Hope as a spiritual discipline?

Hope as a spiritual discipline?

This blog, and all my other writing, has grown quiet since the early days of COVID-19. Back when the narrative of it all seemed easier to trace. As the weeks and months have unwound, words–meaningful ones, at least–have dried up. I haven’t written much because frankly, I haven’t had much to say.

And perhaps the peace that has come from this learned silence has been one of the small blessings to materialize during this strange season. It has helped me better understand, as a writer, as a human being, that the world will not end when my inklings do. That there is a time to speak and to be silent, even for writers.

I am returning to writing slowly, only as the words come, and in a way I am doing so with greater peace than before this pandemic hit. May it be blessed.

Something I have been thinking-but-not-writing about through all of this is hope–what it is, what function it serves, how to have more of it.

Most of us, myself included, tend to relate to hope as a rational or automatic good. An instinct. Either a situation warrants it–by manifesting enough evidence that things will eventually turn out in our favor–or they don’t, in which case the situation is experienced as hope-less

Yet even when a situation appears hopeless, i.e. with no potential for improvement or resolution, we still long for hope. We yearn to relate to reality as potential, promise, or possibility rather than as an irredeemable actuality.

But when we lack hope, we go about finding it in ways that are usually misguided. We assume we need a reason to hope–some previously overlooked detail about our situation that will make hope seem less foolish. We scour the news, the words of others, our financial outlook in search of good news, a new study, an undeposited paycheck, a forgotten fondness for a difficult loved one.

Only once we’ve found a convincing reason will we open our feeble hearts to hope.  

But what if hope isn’t supposed to be easy or automatic? What if we thought of hope as a spiritual discipline? A virtue that can be accumulated and strengthened within us regardless of how hopeful or hopeless our situation may seem to the naked eye? 

Every Christian discipline involves a unique cross that must be borne in order to learn that discipline. For obedience–a classical ascetical virtue–that cross comes in the form of rules or limits (whether internal or external). How could we learn to obey if there were nothing to obey? For patience, a virtue listed among the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5, the cross is time, or rather annoyances and grievances that play themselves out in time. 

What is the cross we must bear in learning to hope? What constitutes direct resistance to hope? Well that’s easy: dire, seemingly hopeless circumstances–a version of reality that ensures hope is neither a natural nor instinctive response.  

Like a pandemic. Like a school year without promise. Like a society looking so broken and dystopian we can’t fathom how the pieces will ever be put back together again. Like a story whose narrative threads have gotten tangled up in so many places they can’t possibly be straightened out.   

I’ve been praying about all this when the headlines pile up with one tragedy after another, and I can feel myself sinking in panic as though into a bottomless pit. Instead of praying for God to give me a reason to hope–like it is something He owes me–I am just praying for hope. Feeble, intractable, unreasonable hope.    

In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:24-25)