"Or what’s a heaven for?": Why we need hope

I got to thinking about hope yesterday, mostly because we just entered Advent and are told to wait hopeful of what is to come.

Sr. Nicolette Etienne has posted a homily given by Fr. Neuman yesterday. It, too, made me think more about hope. I quote Father:

It’s always good to periodically remember that the whole scope of the Old Testament and the People of Israel is based on the promises of God: Abraham is promised a land and a people; the people are later promised a just shoot of Jesse, who would become a Messiah, as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading. The people’s response to those promises is to hope in their eventual fulfillment. Those are the dual engines that drive the Old Testament motor: the promises of God and the people’s hope for their fulfillment. That sets the background for the New Testament, which is also built on promises and hope. Jesus promises the Kingdom of God; Jesus’ Resurrection is a promise to us of our own future resurrection. That is what ultimately we hope for.

When you think about it carefully, hope is one of the greatest driving forces in the Christian faith. Advent is the season to focus on hope. We focus through the lens of the Old Testament hope for a Messiah. From there we broaden out into much greater hopes—the hope for salvation, for an intimacy with God, for a love of God and for the other smaller hopes for our lives—for health and friendship and safety for our families.

So we are in a season of hope. And we are in a faith of hope!

Those who have lost hope are perhaps the saddest creatures alive. Mostly, though, they’re not really alive at all.

Hope is really the sense, the feeling, that what we don’t have now can be had at some point in the future. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, hope is a “future good” that though difficult to attain is possible to attain, but only “by means of the Divine assistance”. Aquinas says getting to that future good must take some “stretching”.

What is it that we stretch for? That we strive after?

Last year I took a class where we read a lot of Robert Browning poetry. My hope to be done with that class has been fulfilled; but I return to one poem, “Andrea del Sarto”. Andrea del Sarto is the name of both the poem itself and of the central character–the painter.

…I could count twenty such …
Who strive …
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat–
Yet do much less … –so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
… Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? …

This is the source of that phrase, “less is more.” The painter is talking to his wife and has just given up a big painting for her. She is an unfaithful woman we learn in the poem, and she is not exactly smart.

But here we see that often even our greatest efforts seem to fail. Less is more because the true value is in the “less” is not lost in the “more.”

That last sentence though, is what really gets me. Our reach should exceed our grasp. What in the sam hill?

I think it means that we must always reach for what we know we may never be able to grasp–at least on earth.

We can think about it in terms of paintings; we can put all our best efforts to make some masterpiece all that we want it to be, knowing that many of our intentions will never reach perfection and even if they did, they will be overlooked by the average eyes.

We can think about this in terms of relationships with others; we can strive to be very close even when we can’t help but think that the union we desire may never happen to the extent we wish.

We can think about this in terms of holiness; we can strive to be very holy even if we feel that many of the rosaries we offer don’t bring us any closer to God.

The point is: our striving, our reach, must be a stretch–as Aquinas says–that involves our muscles flexed as much as possible. Even if that grasp won’t really be as tight as we’d like, if we’re lucky enough to get there, heaven.

I wonder how many people just “give up” in the course of everyday life. I do. So many consider various “good things” out of reach and simply forfeit. We stop stretching. We abandon our efforts. We leave. We give up.

So that stretch, I think, is the way HOPE is visible in the world. It’s easy to see when we’re acting with hope, with faith, with love, because we are stretching to get towards our goal.

Today I spent some time in adoration contemplating the second chapter of Sirach, and in doing so I thanked God once again that I’m Catholic since we recognize this book as part of the Bible. In this book I found much talk about hope:

  • Verse 1: My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.
  • Verse 6: Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.
  • Verse 14: Woe to you who have lost your endurance! What will you do when the Lord punishes you?
  • Verse 18: Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, but not into the hands of men; for as his majesty is, so also is his mercy.

Verse one says there will always be the temptation, in doing God’s will, to not do it. Verse six says all we need to do is trust and hope in God, make our ways straight, and he’ll take it from there.

I love verse 14: What will you say when God punishes you for losing that hope!? Greatly put. But verse 18 reminds us of God’s mercy for those who fall in the hands of the Lord.

May Almighty God make us strong in hope!