Hope: The Confidence in Something Unseen
“Never lose hope in God’s mercy.” —The Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 4
At one point in the ceremony in which a monk makes his final profession, he chants this verse from the Psalms: “Uphold me, O Lord, according to your promise and I shall live. And do not confound me in my expectation.” Then he lays face down on the bare floor of the church and is covered with the large cloth that also covers the coffin during a funeral Mass. The bell is tolled as at a death. The abbot and all the monks stand around him and pray before he rises again. This moment has all the appearances of death, but it speaks so beautifully of hope. Symbolically, the monk looks death in the eye and then stands up, confident that there is more than meets the eye. In life and in death, he trusts that God will keep His promise, and that hope makes all the difference in the world.
Vaclav Havel, the poet President of the Czech Republic, distinguishes hope from optimism. He said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope in this sense undergirds life and death in the monastery.
Monks, like everybody else, meet disappointments in life. Everything does not, in fact, turn out well or, at least, it does not turn out exactly as any one individual wishes it to turn out. The ability to live with these disappointments without falling into despair gives a dimension to life that an optimist does not have. It opens people to
the dimension of mystery in everyday life and makes them more attractive people by reason of that hope. Hope does not destroy disappointment but sees in it an opportunity.
The way monks live reflects this hope, the conviction that things make sense even if at times they seem senseless. Hope is the foundation for a sense of humor—not a slapstick humor, but a deeper sense of meaning in apparent contradiction—which colors how they look at death. As the Mass for the Dead puts it, “Life is changed, not ended.” It sure looks like it has ended! But even this apparent end has a meaning beyond what the eye can see.
Those stories that monks exchange about a monk who has died are frequently humorous. They are an example of the kind of hope that lightens the burden of sadness by airing grief in a way that recognizes the real loss but finds meaning even in that loss. It is not always an easy task to do this. Monks make friends in the monastery and the pain of losing a friend in death is no less real for them than for anyone else. But the hope that characterized their life together in the monastery bridges the gap that death leaves between them. At the heart of this ability to look at life and death through the eyes of hope lies a conviction about the dignity of another human person.
Excerpted from “Kindred Spirits” written by Archabbot Justin DuVall, OSB. Contact us to receive a free copy of Kindred Spirits