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

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

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

The Stillness Of The Soul

Hope is realistic.  The realism of hope is humility.  Most of us think of realism as a virtue.  But humility?  It is time to reclaim that beautiful term from pietistic jargon.  After all, humility is directly related to “humus” and to an earthiness we are rediscovering today.  Humility is down-to-earth.  It is, therefore, related also to “humor” and to plain “humanness.”  Only when we are down-to-earth can we laugh about ourselves; and that makes us human.  The etymological connections may be doubtful.  But the psychological connections hold.  The truly human is marked by the humor of humble realism.

Wouldn’t it seem, though, at first sight that pessimism is more realistic than hope?  It would seem so to the pessimist at least.  But the optimists assure us that pessimists are unrealistic.  And the pessimists, in turn, claim that they themselves are optimists – with more realistic information.  Statistical evidence seems to suggest that there is probably one pessimist for every optimist.  Why don’t we allow them to cancel each other out and, realistically, start from scratch?

On closer inspection, optimism and pessimism are equally unrealistic.  Neither optimists nor pessimists are much concerned with reality, only with holding their party line.  Their concern is to strike their characteristic pose regardless of the facts they face.  Optimism and pessimism pretend.  But hope shows concern.  If optimist and pessimist are politicians, hope is a mother.  A mother does not pose.  She does not pretend.  Hope does not even pretend that everything will be all right.  Hope simply does its thing, like that spider in the corner of my bookshelf.  She will make a new web again and again, as often as my feather duster swooshes it away – without self-pity, without self-congratulations, without expectations, without fear.  If I could achieve the corresponding attitude on my level of consciousness, that would be hope all right.  It would cost me more.  On my level the stakes are higher.  But I bow to that spider.

Many of us tend to think that optimism is at least a little closer to hope than pessimism is.  That is not so.  Luckily, we do not have to choose between optimism and pessimism.  But if we must make a choice, pessimism would be preferable, and this on two counts.  For one, it is easy to mistake optimism for genuine hope.  With pessimism we are safe from that deception.  And then, if we are pleasantly stupid, we can get hopelessly stuck in optimism.  Pessimism tends to become so unbearable, even for the pessimist, that it can catapult one right into hope, when it snaps.

Some people imagine that hope is the highest degree of optimism, a kind of super-optimism.  I get the image of someone climbing higher and higher to the most fanciful pinnacle of optimism, there to wave the little flag of hope.  A far more accurate picture would be that hope happens when the bottom drops out of our pessimism.  We have nowhere to fall but into the ultimate reality of God’s motherly caring.  That is why Saint Paul tells us that “tribulation leads to patience; and patience to experience; and experience to hope,” (Romans 5:3f).  Will this chain reaction be likely to work unless we have at least a little hope to start with?  I, for one, do need a little hope in tribulation to keep me from losing my patience altogether.  Yes, but this initial hope may still have a generous dose of optimism mixed into it.  The ordeal of experience must purge out all dross of posting and pretense in a slow burning fire.  Only then will hope show its mettle and ring true.

This process of purgation is at the core of every spiritual discipline.  Patience holds still in the blast-furnace of experience.  Discipline is not so much a matter of doing this or that, but of holding still.  Not as if this would cost no effort.  But the effort is all applied to the crucial task, the task of making no effort.  In the words of Eliot in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

The disciple waiting on the master is silent.  The pupil, eye-to-eye with the teacher, is all attention.  This stillness is not a shutting up.  It is the stillness of the anemone wide open to the sunlight.  Even the clatter of thoughts is silenced by the discipline of this stillness.  Says Eliot:

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought;
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

The Dance Master of spiritual discipline is a most demanding teacher.  The stillness and the darkness in which hope is purified is a “condition of complete simplicity / (costing not less than everything),” (Four Quartets).  The image of dance suggests an aspect of hope which Joseph Pieper, the masterful writer on this virtue, has pointed out: Hope is closely related to youthfulness.  This is true not only in the sense that we expect young people to be full of hope.  Old people, if they have learned the virtue of hope, radiate an unexpected youthfulness.  “Therefore, we do not grow faint,” Saint Paul writes, “even though outwardly we wear out, inwardly we grow younger day by day,” (2 Corinthians 4:16).  Dancing rejuvenates us.

In the youthfulness of hope the stillness of waiting is one with the dancing.  Little tots are too clumsy to dance and too impatient to wait.  (“My sister’s almost ten, I mean nine, because she’s eight,” said my little friend Peter, who can’t wait for his own next birthday.)  Old folk tend to wonder what’s left worth waiting for, and they feel too stiff for dancing.  But somewhere between childish optimism and senile pessimism lies the youthful dance of hope, graceful in its stillness, since it knows how to wait in total attention for each new cue.

Waiting will be an expression of hope only when it is a “waiting for the Lord,” for the God who is full of surprise – and for nothing else.  As long as we wait for an improvement of the situation, our desires will make a great deal of noise.  And if we wait for a deterioration of the situation, our fears will be noisy.  The stillness that waits for the flash of the Lord’s coming in any situation – that is the stillness of Biblical hope.  Not only is that stillness compatible with strenuous effort to change the situation, if that is our God-given task.  It is only in that stillness that we shall clearly hear what our task is.  How efficiently we go about that task will show itself again by stillness.  After all, a machine that rattles squanders energy on the rattling.  The stillness of hope is the expression of a perfect focusing of energy on the task at hand.

The stillness of hope is, therefore, the stillness of integrity.  Hope integrates.  It makes whole.  And so, hope provides a sound basis for spiritual discipline, a solid  mooring.  (It is not by chance that the traditional emblem of hope is an anchor.)  Remember for a moment how a talent for strong and healthy feelings can have an integrating effect on a person’s inner life.  Hope has a similar effect.  But hope goes deeper and reaches further than mere feelings.  It resonates through every part of a person’s life, making it whole and sound.

It may be important for us to recognize the connection between hope and feelings – all the more so, since feelings are a neglected area in the main current of Christian spirituality.  In fact, feelings have been viewed with suspicion for some time.  At best, they have been given far less importance for our inner growth than intellect and will.  This imbalance mirrors another significant imbalance.  Compared with all the stress on faith and love, relatively little stress has been put on hope.  Only recently has hope been discovered, as it were, by spiritual writers.  Could this double neglect of the virtue of hope and of feelings have something to do with the lack of inner wholeness, which many people painfully experience today?

 

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