Hope in a season of darkness…

Martha Stortz
Santa Clara University—End-of-Year Liturgy

In these darkest nights of the year, there’s one trade that flourishes: the booze cruises between Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark. With only about four hours of daylight each day, the Swedes have too much time to contemplate the darkness, and they book in droves on large passenger ships that ferry them over to Denmark and cheaper liquor prices. It’s a two-hour passage, and visitors are well-lubricated even before arrival. You don’t even want to imagine the shape they’re in upon return. The Swedes protest they are stocking up for the holidays, but I suspect theirs is more a gesture of hopelessness than hospitality.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson with her own edgy precision. The problem with a Scandinavian winter, though, is that it’s too dark to see the trees, much less anything that might be perched there. But Dickinson captures the fragility of hope, particularly that sort of hope that invests in outcomes. Ah! We all hope for things, various things—and not only things with feathers. Hope for coveted things or desired outcomes is like a Christmas list, endlessly open to revision. One of my nieces keeps resubmitting hers, as the latest fads vie for top billing. She wants shoes, that’s clear, but there the common thread unravels. She wants a new pair of Nikes, with flashing lights that can be seen in the dark. This strikes me as a considerably healthier longing than the next entry: turquoise, open-toed, stiletto-heel party pumps—with sequins. You catch that twelve-year-old attraction to glittery, flashy things. You also catch that tween-age hope for something that borders on fantastic, considering the likelihood she’ll actually get either of these pairs of shoes. But that’s the problem of desperately hoping for something: we don’t know what to wish for.

Actress Judy Dench remembers herself as a twelve-year-old girl on holiday in the Côte d’Azur, crazy over another pair of shoes, like my niece’s way too expensive—and way too old for her. Her father demurred, suggesting they ponder the purchase over lunch. At the fancy seaside restaurant, Judy just had to have the shrimp, the most expensive item on the menu. Her father obliged; she gobbled them down, and at the end of the meal he smiled benignly: “You just ate your shoes.” Captive to desire and fancy, fad and fantasy, what we hope for alters too quickly. And sometimes in the darkest moments we don’t know what to hope for at all.

When Bill was dying, I said exactly that to a friend: “I don’t know what to hope for at this point.” Should I hope for him to beat this infection, but continue living in a world without language? Should I hope for death to intervene quickly, mercifully? Outside of a miracle, I couldn’t imagine an outcome that would restore any shred of the Old Life, the life we thought we’d signed up for together. So was I hopeless—and ready to book on one of those blurry booze cruises?

I could literally not imagine what to hope for, but a deep and abiding hope held me. In dark uncertainty, where desire refuses to focus, you discover hope in something or someone. You don’t so much have this hope, the product of fierce focus or creative imagination or even deep faith. Rather, this kind of hope has you. All you have to do is fall into it, like a trapeze artist falls into a net. She’s missed the catch, but she dared everything, risked it all—because she knew the net was there.

This kind of hope does not look forward to possible outcomes; it reaches back to what is real. And what is real? The love of family and friends, imperfect though it be at times; the solidity of work we do together—also at times imperfect; the sturdiness of colleagues, even and especially when we disagree; the daily graces that swarm every moment we haven’t managed to over-schedule or fret away. This hope in what is real anchors us in rough seas. Like any good captain we find that when the storm intensifies, we have simply cast a deeper anchor.

For Christians, Muslims, and Jews this hope in something is uniquely a hope in Someone, whether Allah or Elohim or Christ, and we find that hope in spite of ourselves. Most of the time, however that hope finds us, something the anonymous author of “Amazing Grace” put in words we sing with deep longing: “I once was lost, but now am found… ” Found, located, placed again on the map: who would have guessed it? Who would have figured we would be here? Hope in someone is powerfully and paradoxically that someone’s presence for us and in us—even in spite of us. Bill and I found ourselves in words we overheard in an ancient letter to a long-dead community, allegedly written by the apostle Paul to the scattered fellowship of the Colossians: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).

But let’s fast-forward to summer. Hope in someone is a lot like the child I watched at the pool this summer. He was terrified of the water; he couldn’t even stand to get wet. But he lept into his father’s arms, suddenly bold, suddenly a swimmer. He knew he could count on his father catching him. And that certainty grounded his hope.

May the arms of hope catch you in this season of darkness—and bright light.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the Strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson, XXXII, Part One: Life, Complete Poems (1924).