Even the Realist Needs Hope

Blind optimism and bleak pessimism both inflict havoc. An optimist opens the windows of the Church to the world to allow in the “fresh” air. As the stench and filth of the world choke out the life of the Church, the pessimist then declares that everyone and everything will perish. “Things cannot get any worse,” he adds. The optimist replies, “Oh, yes, they can!” It is a cycle of false hope and epic ruin. Trusting a madman is treacherous. Trusting no one is despair.

But the realist? A realist observes trials truthfully. Yes, things right now are bad, and they could be worse still. Yet even the realist needs to be held in check, lest harsh reality incite anger and bitterness.

I think of present realities faced by faithful Catholics. Christ said any reasonable father would not give a stone to a child who asks for bread, or a serpent instead of a fish, or a scorpion for an egg (Lk. 11:11–12). The reality now, however, is that we are not living in an age with reasonable fathers. We have asked for a year dedicated to St. Joseph, but we are given a year honoring Laudato Si’. We have asked for a unified return to Catholic fasting and prayer to implore God’s mercy, but we are given a day to unite with Buddhists and Muslims to seek good vibes from whatever divinity suits our reverie. We have asked for a quick and prudent return to the sacraments, but we are threatened with a reimagined sacrilegious distribution of Holy Communion. Things are bad, indeed. For a realist at heart, such as myself, the gravitas of reality often crushes the spirit.

As is often the case, when a person needs jarring, Our Lord uses a child to administer the task. Recently one morning, my wife and I were recounting our dreams, or rather nightmares, as induced by constant COVID-19 tension. My wife explained how in her dream, Mass was reinstituted, but during the first Mass, she promptly got in a shouting match with the priest over his sappy hymn selection. For my part, I recounted how I spent my dream dodging government authorities while hiding in a milk cooler at the local grocery store — a weapon in one hand and a carton of refreshing 2% milk in the other. Our eight-year-old son who was listening then piped up, “I dreamt that Grandma was riding a pig into town!” This child, robbed of visits with friends and cousins, deprived of ballgames and trips to the swimming pool, and who even waits indefinitely to receive Confirmation and First Holy Communion (he has just outgrown the suit he was to wear), dreams simply of his grandma riding a pig into town. All I could think was, I wish I could dream of riding pigs into town.

Not to over-emphasize riding a pig — as if that were even possible — but there are simplicity and peace to such youthful dreams. I recall the words a good priest once told me. This priest, evidently frustrated with my realist explanations for every event, offered a rebuke, saying, “You have to be a realist, yes, but a realist with hope!” I am ashamed to admit that this basic statement startled me. A realist with hope? These times are simply, as St. Teresa of Avila would say, a night in a bad inn. How can a realist, in a world so darkened by sin, still have realistic hope?

What is hope? I will start with what hope is not. Hope is not to desire something utterly void of reality. Bishop Robert Barron’s hope that all men might be saved is not hope at all. It may be foolish, if not devious, optimism, but it is not a real hope. Rather, Fr. Chad Ripperger presents a salient definition of hope, defining it as “the awaiting of the divine assistance in achieving our salvation.” In pandemic-speak, though livelihoods are ravaged, loneliness and stress proliferated, and the sacramental life removed, true hope is not simply expecting the situation to begin to improve. Rather, it is the trust that, in the midst of the chaos and our continued feeble efforts to resist madness in the Church and world, God will still provide the means for our salvation — even without a year of St. Joseph, a unified Catholic call to prayer and penance, or the reception of the sacraments.

The realist may say life is a night in a bad inn, but the hopeful realist will take note of the key word: inn. That is to say, our true home is Heaven; we are simply on a pilgrimage amid a valley of tears. St. Paul writes, “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? or distress? or famine? or nakedness? or danger? or persecution? or the sword?” (Rom. 8:35). Add to that: stress? pandemics? false shepherds? banned sacraments? Even these shall not remove the divine assistance offered. This is true hope. It is as real as it gets

I end by once again thinking of an eight-year-old child. Though he be forbidden from playing at a park with friends or splashing innocently about the cool waters of a favorite lake, and though he be forced to pray at home on Sunday mornings with his dad, who awkwardly fumbles through pages of a missal, such trials are of no real consequence to the hope he bears. There are still blossoming trees to climb, pleasant streams of sun to relish, untold adventures to be explored, and frolicking peaceful dreams to be imagined. There is never a thought that the divine assistance of a loving Father, the only true Father, will be absent. It is as Anthony Esolen so enchantingly conceives what the first glances of Heaven may be like:

Perhaps when we awake
And rub the film of greatness from our eyes,
We’ll see a small boy sitting at a lake,
Guiding his fishing-pole by gentle thumb,
Who turns to us without the least surprise
To say, “At last — I thought you’d never come.”[i]

This is more than a pleasant dream. It is real hope.

[i] Anthony Esolen, Defending BOYHOOD (Charlotte, North Carolina: Tan Books, 2019), 195.

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