Vol 42 No 2
Suffering, Prayer and Hope:
IF THE FIRST Letter of Peter asked that we might be people ‘ready for those who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ (1 Peter 3:15), Australians may well offer their own contextual response.
It may be held that the experience of hope is embedded within our national mythology. It is a hope forged through a recurring frustration as we have pitted ourselves against the strangeness of the land itself. ‘Despite our affection for it,’ notes the author Tim Winton, ‘we remain essentially at war with [it], like our invading ancestors. Some part of us still feels that landscape is enemy territory until we transform it, make it in our image.’ (Winton, 1999). Through its natural vicissitudes the land consistently resists such a transformation. We hug the edge of this vast continent, ‘surrounded by ocean and ambushed from behind by desert—a war of mystery on two fronts,’ as Winton elsewhere remarks (Winton, 1993). In that war, we are often left to hope against the elements that threaten us with a certain reduction. One thinks of Lawson’s account of Tom in ‘Settling on the Land’:
Even then Tom didn’t give in—there was grit in that man. He borrowed a broken-down dray-horse in return for its keep, coupled it with his own riding hack, and started to finish ploughing. The team wasn’t a success. Whenever the draught horse’s knees gave way and he stumbled forward, he jerked the lighter horse back into the plough, and something would break. Then Tom would blaspheme until he was refreshed, mend up things with wire and bits of clothes-line, fill his pockets with stones to throw at the team, and start again. Finally he hired a dummy’s child to drive the horses. The brat did his best: he tugged at the head of the team, prodded it behind, heaved rocks at it, cut a sapling, got up his enthusiasm, and wildly whacked the light horse whenever the other showed signs of moving—but he never succeeded in starting both horses at one and the same time. Moreover the youth as cheeky, and the selector’s temper had been soured: he cursed the boy along with the horses, the plough, the selection, the squatter, and Australia. Yes, he cursed Australia. (Quoted in Crombie, 1987).
Perhaps, there is a part of us that still wishes to curse this land for its unrelenting vastness that threatens, at times, to engulf us. The land has resisted domestication. Yet it is, precisely, this resistance that has spawned our national heroes, men and women who, in different ways, pitted themselves against such force in a frustration of hope. Time and time again, they lost. Yet, in their loss they recognized, along with David Malouf’s words for Voss in the libretto of the opera of the same name, that ‘the mystery of life is not solved by success, but by failure, by a perpetual becoming.’ Subsequently, Australians have a natural affinity with those, who in their defeat, continue to hope. As Joachim Dirks has commented:
The preoccupation with struggle against overwhelming odds is surely a significant component of the Australian national psyche in so far as there is a marked tendency for Australians to see themselves as strugglers or to identify themselves with those who struggle to survive or to improve their lot…
…[In] the Australian version of the[e] perennial myth the quest seems to end in failure (glorious) more often than not. Our hero seems to be the tragic hero, the would-be hero who is undone by a flaw or weakness in his character of who simply cannot match the strength of the forces pitted against him, and so is vanquished (Dirks, 1984).
From penal settlement and convict experience, through to the mythology of the pioneer farmer, and to the shores of Gallipoli, Australians, historically, have defined themselves as those who pitch themselves against overwhelming odds with every prospect of defeat, yet discovering there a new sense of solidarity with one another.
Such is the contextual experience of hope in Australia. Behind the highly charged symbolic attraction of Anzac Day, I contend, lies such a national acknowledgement and identification. It is a spirit re-enkindled as communities discover a depth of bond as they face the natural disasters of fire and flood. As Seamus Bradley wrote in his commentary ‘One Hot Day in Hell’, an account of the deadly Victorian bushfires on 26 January 2003, and which acted as a commentary to Campion Decent’s play, Embers:
Again and again the fire attacks, again and again it is pushed back. When, on January 30, a huge ball of flame and smoke rolls over Omeo setting much of the town alight, Benambra again fights for survival…Reid [the CFA operations manager] pays tribute to the townsfolk and the local CFA for putting up such a dogged fight. ‘It’s the only community that didn’t need contract catering,’ Reid says. For an independent community, it’s the highest compliment possible.
A similar grit, fully open to the prospect of failure, but, nonetheless, hoping, and in such a way to experience an unexpected shared solidarity even with the stranger, is touched upon, I suggest, in the annual cycle of the ritual of sporting competition.
