By Msgr. David F. Kelley
Pastor, St. Joseph’s, Middletown
Vicar for Clergy, Diocese of Wilmington
The apostle Paul challenges us to be ready to explain the reason for our hope. People ask many questions of life, but I would suggest that the most important questions can be reduced to four. (1) Is there any purpose to my life? (2) Are there any grounds for hope? (3) Is it safe to trust? and (4) Will it all end well? Different religious traditions answer these questions in differing ways. Given the incredibly unusual circumstances we find ourselves in as individuals and as a wider community, I would like to reflect on how we as Catholic Christians might offer an answer.
First: Is there any purpose to my life? Life is filled with many events and experiences that seem to befuddle our minds and our hearts: senseless tragedies, innocent hostages, crumbling marriages, an horrific car accident, betrayal by friends, hostility from neighbors, to name but a few. It often seems that we live out our days trying to keep our heads above water. Then we wonder does anyone really care? Is our fate to live and die alone? It can at times feel that way; yet we wish it were otherwise. And this wish is not just a private whim.
There is buried in the deep recesses of the human heart the conviction that life does have a meaning. We may experience it when something goes well or when someone loves us or when we connect with the harmony of the universe or when we find an unexpected sense of peace despite the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us. In various and sundry ways, we come to the realization that our lives are in good hands and so we profess: We believe in God!
Second: Are there any grounds for hope? From many points of view, much of life seems to go badly. The new house is not what we expected, our marriage ends up pretty much like every other marriage, our children don’t turn out exactly as we planned, some crazy microbe throws the world and, even more annoying, my life into a tail-spin. And even when we get what we want, we remain restless. We graduate to a new life only to discover it feels a lot like the old life; the man or woman of our dreams we find wakes up in the morning with bad breath; the poetry of life grinds down to prose. So why bother, why hope?
Yet we cannot stop hoping — anymore than we can stop breathing. Freud argued that our subconscious believes in its immortality. Christianity argues that there is every day evidence that gives truth to that belief! Sleep gives us a new lease on life, time heals all wounds, broken friendships revive, lost love is reborn. But can we trust our instincts in those fits of hopefulness? Is that bright golden haze on the meadow a firm promise of real happiness or just a mirage to lure us deeper into the desert?
To be honest, there is no way of knowing! Because who would dare to project their private hope on the rest of the world? Jesus does. He told us to dream our most impossible dream, to hope our wildest hope — and we will not have even begun to imagine what our Father has in store for us.
Jesus is the symbol, the sacrament, of our hope. Remembering that he rose all the way from crucifixion and death, we can find the hope we require to carry our pains and struggles. And so, we believe in Jesus Christ!
Third: Is it safe to trust? Many in our world at this moment are living in fear out of concern for their safety and the safety of their loved ones. If we think about it, we almost always have had and will have things in our lives that cause us to worry. We can be afraid that we will lose our job or that our child or grandchild might become addicted to drugs or alcohol or that we might let down those who are counting on us. As we try to hold off our fears we tend to build up our defenses and we often become tense, irritable and vindictive. And so we risk falling into cautious, tight, narrow, dull lives.
But every now and then, there is a breakthrough. We discover that to succeed we must be open to failure, to have friends we must accept the possibility of betrayal, to experience the wonder of love we must risk having our heart broken! And so, in fear and trembling, we open ourselves up; we discover that, more often than not, life offers us blessing rather than pain. These are moments of grace, when the Spirit of God draws near to us and we come to an awareness that the world we live in is awash in an atmosphere of God’s benevolence and goodness. We breath deep and proclaim we believe in the Holy Spirit!
And last: Will it all end well? Everyone loves a happy ending. No matter how great a piece of literature a book is, if the heroine fails, we feel our own futures are at risk. No matter how trashy the novel, if the hero muddles through, we believe we also will have a chance.
We cannot always demand life must be fair. As we grow older and hopefully wiser, we come to accept the fact that others are stronger, smarter, more pretty or handsome, healthier and even wealthier than ourselves. Despite the slings and arrows that life brings our way, we deeply desire that things will end well. Once in a while, we are offered glimpses of grace: an estranged friend calls, a series of tests indicate that a family member has been cured of a dreaded medical condition, for once you make the traffic light when in a hurry to get to work. And if we watch closely, we discover enough gracious hints to make us believe in a happy ending to our life story. Thus, we come to believe in life everlasting.