It has been a long time since I did a blog post. This has mainly been due to the all-consuming task of managing a school during Covid. However, given that Advent is upon us, I thought it would be good to do a post for each of the four weeks of this very special season.
This Sunday saw the start of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Traditionally, each of the four weeks of advent has a theme. These themes are hope, faith, joy and love. The theme of the first week of advent is hope, so that is what I thought I would talk about today.
We are used to thinking of love and faith as spiritual and moral things, but I don’t think we are so used to thinking about what we hope for as an important part of our spiritual and moral life. Yet, most of the great religions and moral thinkers in human history have emphasised that we need to consider very carefully what we hope for.
Christianity teaches that faith, hope and love are the three greatest virtues or qualities we can possess, and that these three virtues can only truly be found through drawing closer to God in prayer.
Immanuel Kant – in my opinion, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived – argued that the three most important questions any human being can ask themselves are “what can I know?”, “what ought I do?” and “what may I hope for?”
Both Kant and the Christian Churches believe that what we hope for – what we desire – shapes our priorities in life. This, in turn, shapes how we behave which, over time, shapes who we become, And who we become as we grow older shapes our ultimate destiny – whether we are good and happy people or bad and sad people.
The Buddha made exactly the same point using slightly different language, when he said “Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”
Hope is not just important for human beings, it could be argued that it is the single most important thing we possess. It is, perhaps, the one feeling we really cannot live without. It is difficult to live without love, but it is possible. It is hard to live without happiness, but it can be done. But when hope disappears, that is when it is truly impossible to carry on.
Not only is hope vital to us, but it is at once very simple and rather mysterious. Despite our individual differences and the differences in our particular desires and fears at any given moment, when it comes to our big, permanent hopes, all human beings are the same: we all hope to be, as much as possible, comfortable and free from suffering and pain; we all hope that we can make connections with other people and both love and be loved; we all hope that our lives can be meaningful and useful, in the sense that – in however small a way – we can give something back to the world in which we find ourselves. Despite our incredible diversity and individuality, these three simple hopes unite all human beings.
But, when you think about it, hope is also quite mysterious in the sense that one would expect it to diminish as one gets older and the possibilities of life diminish, but it does not. I feel – if anything – more of a sense of hope and excitement about the future than I did when I was young. And when we think of the really old people we may know – people in their eighties or nineties who, by definition, have little in a physical sense left to look forward to – nevertheless, they are not despairing. They seem to have just as much of the fuel of hope left in them as the rest of us.
Does this mean that hope is irrational? That we go on hoping as we age, even when a consideration of the basic facts of life should tell us that with every passing year we have less to hope for? No. I think, instead, that it points to a difference between false hope and real hope.
False hope can be described as when we hope that the world outside us will give us gifts that apparently make life easier or happier – those exam results, that promotion at work, that big lottery win, or the love of that person we fancy. But, surprisingly, such things actually have little long-term effect on human happiness.
What seems to make us happy, to give us real and permanent satisfaction, is when we ourselves grow spiritually and morally – when we become wiser, more loving, more humble, more understanding and more patient. In other words, the big hope – the hope that sustains us all, however old we are and however much suffering we experience – is the hope that we ourselves are always changing for the better and growing towards some mysterious destiny. This mysterious destiny is something different religions may describe using different language – such as enlightenment, or the Kingdom of Heaven – but deep down it is something that we all recognize within ourselves: the hope that we can and will achieve a spiritual and moral growth that provides us with a sense of deep peace and satisfaction that can survive anything, even death itself.
So, we should all be very careful what we hope for. If we hope only for good things to happen to us and for our life to be easy, our well of hope will – sooner or later – run dry. If, instead, we hope to always keep striving to be the best version of ourselves that we can be – we nurture within ourselves a hope that can never be destroyed. Jesus made exactly this point in the Gospel of Luke, when he told his disciples: “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
But, using much simpler language, the point was perhaps best made by the great Catholic Archbishop, Oscar Romero, who simply said, “Aspire not to have more, but to be more.”