I haven’t been trying to build up tension before posting this fourth part of this consideration on the current vocation crisis in consecrated life. The delay could have been a pedagogical tool to let the data sink in and to let readers, monastic and non-monastic alike, assess their situations and realize that there are similar crises in all vocations; even in recruitment for more secular enterprises. However the delay was not intentional. I’ve been entertaining a long-term guest, an old friend and overestimated how much I could get done in the past week.
I’ve been encouraged by the feedback by way of your comments and in some face-to-face conversations. Many people have reason to hope that Holy Cross Abbey will survive and continue to offer our hospitality far into the future. Amen! And a number of you are aware of the unpredictable ways God acts and that there is always good reason to trust. Amen, amen!
Over the past months, Abbot Robert has given a number of Sunday Chapter Talks about the role of hope in the context of our vocational challenges. Our community meetings consider how we can deepen our commitment to the monastic enterprise to till the soil for what God would do with us. Our senior monk, Fr. Paschal Balkan, reminds us again and again that we would only have no future if we give up and cave in. We feel that we, indeed, have a lot to offer.
I’d like to start with some reflections on hope in the light of the Abbot’s teaching. Of course, hope is not a facile optimism and hope is not concerned with a sure thing. It is the risk taker who needs hope, not the cautious soul trapped in the predictability of routine. If I don’t want anything to change, if I want the familiar, I’m leaving no room for hope; at the same time I’m really courting petrification or even death. Hope brings with it the possibility of change, of being stretched, of being pushed into new territory. It will not sanction the status quo. In a certain sense, I must have discovered the inadequacy of the status quo to invite hope into my situation. I can miss hope, its opportunities and its arrival if I have defined too narrowly what the future should look like. Inviting hope means inviting surprise. It may also demand letting go and, in some sense, letting what I treasure most die.
Conceptually, we know this too well, so well, that we don’t even pay attention to it or smooth over the rough edges with plaster-cast prettiness. I refer to our basic Christian model of the last week of Jesus’ life. In fact, pious Christians can too glibly refer to “dying with Christ” by applying the words to the most trivial inconveniences. In actual fact, Jesus was struck with crippling fear facing his death; he really, physically suffered and painfully died, crying out his sense of abandonment before he expired. Perhaps his disciples, never quite understanding his teaching or predictions, suffered more, suddenly disillusioned and hopeless. Judas really hung himself and Peter really denied knowing Jesus, emotionally lacerating himself with regret and self-accusation (how else do we know what he had done except by his own confession?) when he came to his senses. First we go through our personal hell before we enjoy the harvest of hope. In classic literature, we have Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I read more and more as a description of middle-aged disillusionment and breakthrough. Have you ever noticed that the same kind of sinners are in hell and purgatory (and even heaven), according to Dante? The difference is that the souls trapped in hell gave up, were so self-absorbed or immune to change that they just settled down in what never really worked in the first place. And they presumed–or chose–that there was no other option. Perhaps that’s a good definition of hell! The people in purgatory and heaven grasped (and were grasped by) alternatives, the ultimate creativity out of the narrow confines of self-absorption; and they were radically changed. That’s the soil of hope. In popular literature (and films) there’s the figure of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Through the narrative, he resists his call to kingship but to achieve the necessary defeat of a foe threatening all good living, he must enter the realm of the dead to emerge as the true leader capable of victory. I mention these two works of imagination because we have not cloaked them in the lifeless piety that often distances the gutsy, human and experiential content of the Scriptures. Our hedge of devotion around the Gospels can render them lifeless and disconnected from our own lives. What I’m saying is that hope will cost me something, something valuable. If we’re unprepared for that sacrifice, we might as well just give up.
Once we invite hope–and damn the cost!–we are really ready to pray “thy will be done”. Jesus prayed that not only in the Our Father but in Gethsemane when he revealed what “thy kingdom come” feels like. It’s a real birth complete with birth pangs. The fruit of hope may bear no resemblance to our expectations. Is that why Mary Magdalene, the disciples on the way to Emmaus or Peter, James and John, out fishing after the resurrection, didn’t at first recognize the Risen Jesus?
Inviting hope would encourage us, would dare us to pray. Abbot Robert has reminded us over and over how Jesus assures the apostles in St. John’s account of the Last Supper–the so-called Farewell Discourse–that if they ask for anything in Jesus’ name, the Father will grant it to them. How often in our lives do we only recognize in retrospect that God has already answered our most heart felt prayer in a way we never expected? And how often is it actually better than anything we could have imagined? Costly, perhaps to my comfort and complacency, but so much better! In such hope is embedded the challenge: what is God calling us to be in the Twenty-first Century? To answer that question, I, as yet, have no description. But it’s my hope to discover just that and discover it by living our evolving future.