Note: This essay is a work-in-progress. It might never be finished. Or it might turn into a longer project. Who knows. For now, it is my gradual attempt at saying something about hope.
I. In the darkness of winter, Saint Francis stood before an almond tree and shouted, “Sister, speak to me of God!” The tree burst into bloom—a thousand silky petals appeared, white as the snow.
If I believe in anything, or if I was pressed to articulate something I believe, or if there is one thing I think is worth believing in, it is this: At our cores, we human beings are not consumers or citizens, criminal or christlike. We are creatures. And as creatures we carry in each of us a spark. Call it the inner light or consciousness, god or God, call it the amazing amalgamation of matter and deep time. But by whatever name, the spark exists in all of us, and in all of creation. This spark we all share in common is the source of my hope.
But I have also carried in me a quiet sadness my entire life. My earliest memory: not an event, but an image, an impression. Me, standing in my room alone, looking out the window. I try to tell myself that I was watching other kids play without me, or that I was sent there as punishment, trying to find a reason for my sadness. But there were no kids outside, and I wasn’t in trouble. I was simply sad, and aware of my sadness.
I imagine Saint Francis walking the woods in a sadness similar to mine. Seeking a sign of life, a reason for hope, finding none. Then he calls it forth from an almond tree. What boldness. What foolishness to imagine such a miracle in the depths of winter.
These days such miracles never seem to occur. Who can imagine modern man speaking an almond tree into bloom? Some days we don’t even bother to summon our own sparks: Ignite!
II. I sometimes feel my daily task as some kind of burden. This image, a gift from my sister, speaks to me of this burden—a reality that exists most acutely on my hunched shoulders, my bent neck, or, more accurately yet unseen in this image, in the creases of my furrowed brow. These forehead tuck-points, concealing the prefrontal lobe of my brain, the part that does the incessant thinking planning scheming worrying forcing thinking thinking thinking. Never mind the burden I haul behind: I carry my heaviest burden here, in the square inch above and behind my two eyes. This compression and fluttering and achievement and drive. When I live in my head, which is most of the time, I can convince myself that this burden can be lifted if only I could change my mind, as if I could do some flip of the switch from sadness to joy, despair to hope, change my mind from being weighed down into a sense of lightness.
But if I’m being honest, there’s something else to my burden I can’t so easily dismiss, something that does not go away by simply shifting the weight off my mind for a time. There’s something about this burden that seems essential, that is mine alone to carry forth—toward what, or why, I don’t know.
III. Creature, can you relearn to be? Unfurrow thy brow and unclench teeth. Relax the jaw. Remember: breathe.
IV. One night when I was seven or so, my family sat eating dinner on the deck in our backyard. My sister looked up at the sky and gasped. We all craned our necks. An ocean of orange and black fluttered above us, thousands of monarch butterflies flying and filling the branches of our tall oak trees, taking a break on their long journey from Canada to Mexico, a journey guided by their collective memory.
And once I read of the wisdom of elephants, the way the eldest in the herd keep memories of the landscape and its changes over many decades, especially where water can be found. In years of draught, the herd depends on the memory of the elders to find water. In herds where the elders have died off, or have been killed by poachers, the memory is lost, and so is the herd.
Who among us remembers this path?
Perhaps hope is not in the memory itself. Memory is in the mind. Perhaps hope is in the memory put to movement. A leap to the sky, a shuffle of the feet, either way, hope is always in motion.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry, “Manifesto”
V. Laughter and joy, yes, of course. Slight adjustments. But hope? Hope seems to sink deeper, somewhere closer to the realm of disposition, not as simple as flipping a switch. Hope can grow or whither over time. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” But can hope fly in the face of the facts? Is hope able to simply face them? In a staring contest between hope and the facts, which one flinches first?
Consider some facts: We have entered the sixth mass extinction of living creatures. For the first time in two centuries, my generation’s life expectancy will likely be shorter than our parents’ generation. My government has tortured innocents, spied on citizens, and murdered children. Our democracy has been hijacked. Income inequality is at a historic high. Descendants of our nation’s slaves still aren’t fully free largely due to our prison pipeline. The increasing loss of pollination systems threatens our ability to grow food. For the first time in human history, we are permanently removing water from the water cycle in order to frack shale gas up to the surface of the Earth. Our religions are at war over their God and their lands, and our governments are at war over their Economy and its fuel.
