The Paradox of Christian hope and optimism amidst the world’s hopelessness and pessimism
“The heresies that have attacked human happiness in my time, have all been variations either of presumption or of despair; which, in the controversies of modern culture, are called optimism and pessimism.”-G. K. Chesterton, “The History of a Half-Truth,” Where All Roads Lead
In the past, we have started Advent with this poem from Chesterton when we look at this time as being entirely liturgical. Its symbolic metaphor of a journey from darkness to light, of mourning to hope, as in the hymn “O, Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is accessible to everyone from the liturgical view, despite living in better circumstances in real life.
But under the continuing division in our country, the break down of real freedom throughout the world, with the ups and downs of what the media claims is an ongoing pandemic and the fallout of numerous natural catastrophes, the loss of family members and friends, it may be that you and I have experienced, not a straight linear path from darkness to joy during this Advent season, but one of ups and downs, from darkness one day, to the glimmer of light the next only to plunge into darkness again. Sometimes the brightness seems well established one day, only to have a dark day right after.
Such a way of life was not unfamiliar to both Gilbert and Frances in their day; they both had griefs and struggles throughout their lives. They even lived through the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Frances struggled with depression over the death of one of her relatives and the unfulfilled longing to have a child. And Gilbert shared her sorrows as well as his own struggles.
It was out of those personal struggles with which God helped the Chestertons grow a deeper and stronger faith, that Gilbert penned the following about what real hope looks like:
Hope is a defiant thing. It is only for the one who can “hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn.”G.K. Chesterton, The Speaker, Feb. 2, 1901
Writer Michael J. Lichens had this to say about Chesterton’s struggles in his book Chesterton the Poet:
“While Chesterton was seen as a generally happy man, some scholarship indicates that he may have battled a depressive mood now and again. Certainly he wrote about the afflictions of his mind while a young man, and the death of his beloved brother caused him to compose some uncharacteristic harsh words in letters as well as meditations on suffering. In one of these spells he wrote ‘A Prayer in Darkness’ which, to this author’s mind, is Chesterton’s most moving poem.
‘A Prayer in Darkness deals’ with some blacker themes, much like his more famous ‘A Ballade of Suicide’, but it is also a poem of hope and gladness. The speaker of both poems is not able to change his circumstances, but can still find the things in life and in God that enable him to say, “I think I will not hang myself to-day.” It is not a mere empty comfort or a song of self-help but is in fact an acknowledgement of the state of the world and the troubles of the mind while still possessing the faith, hope, and the tenacity to seek out what makes life worth living.“
For some, in years past, Christmas has not been a happy time of gifts, song and good times with family and friends. But considering the world’s present unfortunate circumstances, it is likely more of us are looking at Christmas in the same way as these. The boisterous celebrations of the past that we have known may not be what they are this year or for years to come. This is not to say that our joy (or even Chesterton’s joy was) at the coming of our Lord diminished. We will always have that hope. In fact, these kinds of sadness, as Chesterton once observed, if viewed properly makes us love all the more. These harder times simply enlarge our perspective on life in this fallen world to a greater depth, increasing our compassion for others and echo to us those words from the Salve Regina:
“To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
Yes, we always have some hope no matter what our present circumstances, troublesome or dire, because we always have someone to turn to: our Father, God, His son, Christ and our mother, Mary, and a host of saints we can appeal to pray with us. Hope is something that will never desert us because they never will.
Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.G.K. Chesterton, “On Paganism and Mr. Lowes-Dickinson,” Heretics
Here then to consider for today’s Advent reflection even as we are just days away from what for the Christian is the most joyous time of the year, A Prayer in Darkness:
A Prayer in Darkness by G.K. Chesterton
THIS much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave,
Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead,
Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own,
In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,
The shining silence of the scorn of God.
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath,
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.