The experience at the heart of the Anzac Mythology—pitching ourselves against overwhelming odds, and finding ourselves defeated, yet having discovered an unmistakable experience of solidarity with each other precisely in the possibility of defeat - enables us to understand the purifying outcome of a hope, deepened, and as springing from the experience of contingency.
Though on the surface we appear to lead affluent lives, unaffected by civil and political disorder, perhaps our smallness against the tyranny of the continent’s distance and isolation, gives us a native understanding of the solidarity of a shared experience of hope, and the suffering with another: the con-solatio, the experience of consolation in the heart of suffering, about which Spe Salvi speaks, and in which we might intuit the redemptive dynamism disclosed through suffering that is shared (nn. 36,38). At least, we celebrate such in a national mythology that, in a sustained way, prefers those who, in Les Murray’s words, do not stray from the common dish—‘that vessel of common human sufferings, joys, disappointments, tragedies and bare sufficiencies from which most people have to eat in this world, and from which some choose to eat in order to keep faith with them.’ As Murray explains:
This dish is the opposite of the medieval Grail, which was a vessel attained only by a spiritual elite. To refuse the common ration, or to fail at least to recognize and respect it, earns one the contempt of the battlers and all who live under the laws of its necessity. It is a harsher vessel than the Christian chalice, and not identical with it, except perhaps for the saints, but I believe it lies close to the heart of the Australian consciousness, and can never be safely ignored. (Murray, 1982)
It is the Common Dish that provides us in Australia with a proletarian spirituality.
Such national experience provides us, perhaps, with a worthwhile window through which to begin to reflect on Spe Salvi—On Christian Hope (2007). In many ways, in distinction perhaps from the experience of the United States, we have not been allowed, in this place, the luxury of many of the counterfeits of hope, a number of which Spe Salvi identifies—political ideologies promising utopian idealism, on the one hand, or the illusion that the collectivization of property makes for selflessness (nn. 24-31). The grand idea has never had much attraction in such a landscape of contingency. Though we have not been rendered immune from scientific and secular counterfeits of hope, manifest in uncritical trust in human progress and technological advance, we have been spared, too, those religious counterfeits of hope in millenarian movements, prosperity gospels and various forms of theocracies.
From this context we come to read Spe Salvi as Australians and, in particular, the section, ‘‘Settings’ for learning and practicing hope.’(nn. 32-40) Surely, our national context is one such setting, too easily taken for granted, but one from which we can derive much insight into the encyclical’s treatment of hope.
It is the section, ‘’Setting’ for learning and practicing hope’ on which I especially wish to focus in this paper. In the section prayer is what is presented as a more immediate context from which hope arises. Prayer is described as a ‘school of hope.’ It is so, perhaps, because prayer is essentially that place of intersection between our own hoping, on the one hand, caught up into a process of increasing purification and deepening, and, on the other hand that hope given us in the mystery of Christ.
The understanding of prayer as a place of intersection might enable us to recognize more clearly the implicit affirmation in Spe Salvi that Christian hope enjoys a kind of typology. The paragraphs in the encyclical that discuss prayer as a school of hope are weaved on the basis of this typology, though not made quite as explicit as one, perhaps, would expect. Though they are enmeshed, one in the other, there are, in fact, two types of hope: human and theological. They are experienced in the other, but they are, nonetheless, differentiated.
This typology of hope, finding its concrete realization in the experience of prayer, might be understood as firstly, human hope—arising from what we do not have, and secondly, theological hope—arising from what we do have, i.e. from what we have been given in Christ.
Human hope, firstly, is born of what we do not have. This is the hope that we might draw from the lessons of our own national mythology. Such hope can present as the catalyst for our praying. We pray out of a desire that seeks its fulfillment.
…Our desires imply a condition of incompleteness because they speak to us of what we are not, or do not have. Desire is also, therefore, a condition of openness to possibility and to future. Desires may ground us in the present moment but at the same time they point to the fact that this moment does not contain all the answers (Sheldrake, 1994).