Few of us can see the stars, few can view a sky that deepens and widens the longer we stare. And a lack of stars in one’s life places limitations on perspective. I don’t mean that to sound too philosophical. I mean it to sound like a fact: We are creatures who evolved beneath a blanket of inumerable twinkling stars that we can no longer see.
We have good reason for despair, for sadness, for a shared grief. We have good reason to mourn our many losses. And yet. (So much hope packed into those two quick syllables . . . )
I would like to think there is a difference between helplessness and hopelessness. Even as human civilization continues to destroy creation and her creatures, and even as human communities face the consequences of such destruction, surely one can still live as if life matters, as if life is sacred. As Pierre Teillard de Chardin wrote, “nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” One can still see love and choose love in small and foolish ways every day, make a habit of it even.
One can also choose not to.
VI. Perhaps this is all beginning to get closer to what I mean by such small hope. Or perhaps my task here is already proving to be a fool’s errand, attempting to illuminate hope and take hope down a notch at the same time.
VII. Twelve years ago, after two long days of delayed flights, I finally landed in London. I dropped off my bags at the hotel and hurried through the streets of London to meet my soon-to-be wife, Kristen, on the north side of the Millennium Bridge. Kristen was studying in Cambridge for the year while I had remained at our small liberal arts college in Liberty, Missouri. Not only were we spending our engagement an ocean apart, but we were also each going through the collapse of our Christian faith—everything we thought we knew about God and the world around us no longer made the same sense. For me, it was also the collapse of my foreseeable future—I had planned on going into ministry.
Some would call this experience the “dark night of the soul,” a period of doubt, an experience of alienation from God. But every dark night always has a dawn, right? All nights must end. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, many have experienced dark nights, and some of them lasted years or even decades. But the dark night, so the story goes, always comes to an end. The narrative of the saints is always bound to the narrative of the church: This too shall pass. Doubt gives way to faith. Discord leads to resolution. It is darkest just before dawn. But what of the rest of us whose life narratives resist getting dressed up for church?
Hold on to that for a moment. Step over here and look at this:
Dissonance in music is often heard as several notes that are not in tune with one another. Dissonance can sound harsh, like nails on a chalkboard. The listener’s mind is immediately thrown into the expectation of, a search for, the next line in the song that offers the hope of harmony.
But I’m interested in the dissonance itself. Not because it is a means to an end, nor because of the hope for harmony, nor because it promises something—but because it is something. Dissonance is a created thing; it exists no less than harmony. Dissonance is a tension that demands its own attention, rather than immediate resolution. I’m interested in dissonance because it seems to reflect the space where I have remained, a space I have learned to live in, and a space that I have even learned to love. It is both my burden borne and my burden lifted.
But back to the narrative, untidy as it may be.
That day in London, once I found Kristen (this was before cell phones, so it took a while), we crossed the bridge together and entered the Tate Modern Art Museum. “I have something to show you,” she said. We didn’t talk much. We had spent the year writing letters and emails, spending long hours on the phone, sharing long distance our own distances from the belief and faith we thought would burn bright forever. Now that we were finally together, there wasn’t much left to say. Her presence was language enough.
She blindfolded me with a scarf and led me by the hand down a hall. I couldn’t see anything yet. We suddenly stopped walking. She still said nothing. I didn’t know what to think, but I already felt a warmth, could sense a glowing somehow. She removed the blindfold and I looked up at this:
The exhibit, titled The Weather Project, was installed in the world’s largest gallery space, Turbine Hall. Danish artist Olafur Eliasson placed mirrors over the entire ceiling, effectively doubling the size of the 500-feet-tall, charcoal-colored room. Along the top edge of the south wall he hung a glowing semi-circle, so with the mirror above, the effect was a full-circle sun suspended over a large room full of visitors who could see their reflections on the ceiling. A soft mist filled the room, adding to the strangeness of the experience.
I almost said otherworldliness of the experience, but otherworldly is exactly what it wasn’t.
It’s only looking back now that I can articulate my response in that moment: I was struck dumb, no thought, only sensation and encounter, as if I was no longer in a museum but standing beneath our sun in a field of hundreds of other quiet bodies. I was at home, right here in a world that exists beyond the language in my mind, a world tethered by a force that reaches across the darkness to give warmth and light, and I was—no, I am—fortunate lucky blessed chanced loved? enough to be in the reach of such an embrace.
