by Andrew Petiprin June 4, 2021
About ten years ago, I felt overwhelmed with all sorts of things in my life, and I confided some of my troubles to a wise mentor. I later found out that he was going through something truly awful at the time; my concerns were ultimately very trivial by any standard, but must have seemed especially so to him at the time.
When I told him my woes, he had paused for a long while, then looked at me and unexpectedly asked, “Is it real?”
“Is what real?” I replied.
“All the Jesus stuff. The cross, the empty tomb, all of it? I know you say it is, but do you really believe it?”
And at that moment, I realized that far too often in my life, I am practically an atheist.
That is, when it comes to how I react in difficult circumstances, my instinct is not to think of God’s goodness and mercy, or even his wrath and judgment. My first instinct is not toward hope. Rather, I only think of myself. How will this situation create even greater inconveniences than I already face? How will that problem ever be resolved? How am I expected to deal with this?
Even in the most mundane matters, I find myself imagining the worst-case scenarios and leaving God’s grace completely out of my calculations. In such moments, when they come, I seem to answer my old friend’s question with, No, it’s not always real.
Last week, I woke up from a difficult night of pointless worrying only to find a tweet from another wise friend, who quoted the first stanza of St. John Henry Newman’s great hymn:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.
My night was not a complete catastrophe, but it did concern a family matter—the kind of thing every parent says is normal and relatable but which feels so lonely when you’re actually dealing with it. We parents are often so quick to see problems, as they arrive, as indictments of our own character rather than simply life, as it comes. Newman’s familiar words were just the reminder I needed to keep it real.
My friend shared these words because it was the 188th anniversary of their composition. Newman tells us in the Apologia,
I was aching to get home; yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the Churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. I knew nothing of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament there. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. Then it was that I wrote the lines, “Lead, kindly light,” which have since become well known.
I would not call Newman an optimist. Being a good Christian does not always mean being cheerful or bending over backward to put a positive spin on the worst things. Newman’s words do not evoke a facile “God is in control” affirmation.
But they are full of hope, and Newman was a man of great hope, which has always made me feel better about my life and the world. His work makes Christ real again, deep within me. Newman’s great hymn, written at the height of his Anglican influence, foreshadows his entry into full communion with the Catholic Church twelve years later. I endured the losses and enjoyed the gains of my own similar journey in large part because of his example. Newman disabused me of any idea that I would be entering an assembly, or living a life, without any problems. But his witness always assured me that if I moved forward in God’s direction, however slowly, I would find my way.
Seeing Newman’s familiar words pop up on my screen after my own recent dark night reminded me that the Church—and especially Catholic media—should do a bit more for its underserved market of people who would like—nay, badly need—a greater sense of hope in everyday circumstances.
People have hard times for all sorts of reasons—stress, loneliness, anger issues, health problems, financial woes, you name it.
There’s nothing wrong with stating this plainly: Because Christ died and lives for you, it’s all going to be ok. There’s nothing wrong with reassuring people: Your lousy situation could very well get better, and if it does, it is a victory for the kingdom of God.
Again, Newman’s words set the tone: “One step enough for me.” Sometimes that’s all we need. Just a little bit of good news can pack a powerful punch of grace.
And that’s how hope works. It is not particularly reasonable. It is not dependent on facts. It is not what we or anyone should expect. It is all because the Jesus stuff is real—the cross, the empty tomb, all of it.
What evidence-based judgment does an alcoholic have to think he can quit drinking? All the evidence seems to be stacked against him. And yet, he goes one minute, one hour, one day, one week. He is led to a new place with a whole new rhythm of life. He becomes someone who does not drink anymore, but he cannot ever dare to walk alone. It never stops being one step at a time.
Newman’s “encircling gloom” is always there. It’s not just the pandemic or the lockdowns or elections or protests or Church fights. It’s all those hope-sapping moments of emptiness at the first sign of difficulty in our daily lives.
We lie to ourselves if we ignore the possibility that everything that matters to us could just fall apart. And sometimes things are just really bad—like they were for my wise friend ten years ago, and like they were for Newman, seriously ill and stranded alone on an island where he did not know the language and did not practice the religion. But in both men’s cases, the Lord was there.
And there is the source of hope, even for those unaware.
I may forget God, but he never forgets me. Until the day I take my last step toward him, I pray I keep following where he leads.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Petiprin is Fellow of Popular Culture at the Word on Fire Institute. He is an author and former Anglican cleric who came into full communion with the Catholic Church on January 1, 2019. He earned an M.Div. from Yale University and an M.Phil from Oxford University.
For the days and times when we so experience our woundedness and faults and wonder how God can still love us:
God likes me covered with my creaturehood
and with my limits spread across His face.
He likes to see me lifting to His eyes
even the wretchedness that dropped His grace.
~Jessica Powers (from “Creature of God”)
Advent and the little girl, Hope
Tod Worner | Dec 10, 2017
Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”
– G.K. Chesterton
It looked unquestionably bleak.
In a matter of two weeks, the Nazis had roared through Luxembourg, crushed the Netherlands, marauded through Belgium and blitzed deeply into France. The French Army and British Expeditionary Force found themselves pressed onto the beaches of Dunkirk with their backs to the unforgiving waters of the English Channel. The Americans across the Atlantic made it very clear that they wouldn’t send their boys to any foreign wars. And Great Britain looked increasingly alone.
But as the grim events inexorably unfolded, the bulldogish Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it clear to his Cabinet: There would be no surrender. In the darkness of those days – days which anticipated the Blitz of screaming bomber attacks on the cities of England – Churchill growled to his band of brothers.
The House [of Commons] should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.
And within days, Churchill further pronounced,
I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.
That was the first and greatest weapon raised against the Nazi menace. Hope was the light that illuminated blood-stained rocks on embattled Pacific islands and cold corners of the blackest concentration camps. It fired the chilled soldiers in the wintry foxholes of Bastogne and it refreshed the dirt-coated liberators in North Africa. Hope wasn’t a component of victory; it was the key to it.
That is the essence of Advent.
In dark days of disease and loneliness, fear and guilt, sin and death, a dusty prophet declared to an enslaved nation,
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 9:1)
In a cultural backwater occupied by fearsome soldiers and short, unforgiving lives, a peasant girl was visited by a heavenly creature,
Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High – and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:28, 30-33)
An expectant mother and adoptive father, wise men traveling from afar, shepherds sensing a change in the chill wind on the edge of town – all were drawn by faith, but pushed by hope.
What is this strange thing, hope?
Perhaps the French poet, Charles Peguy, described it best in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope.
The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.
Faith doesn’t surprise me.
Its not surprising
I am so resplendent in my creation…
Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.
How could they not love their brothers.
How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by…
What surprises me, says God, is hope.
And I can’t get over it.
This little hope who seems like nothing.
This little girl hope.
It’s she, the little one, who carries them all.
Because Faith sees only what is.
But she, she sees what will be.
Charity loves only what is.
But she, she loves what will be.
Yes, that’s it. Hope is a precious, vibrant, beaming little girl who loves not only what is, but what will be.
Oh, it is true. At times in our lives, things can look a little bleak.
But take courage.
The essence of Advent is a little girl, Hope.
December 22, 2000
“You will seem to yourself at times to have almost lost your faith and yet it remains whole and entire in the fine point of your soul, all gathered up into so sharp and imperceptible a point that it seems no longer to exist. Close your eyes and remain with Jesus, saying a loving Amen to all He is gazing at in His Father.” (Bl. Columba Marmion)