Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 10, 2007
Saved by Hope welcomes eternal life
It is fitting that Pope Benedict chose to release his second encyclical Saved by Hope (Spe Salvi) on the cusp of Advent, the Christian world's season of anticipation. The encyclical will provide a source of reflection for all who want the lead-up to Christmas to be something deeper than a shopping season.
The practical atheism that lies behind our materialistic culture is one of the bugaboos of Saved by Hope. "Man needs God; otherwise he remains without hope," the pope says in various ways throughout the encyclical.
The signs of despair are evident in our society for all with open eyes. There is the despair of loneliness, of throwing in the towel on a marriage "that cannot work," of clinging to a job that one dislikes, of losing oneself in drugs, promiscuous sex or compulsive consumption.
There is the despair that can come with being marginalized by poverty or hypnotized by false ideologies.
"We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day," Pope Benedict writes. "But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God."
Pope Benedict describes prayer as one "setting" for learning and practising hope. He tells of the late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for 13 years in a communist labour camp, nine of those years in solitary confinement. Van Thuan struggled to pray, but persevered.
"The fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope."
Prayer is not a withdrawal, the pope says, into "our own private corner of happiness." It is not an escape. Rather, through prayer, we open up to God and to our fellow human beings.
He tells of how monasteries were seen as places of flight from the world for those seeking private salvation. Then the pope turns to St. Bernard of Clairvaux who treated the monastery as a place of salvation for the whole world.
The monastery cannot create Paradise, he quotes Bernard as saying, but "as a place of practical and spiritual 'tilling the soil,' it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile - and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish."
Other settings for practising hope are action, suffering and judgment.
Even if our own historical period is rife with injustice and dehumanization, we can act with hope. We cannot build the kingdom of God through our own efforts, but we can live by "the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love."
Then there is suffering. Why would anyone accept suffering as anything but unmitigated evil if they did not believe in God and the promise of eternal life? The willingness to suffer for truth and justice witnesses to a hope that there is something much greater than the pleasure of the moment.
As for judgment, the pope says it is too often associated with terror. While the image of the Last Judgment may appear frightening, it should evoke, first, responsibility but also consolation when we turn our eyes to the risen Christ. Our worldly attempts to create justice are passing. Only God can create lasting and true justice.
Hope, of course, is ultimately hope in eternal life. The thought of living forever may seem more like a curse than a gift, the pope writes. But we should see eternal life as more than a monotonous story without end. It is "a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy."
There is so much more than the pleasures of the world. To see that, to live by that, is hope. In the midst of apparent despair, we can be saved by hope.
- Glen Argan
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