Friday, February 7, 2014


“Hope," says Emily Dickinson: the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul - 
And sings the tune without the words - 
And never stops - at all - 

 And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - 
And sore must be the storm - 
That could abash the little Bird 
That kept so many warm - 

 I’ve heard it in the chillest land - 
And on the strangest Sea - 
Yet - never - in Extremity, 
It asked a crumb - of me.

And this is lovely, and in some ways, true, but it seems to me to a rather thin, insubstantial description of hope, and if this is all there is, then we are in trouble. In know that in some other ways, this is a false hope. I know it because there have been times in my life, mercifully fairly brief and long past, when if there was anything with feathers in my soul, it was stiff as a board and lying on its back with its feet in the air. If this had been my only hope, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have succumbed to complete despair.

Along with this poetic view of hope, there is an everyday usage that also falls short of the mark. The current understanding of the word is that it expresses a desire that something be true. We really, really want it to be true. Also, when people say, "I hope this or that will or will not happen," it's frequently clear that they really mean "I doubt this will happen," or "I'm afraid this will happen." But our faith gives us reason to expect more.

Having grown up Catholic, I have always been accustomed to seeing Hope represented by an anchor, but I was probably in my 30s before I thought much about why that was. I was reading Hebrews 6:17-19 when I finally figured it out.
So when God wanted to give the heirs of his promise an even clearer demonstration of the immutability of his purpose, he intervened with an oath, so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil...
Our hope is anchored beyond the veil. It's already where we want to be. It's not insubstantial or fragile. It's as strong as iron. And we are tethered to that hope. There are days when we strain to pull ourselves toward that veil, and there are days when we know that other hands are doing the work for us, but even on those days when we go looking for that feathered thing singing in our soul and find instead a roaring lion prowling around with a few feathers hanging out of the side of his mouth, we can tie that rope around our waists and sit and wait and hope.

Further on in Hebrews, Paul tells us that, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." I do not have the vaguest notion, in any intellectual way, of what that means, but I somehow connect it with a very difficult period of my life. I remember that in my bleakest time, I didn't feel any hope. In fact, I didn't really feel anything at all except for a kind of desperation at the thought of having to be alive. The only time that I had any peace at all was when I could sit on my front porch during the very brief part of the freezing days when that was possible, and pray the rosary. That was my tether to that anchor in a very miserable and foggy sea. There was no singing, and there were no feathers; there was just cold inside and out, and holding on. But I knew I was holding on to something and somehow that was enough.

I know that there are probably some of you who really love this poem, and I probably know who you are, and I hope (heh) that I haven't ruined it for you. I kind of like it myself. I've heard that little singer many times, in fact I've probably experienced that more than the cold and fog, and it's certainly more pleasant. I just haven't found it quite as reliable as I would like--or as I need.

I'll close with another poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins--not so pretty, but maybe more hopeful.
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
 Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
 In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
 Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

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