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Thinking Out Loud

The Capacity to Hope

by Michael Jinkins | May 11, 2015

Capacity for HopeOften when I start reading a book, I skip the preface, acknowledgements and foreword. I sometimes read the introduction if it appears to hold important information, but most of the time I just want to get into to "the book."

Recently I paused to read a preface that may just make me pause more often at those pages numbered with the small Roman numerals. The book itself is a selection of John Cassian's Conferences in "The Classics of Western Spirituality" series published by Paulist Press (1985). The preface was written by Colm Luibhéid who also translated the selections. (The introduction to the volume, incidentally, was written by the great Church historian Owen Chadwick; as excellent and informative as it is, it is Luibhéid's preface that steals the show.)

Luibhéid brings to the pedestrian task of preface-writing rare elegance and thoughtfulness. He creates one of those moments when the reader feels compelled to stop, lay the book aside for a few moments and reflect on his or her own faith.

Luibhéid does this in the course of describing John Cassian's contributions to Christian thought. Cassian (c.365- c.435), a contemporary of St. Augustine of Hippo, is known in our time primarily as a key theologian for the Benedictine movement. Drawing on some of the most important theological sources of the early church, particularly Evagrius Ponticus (of whom I have written recently), and deeply inspired by the lives of the Egyptian "Desert Fathers," John Cassian brought the wisdom of the East to the Western church. Rather than restricting himself, however, to a discussion of Cassian's influences and impact, Luibhéid takes us into the heart of Cassian's message.

He explains that "in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality any deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptive capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? It nags and worries. It surfaces in a sick man amid the fading of things. It presses on the spectator of a dead child. Can this be all of it?" (References are to page xii of the preface.)

Then, Luibhéid turns to a very brief survey of possible responses to "the old problem of what to make of the life one has." He speaks first of the "teacher" who is capable of evoking through "the expert marshaling of words" a level of confidence that seems to virtually guarantee "the existence of awesome and accessible domains of transcendence." We don't know whether Luibhéid is speaking here from an autobiographical perspective or is critiquing other persuasive teachers. But many teachers and preachers will recognize the danger of too-glibly relying on eloquence and persuasion in response to "the old problem."

Next, he describes the opposite confidence of a thinker, like the classical writer Lucretius, who asserts that all hope based on transcendence is worse than mistaken, it is "craven, degenerate superstition" which "has managed to poison the wells of living." There are legions today who are only too ready to pour scorn on the hope and faith of others in the name of science or humanity or justice or some other lofty good.

Luibhéid contrasts both brands of over-confidence - of credulity and scoffing - by appealing to the poet Seamus Heaney who leaves aside questions of transcendence, seeking reality "more quietly, more humbly" in paying supreme attention to the physical world, to "a chunky rock" or "the recurring flavors of a type of wine." Believing in anything beyond that which can be touched, smelled and tasted, from this perspective, "is to take too great a chance," writes Luibhéid.

"But," he continues, "the willingness to take just such a chance is surely the mark of the Christian. A creature of the day and of circumstance, the Christian nevertheless claims, at times weakly, at times with powerful courage, that God does indeed exist, that there is somewhere an enduring and timeless domain where the burdened heart may aspire to find ease. The Christian has in him the capacity to hope for better things."

Hope, we are reminded in this exquisite preface, is not born from a spirit of optimism, nor from any confidence one may have in oneself or one's circumstance. It is the unique product of trust in a God who is faithful to fulfill promises long made and against all odds.

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