Many of us, I am sure, have been inspired by the movie Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of a group of Trappist monks who, after making a painful decision not to flee from the violence in Algeria in the 1990s, are eventually martyred by Islamic extremists in 1996. Recently, I was much inspired by reading the diaries of one of those monks, Christophe Lebreton. Published under the title, Born from the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk, his diaries chronicle the last three years of his life and give us an insight into his, and his community’s, decision to remain in Algeria in the face of almost certain death.
In one of his journal entries, Christophe shares how in this situation of hatred and threat, caught between Islamic extremists on one side and a corrupt government on the other, in seeking ground for hope, he draws upon a poem, The Well, by French poet Jean-Claude Renard:
But how can we affirm it’s already too late
to fulfil the desire —
so patient does the gift remain;
and when always, perhaps, something or
someone says, from the depth of silence and nakedness,
that an ineffable fire continues to dig in us
beneath wastelands peopled by thorns
a well that nothing exhausts.
A well that nothing exhausts. Perhaps that is the real basis for hope.
For all of us there are times in life when we seem to lose hope, when we look at the world or at ourselves and, consciously or unconsciously, think: “It’s too late! This has gone too far! Nothing can redeem this! All the chances to change this have been used up! It’s hopeless!”
But is this natural, depressive feeling in fact a loss of hope? Not necessarily. Indeed it is precisely when we feel this way, when we have succumbed to the feeling that we have exhausted all of our chances, it’s then that hope can arrive and replace its counterfeits, wishful thinking and natural optimism. What is hope?
We generally confuse hope with either wishful thinking or with natural optimism, both of which have little to do with hope. Wishful thinking has no foundation. We can wish to win a lottery or to have the body of a world-class athlete, but that wish has no reality upon which to draw. It’s pure fantasy. Optimism, for its part, is based upon natural temperament and also has little to do with hope.
Terry Eagleton, in a recent book, Hope without Optimism, suggests rather cynically that optimism is simply a natural temperament and an enslaving one at that: “The optimist is chained to cheerfulness.” Moreover, he asserts that the optimist’s monochrome glaze over the world differs from pessimism only by being monochromatically rosy instead of monochromatically grey. Hope isn’t a wish or a mood; it is a perspective on life that needs to be grounded on a sufficient reality. What is that sufficient reality?
Jim Wallis, a salient figure of Christian hope in our time, says that our hope should not be grounded on what we see on the news of the world each night because that news constantly changes and, on any given night, can be so negative as to give us little ground for hope. He’s right. Whether the world seems better or worse on a given evening is hardly sufficient cause for us to trust that in the end all will be well. Things might change drastically the next night.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who perennially protested that he was a man of hope rather than of optimism, in an answer to a question, once suggested that there are two sufficient reasons for hope. Asked what would happen if we blew up the world with an atomic bomb, he replied: That would set things back a few million years, but God’s plan for the earth would still come about. Why? Because Christ promised it and, in the resurrection, God shows that God has the power to deliver on that promise. Hope is based on God’s promise and God’s power.
But there is still another reason for our hope, something else that grounds our hope and gives us sufficient reason to live in trust that eventually all will be well, namely, God’s inexhaustibility. Underneath and beneath, beneath us and beneath our universe, there is a well that nothing exhausts.
And it is this which we so often forget or slim down to the limited size of our own hearts and imaginations: God is a prodigal God, almost unimaginable in the scope of physical creation, a God who has created and is still creating billions upon billions of universes. Moreover, this prodigal God, so beyond our imagination in creativity, is, as has been revealed to us by Jesus, equally unimaginable in patience and mercy. There is never an end to our number of chances. There is no limit to God’s patience. There is nothing that can ever exhaust the divine well.
It’s never too late! God’s creativity and mercy are inexhaustible.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.