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Cultivating Hope

By Daniel Martins

The coronavirus lockdown has affected different people in many different ways. When I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, I am brought up short by the recollection of those whose lives have been utterly shattered — primarily those who have gotten sick, and those who love and care for them, but certainly those who have lost their livelihoods (my own daughter among them). I still have a job that pays me, and since I was already working from home three days a week anyway, much of the substance of my daily routine has been left intact.

Still, I am not too proud to say that, yes, I have suffered, and continue to do so. To be deprived of sharing the ministry of word and sacrament with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day just plainhurts at a cellular level. I, along with a few thousand of my clergy colleagues, have had to become autodidacts in the fundamentals of video production and editing. I’ve participated in two podcasts, acquiring the use of a professional-grade microphone for one of them. I’ve learned how to admit people from the “waiting room” in a Zoom meeting.

Neither I nor any of my colleagues in ordained ministry whom I know have had the time to binge streaming movies and TV shows. We’ve all been busier than ever trying to figure how to just be who we are in this strange territory we have been forced to traverse, devoid of most of the navigational landmarks we’re accustomed to depending on. In my anecdotal experience, most parish clergy — and, for that matter, diocesan bishops — have done amazingly well. They have responded with truckloads of self-giving dedication.

But it comes at a cost. We’re not deep enough into this yet for there to be a body of data to draw on, so all I can do is testify to what I’m experiencing. I’m not in shock, but I feel like I’m being slowly corroded. The need to constantly reevaluate and reassess, going on now for more than three months, with no clear end in sight, is fatiguing. I feel simply drained much of the time. There are patches of what could plausibly be called depression. I am functioning quite well, but I am by no means “Okay.” I suspect that you are not okay either.

The Christian moral vision calls disciples of Jesus to cultivate virtue — specifically, the three “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and charity, and the four “cardinal virtues” of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Of these seven “heavenly virtues,” the three theological virtues — the ones cited by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and charity (love) — stand out. The “greatest of these” may indeed be love, but the one that addresses our current circumstances most directly is, arguably, hope.

Precisely because Christ is risen from the dead, those who are bound to him in faith are bidden to live in hope. We are to cultivate a habitual disposition of hope. The three theological virtues are all, at one level, facets of the same mystery; hope might be said to be a form of practiced faith. To hope is to affirm faith in the sovereignty and providence — to say nothing of the relevance — of God. If God matters, then one must hope. Of all the “new” material that was included in Hymnal 1982, the text that begins, “All my hope on God is founded” (665) has emerged as a bit of a workhorse among Episcopalians. The rest of the text unpacks the first line almost in a systematic manner, cataloging the various ways God sustains, provides for, nourishes, and enlivens those who are connected to him in faith. To believe in God is to have hope.

The entrance to the anteroom, so to speak, in Dante’s Divine Comedy bears the inscription “Abandon hope, all who enter here.” It is by no means the worst of fates to be consigned there; it’s a rather benign place, home of the “virtuous pagans” (including Dante’s own guide, the Roman poet Virgil). But the one thing missing is the very thing that alone satisfies the deepest longing of the human heart — hope for a vision of God in all his glorious beauty. Those in hell — whether the virtuous pagans at the top or the Devil himself in the frozen lake in the nethermost pit — are all denied the comfort of hope in eternity because they ignored the virtue of hope in this mortal life. They succumbed, instead, to the sin of despair, which is the obverse of the virtue of hope.

Is there a proverbial silver bullet here for those who feel themselves stuck in a coronavirus malaise? Clearly not. But that’s just the thing about hope: It doesn’t lift us out of whatever we’re going through; it gets down there in it with us. Hope modifies our experience of travail, the way an adjective modifies a noun. It’s an inflection, an asterisk, an indefatigable “Yes, but…” Yes, I’m going through what I’m going through, and it’s truly the pits, but a good God reigns, Jesus is Lord, and all will be well. Yes, life is redefined right now in ways few among us might have anticipated.

The worst part, perhaps, is that we don’t know when it will end. How I wish I could say to the communities of my diocese, “On the Umpteenth Sunday after Whatever, we can re-enter our churches and sing the full-throated praises of God, exchange the sign of peace, and gather at the altar to share the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood.” But I cannot. Instead, I can cultivate hope and invite those committed to my charge to imitate me.

When I last visited Brazil, the country of my birth, in 2007, I was taken with a peculiar devotion, originally imported from Portugal, but now firmly rooted in the state of Bahía, and its capital city of Salvador — Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, which can be roughly translated as Our Lord of the Good Outcome. There’s a church with that feast of title (indeed, quite a feast: ten days beginning on the second Thursday after the Epiphany) in which are collected all manner of crutches, prosthetic limbs, and other artifacts of affliction from those who have experienced healing as a result of this devotion. To be devoted to Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is to live in hope. As we plod through the unexpected and unwelcome season of Coronatide, may we be sustained by Our Lord of the Good Outcome.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.

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