About a dozen years ago, I was going through a hard spell. A relationship in which I had invested so much of myself and my dreams for the future was falling apart. Life seemed pretty bleak and there was no clear way out of the pain.
In my parents' backyard in Regina, I was sitting with my mother, a woman who has borne more than her fair share of tribulations and borne them with grace and without any trace of bitterness. I asked her what kept her going when life brought so much heartache. She thought for a minute and said something like, "Well, I know that when life is over, we'll be happy with God in heaven."
That was about it. Mom has never been given to weighty philosophizing or extended speeches. Some might say her answer was too pat, the product of religious convention. I would say that not only was it profoundly true, but that it grew, not out of a textbook, but out of a lifetime of experience. When one's earthly hopes are shattered, one can either fall into bitterness and despair, or one can develop a Christian hope.
Life is about that simple. Either you have hope that there will be an eternity with God in paradise or you lack that hope. If you've got it, life's hardships are not quite so overwhelming and you can still be happy even if you don't achieve fame of fortune.
If you lack hope then life is going to seem hard -- especially its last years. You'll never have enough of life's pleasures because you know the clock is ticking. You can see pleasure and good health evaporating, and suffering and death slowly moving in.
I see a sharp split among the elderly. Some have an almost palpable inner peace about them. They are grateful for life and what it gives them. A few are angry, bitter and grasping. In my mind, the dividing line is hope. If you have hope, you've got some perspective on everything. Without hope, you see yourself as a victim and the world as your enemy.
But hope is not just a medicine for the end of one's days. It should colour one's attitude all through life. There is, however, a link between suffering and hope. If there was no suffering, if all our longings were met in the here-and-now, there would be no need for hope.
The human person is a longing for the infinite which is trapped in a finite being. We yearn to do great things which provide lasting satisfaction, for total communion with our loved ones, for the breathless starry night with the loons on a northern lake to last forever. Yet, in this world, we can't have it all. We are limited by our decaying bodies, by our lack of talent, by our fears and the fears of others, and by the passage of time.
If there were no eternal life with God, the human condition would be a cruel hoax. We would have been made to yearn for something which is forever beyond us.
The paradox of our existence -- of an infinite longing trapped within a finite being -- is only resolved if there is hope in eternal life. It only makes sense in the context of Jesus' statement, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).
Only in our dying are we aware of our need to hope. Unless we are dying, we remain alone. Each dying gives us the opportunity to grow more in hope, to realize that death is not the horizon of our existence. From the perspective of this world, our sufferings and small dyings are unmitigated evil. But for a life of hope, they are blessings. Our little dyings carry with them the possibility of our becoming detached from what is finite or inauthentic in our lives and so becoming more attached to that which lasts forever.
Paradoxically again, when we start to live with that kind of hope, every day becomes an occasion of joy, even in the midst of suffering. Hope is not a matter of eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Grim Reaper to usher us into our heavenly home where we can finally be happy. It shows itself by our living with joy and detachment today.
If we're bound for eternity, we'll live in this world with one foot planted in heaven. We will have already stopped running the frantic, never-ending steeplechase after material satisfaction and have set our eyes firmly on the many signs of God's presence to be found in our daily lives.
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