Hope is as necessary to our spirit as oxygen to our lungs. Our bodies quickly register a decrease in oxygen, as witnessed, for example, by those who scale Mount Everest. The air thins the higher they climb. Something similar is happening in our secular, postmodern culture. The air has become thin, lacking the oxygen of hope. Most people do not immediately notice, because life proceeds apace and the sicknesses of the soul are more difficult to detect than those of the body. Yet we are breathing an atmosphere of subtle despair, in which many people lead lives of "quiet desperation" (in Thoreau's words), usually well disguised, unless a major life crisis intervenes. One indicator of diminishing hope in our times is Quebec's new law on assisted suicide. The sufferings of the terminally ill naturally elicit compassion, but any arguments for assisted suicide based on self-determination and the "right to die" are misguided at best. From the Christian perspective, this legislation is not a sign of progress in a rational, enlightened civilization but actually a concession to despair. In our culture, we have imbibed a concept of the human person as a radically autonomous and self-sufficient individual who strives for the maximum control over life as the surest means to security and happiness. Combined with our practical atheism, we are not left with much beyond the confines of the isolated self—we may acknowledge the existence of some god, but we do not discern his presence, feel his love, nor trust in his providence.
With the inevitable approach of old age, pain, sickness and death, all our illusions of control evaporate, and the autonomous self crumbles. A lifetime of outward success but inner quiet desperation—a life without hope and without God—can develop into despair, as the isolated self, utterly unaccustomed to hope and trust in any sort of "higher power" clings to control in a final act of self-assertion—the choice of assisted suicide.
It is essential to address the lack of hope in our culture, not only because it may lead to despair in the end, but also because an absence of hope can undermine our peace, joy and happiness in daily life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions some of the benefits of this virtue: Hope "keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude" (1818). It is a "sure and steadfast anchor for the soul . . . it affords us joy even under trial . . ." (1820). Our spirit requires this oxygen of hope. Accordingly, a diagnosis of the causes of quiet desperation and despair can assist us in reclaiming our hope. Our crisis of hope originates in part from our deficient philosophy of the human person, and from the eclipse of the infinite and eternal. The so-called "death of God" has an immediate impact on human hopes and desires. When Nietzsche's madman announces that we have killed God, he wonders aloud, "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?" Indeed. In our relentless pursuit of merely material well-being and creature comforts, we have unwittingly wiped away the horizon of the infinite and eternal. Without this broader hope, we are squeezed within the cramped quarters of this world, as if in a sealed room without windows, breathing in our own stale air, slowly depleted of oxygen.
Though we have genuine worldly hopes, authentic hope is also open to the wider horizons of the infinite and eternal. As Pope Benedict observes in The Hope that Saves, "Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success . . . [But it] becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. . .. that only something infinite will suffice for him." He continues: ". . . we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God. . .the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety."
What exactly is hope? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as "the theological virtue by which we desire . . . eternal life as our happiness." Hope is a form of desire, but desire is incomplete and unstable without hope. I believe it was Josef Pieper who remarked that it is possible to desire something we might never attain; but hope, by its very nature, always includes the promise of fulfillment.
Human hope and desire tend towards the Infinite. William Blake proffers this elegant summary of human desire and the infinite: "If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot. The desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite." First, we should note how his aphorism expresses great confidence in human nature. Our desires are good, and point us to something real.
We all have an instinct for self-preservation, a desire for eternal life. No one looks forward to the extinction of his personality, the annihilation of his consciousness. But what if we live in a self-enclosed and seemingly self-sufficient secular culture that vainly and mendaciously promotes utopian and technological schemes for complete fulfillment in this world? What if we are taught that our souls are the mere epiphenomenon of matter?
Then we become convinced that our deepest desires, for the infinite and eternal are illusions that must be ignored, repressed, denied. Without knowing it, we do violence to ourselves, we crush our hopes, we forbid ourselves a happiness that is deep and lasting, we set ourselves up for despair. For those who are young and healthy, working and raising a family, the busy-ness of daily life consumes most of their thoughts, time and energy. But the dark shadow of death, coupled with an absence of hope in God, in the infinite and eternal, will slowly gnaw away at the edge of our consciousness, like a mouse persistently nibbling at a piece of food he eventually devours.
The solution to this aspect of a lack of hope—the loss of the sense of the infinite and eternal—is for each individual to make what I might call an "existential" decision, an act of trust in his or her own desires and hope in their fulfillment. Each one faces a choice. Does it really make sense that the universe is specifically constructed to torment human beings with irresistible and unquenchable desires that will never be fulfilled? Then choose despair. Is it not more plausible that human desires direct us to something real and attainable? Then choose hope.
Such existential decisions are effective up to a point, but it is not so easy to escape the influence of our impoverished and demoralizing philosophy of the human person as radically autonomous, isolated, and self-sufficient—a worldview that surrounds us as part of the "air we breathe." However, we can always access the oxygen of hope by engaging the contemplative faculty of our souls, which can liberate our minds and spirits from the somewhat polluted and suffocating belief system of our current cultural environment.
There is, after all, a whole other dimension beyond the narrow horizons of our secular culture, our cities, our work, and the daily cares that preoccupy and distract us. In Ottawa, where I am fortunate to live, downtown can be busy, with traffic and pedestrians rushing to and from work in government, finance and technology, the air quality somewhat compromised, especially on humid summer days. Occasionally, I like to stand near the Parliament buildings and gaze north over the Gatineau hills of Quebec, conscious that beyond the horizon of those hills, there are no more major cities, just thousands of kilometers of wilderness and boreal forests that happen to produce a tremendous amount of oxygen.
To more than a few Canadians, I think that the immensity and majesty of nature imparts a glimmer of the infinite and eternal. Essential to Canadian identity is the consciousness of the North, a seemingly limitless vista, with ample space to breathe clean air, a world so close and yet so foreign to most of us. We also possess vast inner horizons, which call out to the seeds of hope within us, almost like the hand of a parent beckoning a child to take his first steps. We all have at least an inchoate consciousness of the infinite and eternal, of the dignity and grandeur of the human person, endowed not only with a certain autonomy, but also created for love, interdependence and community.
I am convinced that our deepest hopes are sustained and nurtured by the alternative culture provided by the Church. In each neighbourhood, the local parish provides a space where people can pause to contemplate and connect with the transcendent, take a deep breath and, with renewed fortitude, face the world again and be ministers of hope to others. After all, it is in this place that the great hope is constantly proclaimed and communicated to us: that in Christ, the infinite and eternal One became man, suffered, died and rose again for our sake, offering us a sure and steadfast hope of everlasting life. It is in this place that people bond in community and receive support and encouragement from one another. Wherever two or three believers are gathered, hope thrives.
I would also like to encourage every Christian to heed the counsel of Saint Peter, who exhorted the disciples to "always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you" (1 Peter 3:15). We must never underestimate the impact of our hope-filled witness on the lives of our contemporaries. As Christians leave the church on a Sunday morning, they bear with them, in the words of Saint Paul, "the fragrance of Christ" (2 Cor 2:15). People are not attracted to dogmas or institutions. They are drawn by the example of a lifestyle of believers who live differently because their hearts have been transformed in some way by an encounter with Jesus Christ. In the end, this might be the best way to purify the air we breathe in our current culture of subtle despair: for each Christian to be an evangelist spreading the fragrance of Christ, the oxygen of hope.