Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

It’s not news that this past year was tough for lots of people. Symbolic though it may be, I’ve never been so happy to recycle my old calendar and hang up a new one!

I’ve always been an optimist—a glass half-full person. Perhaps that’s partially why this last year—with the pandemic and all its fallout, the political and social upheaval in the US and more—has been so immensely difficult. I thought I could always count on an interior sense of “All will be well” to carry me through any troubles, but 2020 has shaken my hopefulness more than I would have thought possible. I’ve felt dislocated, challenged by family responsibilities and disconnected from the people, places and activities that anchor me. Maybe you can relate to this feeling and you’re wondering, like I have been, about how to bounce back from this spiritual setback? How do we let go of the past, celebrate the present and look forward to the future? How do we grab hold of the Christian virtue of hope again and let it grab hold of us? Fortunately, there are powerful, well-worn paths that we can follow. I’d like to share four practices that I’m using that can give rise to hope within you.

#1 Make a gratitude list. It’s simple and somewhat cliché, but it has both scientific and biblical clout. Numerous studies have shown that grateful people are happier and more hopeful, and for the scriptural evidence, see St. Paul’s letter to the Romans among MANY other examples. Being thankful shines a light on God’s graces large and small, which naturally leads to hopefulness. I’m writing 3 to 5 things that I am grateful for in my journal each morning—things like the first sip of morning coffee, the good laugh I shared with my niece yesterday, and that for once my cat got sick on a weekday so that I didn’t have to pay for a trip to the emergency vet over the weekend (she’s doing fine now, thanks!). It gets you in the right frame of heart and mind for the day. Thinking about what brought you joy or made you smile during the day just before going to sleep is a good approach, too.

#2 Look at God’s creation. Although we may not hope FOR what is seen (see St. Paul in Romans again 8:24-25)—we can FIND hope in what is visible. The promise of the changing seasons, the love and provision of our Lord made manifest in wrens, wildflowers and wheat—therein lies hope, my friend. Where I live, we’ve had temperatures in the 20s and several days of dense fog. The two combine to cover everything with rime and hoarfrost. It’s indescribably delicate, beautiful and awe-inspiring. When I scrape away the foot of snow on the ground, there is dark green grass underneath. How can we fail to hope in the face of such a nimiety of grace? As Pope Francis has said, “If the events of our life, with all its bitterness, at times risks suffocating the gift of prayer within us, it is enough to contemplate a starry sky, a sunset, a flower, to reignite the spark of thanksgiving.” (General Audience, May 2020). And as we have seen, one fruit of thanksgiving is hope.

#3 Do a random act of kindness. Another bumpersticker cliché, I know, but it really works, especially if it is unexpected, done for someone who can’t repay the favor or is completely anonymous (remember—keep your left hand in the dark about what the right is doing for the full blessing! See Matthew 6:3). When you spend time looking for a way to brighten someone else’s day and do it, it not only makes them happier, it ultimately makes you feel good and leads you to be more hopeful.

#4 Finally, let the faith of others inspire you and give you the courage to hope. The Semmering Railway was completed in the 1850s high in the Austrian mountains. The gradient was so steep and the tightness of the curves so extreme that a locomotive that could handle it had not even been built yet! But the designers, engineers, builders and financiers had faith that it could be done and it soon paid off. That line still brings thrilled riders through the incredible scenery today. Similarly, countless artisans and laborers have worked on great churches like the amazing Sagrada Familia in Barcelona knowing that they wouldn’t live to see its completion. But they believed in what they were doing for God and for people. Already their efforts have sent human spirits soaring at the marvel of it all, and one day it will be finished. Look to these and other stories to find hope in the goodness of people, in the arc of history, in yourself and most of all, in God.

Happy New Year!
Jack

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

~Emily Dickinson

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