Q: Archbishop J, how do you keep hope alive in a time like this?
Hope is only real when the hour is dark. It is when the world is plunged into darkness, when the dawning light is diminished, that hope emerges. Yet, it is always present in a silent kind of fragile way, as we awaken each morning to a new day, see new possibilities and engage again strained relationships. To engage again, as if for the first time, what has become routine is a matter of faith, an action fuelled by love.
We have not relied much on hope as virtue in the last 50 years. Western scientific progress has shifted our focus from hope. In all the big questions we have sidestepped the God-question and relied instead on our power to save—our human power to transform nature, to come up with a solution to the challenge.
St Paul says to the Romans: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom 8:24–25).
The COVID-19 challenge
We are so accustomed to human power we have not built up our muscles of the virtue of hope. Hope is a virtue, one of the three ‘cardinal virtues’. We express it in the little everyday things. Now, we need to stop and reflect again on the meaning of hope. Or rather, in whom or what we put our hope. Is it in human science and technology, or in God?
Optimism says: things will get better, they always do.
Hope says: even if things get worse, do not worry, God is with you.
Hope as a virtue is different from hope in science and technology. The latter is linked to the myth of steady progress: things will get better and better all the time.
We have lived through five decades of unprecedented growth in the economy, science, technology and thus lifestyle. Many have only known this time of consistent growth and economic security.
We have been plunged into the unthinkable! We have shut schools, churches, temples, mosques and businesses. Many find this absurd. One preacher in the US preached against the closing of the churches and kept his open. He died from COVID-19.
The first effect of COVID-19 is the immediate health challenge. These are dire because the infection rate is so high. We are using the blunt instrument of lockdown to contain the virus. The impact will be devastating.
We are facing the collapse of many businesses, rapid unemployment, disruption of supply chains, shortage of food and rising prices. With this secondary impact of COVID-19, we will be plunged into social chaos for a while.
We have to face the most difficult question: is the medicine of lockdown worse than the disease? We do not have an answer yet. This is the challenge, the question that pushes us to the very edge, where we must see a grace and an opportunity, if we awaken to the mystery of God who is in all things.
St Paul had a very different worldview to ours. In Romans he said: “…but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3–5).
Rather than expecting things to get better and better each day, he realised there would be hardships and suffering; not to be avoided but embraced. “Suffering brings perseverance; perseverance, character and character hope.”
We have lived so long with the mythical notion of progress; we have forgotten the very foundations of Christianity.
Look at the progress of Trinidad and Tobago again. Consider the pockets of relentless poverty amidst extreme wealth, and the absence of a social safety net. See the lack of moral character that pervades the nation at all levels.
Look at the prevalence of corruption and the acceptance that this is a way of life. Look again at our indiscipline and the way we have made freedom license and the right to ‘mash up the place’ and do what we want.
There is something inherently wrong with this worldview. If we believe there is a God and that we are called to live in faith, how is it we put so much stock in worldly wealth and progress?
This Easter the world is faced with a most formidable challenge. A microbe has reset the economic, political and technological progress we have taken for granted for the last five decades. Now where do we put our hope? This is a fundamental Easter challenge for Christians as for people of other beliefs. We will not despair.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) says:
“Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. So now we can say: Christianity was not only ‘good news’—the communication of a hitherto unknown content … The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life”(2).
Hope is founded on a relationship with the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. No matter how things go—and the crucifixion of Christ was the worst of things—Jesus never lost sight of His Father. He never lost hope even when He suffered on the Cross. When He said: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” It was not a cry of despair; it was an affirmation of hope. He was quoting the whole of Psalm 22, which ends in the salvation of the nations. We too must put our hope in God.
Hope is ultimately hope in a God who loves and saves us even in the midst of trials and difficulties.
Read the whole of Psalm 22 as a psalm of hope in God.