The Shaking of the Foundations

[I’m still pausing for a few weeks, but this just popped out :)]

Hopelessness is not absence of hope, but attachment to a form of hope that has been lost. — Mark Sullivan

These words, which I discovered preparing for a lecture at a workshop on hope I gave back in 2013, are some of the most personally impactful I have come across.

The storms of life constantly test our foundations, what we have built things on. We all survive on our hopes, without which we cannot press forward. I define hope as “a form of certitude that the future that holds good (for me/others).” Hope gives us a reason to press on, but if you judge that there is no good awaiting, despair overtakes hope.

Hopes we have can be about matters small and relatively trivial, like hoping for nice weather, or about matters of grave importance, like hope for restored health after a serious illness. We have thousands of mostly small, and some very large hopes that guide and motivate us throughout life. And I would say the majority of them we are largely unaware of until they are threatened.

Each of our small and great hopes are, in their own way, important to the fragile and intricate matrix of meaning that is the ‘stuff’ of human flourishing. We humans are by nature meaning-makers, and any loss of meaning cuts hard across the grain of a soul. Because of this, our web of meaning requires ‘light houses’ that can guide us forward during trials into a hoped-for future. Into that safe Harbor of Refuge each of us, aware of it or not, holds to as our ‘happy place.’

What is yours? What are yours?

An exercise I had participants engage in at that Hope Workshop was to write on small pieces of paper their own brief, imaginative and very human description of the ‘happy places’ they are always seeking. What do they look or feel like? What core hopes undergird them? What guarantees your ability to arrive there safely? What obstacles stand in the way, and how do you respond when those places fail you? And then I asked them to sort through all the pieces of paper and decide: if all your places of happiness were taken away except for one, which would you wish to remain? Why? It was very powerful for them, and prompted much discussion and many tears.

We spent the rest of the day digging deeper, reflecting on what I see as the real challenge beneath all of this. Among our many and varied hopes, if we don’t ensure they are all grounded in something ultimately secure, that cannot be lost or pass away, we leave ourselves vulnerable to hopelessness. And so we explored what in life can never be taken away from you. There were many answers! Then we explored how each of these hidden gifts can be called on during bouts of despair, when we get a rare opportunity to glimpse deep into our true foundations. Or lack thereof.

I had them complete a sentence containing a specific loss they had experienced: When I lose my health, my job, my house, my friend, my child, my parent, my spouse, my reputation, my _______ — fill in the blank — where do I turn for sure footing?

In the last talk, I argued that for the Christian the answer is clear. We turn to unconditional faith, which allows us to see the whole of reality through the eyes of God and his redemptive Providence, that infallibly accompanies us always and draws a greater good out of every evil. To unconditional hope, which allows us to rest secure in an absolute, promised future well-being that God’s mercy has prepared for us. To unconditional love, which allows us to know that nothing can separate us from Christ, the Source of all meaning, who says to us afresh in each new moment with infinite intensity: “I love you, I want you to be.”

These three gifts, our triple cornerstone in Christ, allow us to endure all things in persevering patience. In fact, I would say patience is the verifying signature of all true and enduring meaning in life. La paciencia todo lo alcanza “patience obtains all.” Hope gives us patience with ourselves. Love gives us patience with others. And faith gives us patience with God and his inscrutable ways.

At the Mass at the end of the day, I had the participants turn the whole day’s process into a prayer, gathering all their reflections together, offering them up to God in trust.

St. Paul gave us a majestic hymn to this rightly-ordered hierarchy of hopes, reminding us that in this world of “passing away” and “ceasing,” as we mature from childhood to old age, we must allow faith, hope and love to re-set our anchor in the truest and greatest ground of all things:

Love never ends;
as for prophecies, they will pass away;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will pass away.
For our knowledge is imperfect
and our prophecy is imperfect;
but when the perfect comes,
the imperfect will pass away.
When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became a man,
I gave up childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror dimly,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall understand fully,
even as I have been fully understood.
So faith, hope, love remain,
these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

What is passing away in my life? How am I allowing myself to search for foundations that alone can withstand every storm? Ask God these questions, and then remain long enough for him to answer you. Every day. And remember, such ‘waiting on the Lord’ prayer is the only gateway to permitting him to secure sure foundations.

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