We spent an hour or so beneath the sun, then exited the museum and found ourselves under an overcast sky.
VIII. Kristen and I spent another two days in London and Cambridge before boarding a plane for Italy, where we would spend the week exploring both the monuments and the ruins of our faith.
In Rome one day we entered the jail cell where Saint Peter called forth a spring from beneath the stone floor so he could baptize his fellow prisoners. (What boldness. What foolishness to imagine such a miracle in the confines of prison.) We walked through St. Peter’s Basillica at the Vatican, where I stood beneath a statue of the man for whom I was named, Saint Andrew, clutching his X-shaped crucifix, a man who spent his dying breaths still proclaiming his Christ. And what was I to do now? I could no longer utter a single certainty, and I somehow both embraced and feared such freedom, felt both troubled by and tethered to such dissonance.
One night as we finished a bottle of wine, Kristen started talking about Nietzche, whom she was studying that semester, a man we were told never to read at the risk of losing our faith because he had once proclaimed that God is dead. I remember Kristen leaning forward with a quivering but large smile, saying, “Nietzsche didn’t just say God is dead. He said God is dead . . . and we have killed him! Isn’t that incredible?” I wasn’t entirely understanding her, but I did understand that I was witnessing Kristen’s liberation from a lie, the lie that said we should fear the world, fear an uncertain future, fear our not knowing, fear the possibility of being merely creatures on this earth.
(How badly I want to erase the word merely.)
So many false dawns, so many gods we can’t help but lay to rest. Answers to question. Burdens to be borne. A hope that ebbs and flows, rises and sets, comes and goes, a hope that places crazy bets and seems to be always losing, such small hope that can’t yet bring itself to fold.
IX. Today is summer solstice, and a wild peace is here. A summer of violence, nations crying for mercy, wealthy men with hearts of stone, the glow of screens on faces, collapses of all kinds, and a wild peace is here. Among us, within us. On the far side of a field where chaos duels order is a blanket in the shade of a tree called Sabbath. I want to lay there with you, to bask and breathe and be. There is pain in the birthing but the joy comes through. All stars will go black but the joy comes through. But take heart. This is the day our sun shines brightest upon us, warms us, penetrates us with the same stuff that makes the stars, if we open ourselves and give ourselves over to the opening, if we embrace a season of bold declarations, our deepest selves in fullest bloom. Water leaping from beneath the stone. Our sparks igniting and joining the stars in their given work.
X. Seven thousand light years from Earth are the Pillars of Creation, three long trunks of gas and dust, each trunk several light years in length and larger than our solar system. The pillars themselves are gradually eroding, evaporating back into space. But deep inside the pillars, stars are slowly growing, in process of being born, becoming one more amazing amalgamation of matter and deep time.
This sadness that lingers, the burdens carried, the violence that emerges, the struggle–perhaps our suffering is, in part, the consequence of not being fully who we are. Clenching back the bloom, snuffing out the spark. And for what? Meanwhile, out in the firmament the Pillars risk everything for the sake of their own beautiful blooming. Meanwhile, a cicada is pushing its way through the dirt, into the light, and splitting its own old skin for the sake of emerging into new life. Our sufferings are real, but so are the thousand small and daily resurrections.
to be continued . . .
About Such Small Hope:
An essay is an attempt at saying something. I’d like to say something about hope. Trouble is, hope is complicated. It has been hijacked by advertising and political campaigns. It has a lot of baggage. It seldom seems present. I often want to give up on hope.
But even in the face of never-ending wars, the mass extinction of species, the pillaging of Earth’s depths for oil, the disruptions of social order, the melting glaciers and rising seas, the loss of clean water and arable land, the deaths of children by machines, the corruption of our institutions, and the state of denial we’ve collectively entered, somehow I still have this small hope, stuck to me like a burr. I can’t shake it off.
I want to understand such small hope. I want to try to say something about it. But it will take time. So this essay will grow slowly. I’ll add a sentence here, a paragraph there, maybe every day, maybe every other week, a slow unfolding of an essay.
So there you have it, the nuts and bolts of this essay-in-progress. You can always start again at the beginning, or skip to the latest paragraph or sentence. You can read regularly, or wait until the end of the year to read the whole (completed?) thing. Each addition will be numeralled Romanically. Perhaps one day it will all make sense. I hope.
(Image 1 contributed by Missy Rich)