest what it is.  The very notion of quest implies hope.  We may start with the definition of hope as “expectant desire.”  There are events we expect, but do not desire.  There are things we desire, but never expect.  Expectation by itself it not hope, nor is desire by itself hope.  To desire what we do not expect may be a daydream.  To expect what we do not desire may be a nightmare.  But hope welds our expectancy and desire together and sends us forth, wide awake, on our quest.

There is a healthy restlessness in the quest which hope inspires.  Both expectation and desire contain an element of not yet.  We see not yet what we expect.  We hold not yet what we desire.  We are still on the way toward it.  And yet both expectation and desire already anticipate the goal.  Already we look from afar for what we still expect.  We set our heart on what we still desire.  (The word “desire,” derived from the Latin sidus, “star,” suggests hitching your heart to a star.)  The not-yet keeps our quest restless.  The already keeps that restlessness healthy.

How difficult it is to live in the creative tension of hope, the tension between not-yet and already!  When we allow that tension to snap, our quest peters out in aimless wandering or gets stuck in a compulsive settling down.  We see this all around us, even among religious folk.  There are those who want everything already.  They cannot be bothered with a not-yet.  Getting there is all that matters to them.  They want things settled once and for all, and the sooner the better.  Searching is a nuisance for them.  Their counterparts, on the other hand, are so enamored with searching that finding becomes a threat.  Finding would put an end to the search.  It would spoil the game.  The thrill they find in the quest lies exclusively in the not-yet.

The compulsive settler stresses one pole of the great quest at the expense of the opposite pole, which the aimless wanderer stresses.  Hope is thereby polarized.

Compulsive settlers are too fearful of the hazards of traveling.  Can we blame them?  They have a greater awareness of the dangers by which the search is beset.  Aimless wanderers in turn are more aware how much it costs us to commit ourselves to a goal.  Can we blame them for being too fearful of that commitment?  We should rather admire the settlers for their courage to commit themselves and admire the wanderers for their courage to be on the way.  But then we must go one step further and imitate what we admire in both.  This double courage must overcome fear by faith so that hope can come into its own.  And this is merely another way of saying that faith precedes hope.

Great and justified is the fear of dangers that could befall us on the road; even more so is the fear of risking commitment.  We can never fully assess the courage it costs to overcome that double fear by faith.  We overcome by joining the daring of the wanderer to the daring of the settler, and that gives us the courage of a pilgrim.  The compulsive settler within us dares to be committed, but fears being on the road.  The aimless wanderer within us dares to be on the road, but fears being committed.  Only the pilgrim within us overcomes that polarization.  The pilgrim knows that each step on the road may prove to be the goal, yet the goal may prove to have been but one step on the road.  This keeps the pilgrim open for surprise.  Hope is openness for surprise.  Hope is the virtue of the pilgrim.

Leo Tolstoy tells the story of two old men, Russian peasants, who go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  For many weeks they walk together from village to village, making their way toward the Black Sea, where they expect to take a ship for the Holy Land.  But before they reach the seaport, they get separated.  While one of them stops at a cottage to get a drink of water, the other one walks ahead for a while, then sits down in the shade, and soon falls asleep.  When he wakes up he wonders: “Is my friend still behind me?  No, he must have passed by while I was sleeping here.”  Hoping to catch up with his fellow pilgrim, he walks on.  “At least while waiting for a ship we shall meet again,” he thinks.  But in the harbor there is no trace of his friend.  He waits for days, but then sails for the Holy Land alone.

Only in Jerusalem does our pilgrim catch up with the other one.  He sees him up near the altar, but before he can push his way through the crowd of pilgrims, he loses his friend again.  He asks for him, but no one knows where he is staying.  Once more he sees him in the crowd, and a third time, close to the holy places than he can get.  He never catches up with him though, and when it is time to leave Jerusalem, he must set out on his journey home alone.

Many months later he returns to the village where their pilgrimage began.  And there is his lost travel companion.  He had not been to Jerusalem – not in his body at least.  What he found in that cottage where he stopped for water was a whole family at the point of death.  They were poor and in debt, sick, famished, and too weak even to fetch water for themselves.  Compassion overwhelmed him.  He went to bring them water, bought food, and nursed them back to health.  Each day he thought, “Tomorrow I will continue my pilgrimage.”  But after he helped them pay their debts, he was left with just enough money to return home.  On hearing this side of the story, the old man who saw his fellow pilgrim in Jerusalem could not help wondering which of them had reached the true goal of their pilgrimage.

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