In this way, we hope because we desire, and desire, within the Christian tradition, is what we might call ‘the royal road of prayer.’ All prayer is permeated by hope. To pray is to hope, and, to hope is, in some ways, to pray - the truth of which is realized more fully, the deeper the ground of our hope. Drawing from the experience of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, imprisoned in Vietnam, Pope Benedict suggests that such hope, informed by our desire, arises most profoundly from the experience of our solitude (n. 32). Yet, the solitude from which human hope stirs finds us in a diversity of ways. The conciliar colleague of Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner, reminds us of this when he poses the rhetorical questions:
Have we ever been silent although we wished to defend ourselves, although we were treated with less than justice? Did we ever forgive although we got no thanks for it and our silent pardon was taken for granted?…Have we ever made a sacrifice without thanks, acknowledgement or even sentiments of inner peace? Have we ever been thoroughly lonely? Have we had to take a decision purely on the verdict of our conscience, when we cannot tell anybody or explain to anybody, when we are quite alone and know we are making a decision no one can make for us and for which we shall be responsible to eternity?…
We can all perhaps see ourselves in such life experiences, or think of our own similar ones.
[I]f we can, then we have had…spiritual experience…: the experience of eternity…If we experience grace-filled spirit in this way…we are at prayer. (Rahner, 1975)
Human hope begins when our spirits come to a limit, and negotiate such a limit against that which all limit finds its relief—the incomprehensible horizon into which we are drawn ineluctably. As Spe Salvi beautifully traces, citing Augustine, in such a deepening of hope, our desire broadens and heightens (n. 33). However, as our desire purifies in the way that Spe Salvi indicates, our prayer itself changes. It grows from intercession though trust to contemplative desire.
The English spiritual author, Bernard Basset, writing in the 1950’s, gives an account of such a transformation in this quirky but wonderful description of prayer. He has the character, Miss Copsely Smith trace her way of praying through the imagery of that flat little cardboard man used in ancient days by doctors and nurses in their training. Just as each flap is opened up to reveal further organs, so we are to open ourselves in prayer, layer by layer, until, as Miss Copsely Smith recounts, we:
…arrive at the Ego or what I would prefer to call the heart. Lift up the flaps and I uncover the central longing, this yearning, this desire and I invite God to look in and to fill it up. I sit or lie down and being very liturgical, though the Canon does not think so, I say inside: ‘Take a peep O Lord.’ (Basset, 1968).’
The disclosure of this central yearning, the culmination of human hoping, achieves its greatest poignancy in the experience of suffering, particularly in the swirl of those questions that resist answer (n. 36).
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, expressed this same sentiment of that hope born in the midst of suffering in Salvifici Doloris (1984):
…the suffering human being knows that they are suffering and wonders why; and they suffer in a humanly speaking still deeper way if they do not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil. Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we always, at least to a certain extent, are asking a question about suffering too.
[We] put this question to God with all the emotion of [our] heart and with [our] mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it, as we see in the revelation of the Old Testament. In the book of Job the question has found its most vivid expression (nn. 9-10)
Spe Salvi rightly indicates that such a question finds insertion into an entire tradition of prayer (n.34). The Psalter is the prayer book par excellence of such hope. In this liturgy of hope, about which both Spe Salvi and Salvifici Doloris speak, we touch upon what Metz terms that ‘mysticism of suffering unto God’:
This language of prayer is itself a language of suffering, a language of crisis, a language of affliction and of radical danger, a language of complaint and grieving, a language of crying out and, literally, of the grumbling of the children of Israel. The language of this God-mysticism is not first and foremost one of consoling answers for the suffering one is experiencing, but rather much more a language of passionate questions from the midst of suffering, questions turned toward God, full of highly charged expectation…[This] is not a language of exaggerated affirmation, no artificial song of jubilation that would be isolated from every language of suffering and crisis and which all too quickly falls suspect to being a desperately feigned naiveté. What occurs in this language is not the repression but rather the acceptance of fear, mourning and pain; it is deeply rooted in the figure of the night, the experience of the soul’s demise. It is less a song of the soul, more a loud crying out from the depths—and not a vague, undirected wailing, but a focused crying-out-to.
…It is found today…wherever we pose to ourselves the ultimate and decisive God-question, the question about God in the face of the world’s abysmal history of suffering (Metz, 1998).
This mysticism of suffering unto God, part of Jesus’ own God mysticism according to Metz, is a thread that runs throughout the scriptural tradition, which might, itself, be viewed as an articulation of hope.
Human hope, however, comes to its limit. It stands in need of receipt of another hope—that which we know as theological hope.
Theological hope is born, not of what we do not have, but is born, rather, of what we have been given. Theological hope, the second of the three theological virtues, identified by Paul, (1 Cor 13:13), and thus by which we participate in God’s own life, is more than the realization of our own human aspirations, no matter how ardent they might be, and no matter how passionately they stretch out into the incomprehensible horizon of God’s mystery. As Pope Benedict writes in Spe Salvi, truly Christian hope ‘is the great hope based upon God’s promises that give us courage and directs our action in good times and in bad.’(n. 35)
Theological hope has its genesis, not within us, but outside of us. We have been given a word of hope. That hope is faith in a promise given (Gen 12:2-3; 13:15; Ex 6:5-8; Is. 65:17). Christian hope breathes on the irrevocable nature of this promise. It is the confidence (faith) that this cannot be forever frustrated.
The promise received, culminating in the proleptic event of Christ’s Resurrection, changes the way in which we see our life and which changes the way in which we do things. It is that promise that opens up for us new possibility even in the midst of what might be extraordinary limitation. The promise we have been given, and the hope that springs ever new from this faith, enables us to celebrate even in the face of frustration, distortion or limitation.
Such is the paradox of genuine Christian hope that it is most keenly experienced in the face of all that would seem to deny it. Genuine Christian hope is, therefore, exercised in the midst of evil: it is the projection of the Promise, given and received, over the absurdity of evil. St. Paul put it this way, ‘Affliction makes for endurance, and endurance for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope. And this hope will not leave us disappointed’ (Rom 5:3-5). This, then, becomes the basis for Paul’s prayer of celebration:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8: 35-39)
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict inserts such a proclamation in the moving testimony of Paul le Bao-Tinh, one of the Vietnamese martyrs (n.37).
In ‘The Flowering Light of the Godhead’ Mechtild of Magdeburg penned:
And God said to the soul
If Christian prayer finds itself in this confluence of desire, Christian existence, more generally, can be said to be that which finds itself in the intersection of these two hopes. In Christian life, hope meets hope. The hope that arises from our hearts in our struggle to find meaning in the face of all that threatens to overwhelm us, meets a hope that is the celebration of a Promise given to us.
In this intersection of hope, Lawson’s curse becomes not a weed, like Patterson’s, even spiritually, which threatens suffocation of our spirit. Now, even in the frustration of our human hope, we can celebrate in the assurance of a gift irrevocably given. Our ANZAC mythology finds its surest foundation
As Christians we are the people who live in this intersection. As those full of hope, we are the people to whom another hope has been entrusted. We are custodians of this hope received, and we are called to celebrate that hope. That hope received, meeting the hope that rises from our hearts, will enable us to act differently than the predicted concerns of the world dictate to us. We celebrate even in the face of the world’s darkness. It is a celebration of the freedom we have now because of that hope, of the beauty that we can create now because of that hope, and of joy that we can share now because of that hope.
Our prayer perseveres even in the face of suffering, and perhaps, because of it.
We can dance now even in our grief, we can love now in our fear. We can live now even in our death.
David Ranson is a priest of the diocese of Broken Bay, lecturing in spirituality at the Catholic Institute of Sydney where he is also Academic Secretary.
Bassett, Bernard. We Neurotics, (London: Doubleday Image, 1968), 32-33.
Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi—On Christian Hope, (30 November, 2007).
Dirks, Joachim. The Inner Snowy, (Melbourne: Spectrum, 1984), 20.
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, (11 February, 1984), 9-10.
Crombie, George. ‘Fate and Faith: A Reflection on Australian Culture’ Colloquium 20 (1987):1, 22-30.
Metz, Johannes. A Passion of God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, translated by J. Matthew Ashley, (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1998), 66-69.
Murray, Les. ‘Some Religious Stuff I know about Australia’ in The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today, edited by Dorothy Harris, Douglas Hynd and David Millikan, (Homebush West, N.S.W.: Lancer Books, 1982), 13-28.
Rahner, Karl. ‘The Possibility and Necessity of Prayer,’ in Christian at the Crossroads, (London: Burns & Oates, 1975), 60-61.
Sheldrake, Philip. Befriending our Desires (London: Darton, Longmann & Todd, 1994), 14, 16.
Winton, Tim in Qantas, The Australian Way (November 1999), 47.
Winton, Tim Land’s Edge (Sydney: Picador, 1993), 36.