By Ginny Schaeffer
Though the cherry trees don’t blossom
and the strawberries don’t ripen,
Though the apples are worm-eaten
and the wheat fields stunted,
Though the sheep pens are sheepless
and the cattle barns empty,
I am singing joyful praises to God.
I am rejoicing in the God of my salvation.
I am counting on God’s reality to prevail.
God is my strength and gives me the heart
to run like a deer all the way to the
top of the mountain.
-Habakkuk 3: 17-19
It is a ritual I never planned on creating, but one that grew out of necessity.
On New Year’s Day I remove the previous year’s calendar from its place of prominence in my bathroom and, with a new calendar in tow, I record all the birthdays and anniversaries for the upcoming year, but it is much more than that. As I go through each month, I am also reminded of what has happened in the past year. It’s all there, the happy, the sad and the mundane, everything from haircuts, doctor’s appointments, vacations, dinners with friends, births and deaths. There are moments of great joy, deep grief and “Oh yeah…” encapsulated in two to three words inside a dated block.
I realize that this simple act of recording important dates, looking back over the events of the previous year and forward to the possibilities of the new year is a ritual grounded in gratitude and hope. There is the anticipation of what good might happen, both planned and unexpected. Up to this point, there has been the confidence that my life, and that of those that I love, will unfold as it always has, with the occasional bump in the road, perhaps even a significant loss but nothing we could not handle. I mean, I’ve been living this life for over sixty years, what could happen?
Little did I know, as I sat down on January 1, 2020, what this year would have in store for all of us. Little did I know that I would mark March 6 as the day Coronavirus came to Kentucky and March 30 as the day I would begin working from home. Little did I know the holidays I would miss celebrating with my family: first, Easter, then Derby, family birthdays, a wedding, Thanksgiving, Christmas and my mother’s birthday. Little did I know that I would be unable to attend the funeral of someone very dear to me, who died before she needed to because of COVID-19. Little did I know that the deep wounds of racial inequality would rupture here in Louisville, spilling out onto the streets with protestors demanding justice following the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Little did I know that facial masks would become both political and fashion statements. Little did I know…
As I have pondered my home-spun ritual of letting go of the old, welcoming the new and looking forward to it with hope, I have begun to see how very much this hope is rooted in external circumstances and my illusion of being in control. It has been built on the shifting sands of the routine activities of my life, one day flowing into another without much disruption, of the status quo continuing unabated, of having everything I need and a good bit of what I want. In the last ten months I have had to come face-to-face with all that I take for granted and that has fed my naive hope built on a shallow foundation of things over which I have little to no control: my good health, daily comforts, my privilege as a white, middle-class, dare-I-say, older woman, the ability to pay my bills and have enough to eat. As I have witnessed others lose these, through no fault of their own, I have come to the realization that the hope I have depended upon is fickle, fleeting and fundamentally flawed.
What’s a girl to do?
As I have wrestled with this awareness, I was often reminded of ancestors who have suffered more than I can imagine and had reason to lose hope but did not. There were the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt, exiled into Babylon and oppressed by the Romans who called out to God, “How long, O Lord?” There was Jesus begging to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane and St. Paul shipwrecked, imprisoned and beaten who nestled hope between the great virtues of faith and love. There was Julian of Norwich who proclaimed, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” There was young Anne Frank who wrote of her experiences hiding from the Nazis before dying in a concentration camp and there was Archbishop Desmond TuTu who worked tirelessly to free his people from apartheid and then from anger and revenge with years of truth-telling and reconciliation.
How could their hope be so different than mine?
In her small yet profound book, Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault helped me to understand the difference between the hope offered by culture and society and swallowed hook-line-and-sinker by ego and a hope that is grounded in God’s love, mercy and desire for our well-being:
…[mystical] hope is not intended to be an extraordinary infusion,
but an abiding state of being… We ourselves are not the source of
that hope; we do not manufacture it. But the Source dwells deep
within us and flows to us with an unstinting abundance, so much
so that in fact it might be more accurate to say we dwell within it.[i]
Like the other virtues of love, peace and joy that flow freely from God and are distinctly different from than those offered by the world, mystical hope also differs greatly from that which most of us are familiar. First, it is not dependent upon external circumstances but has a life of its own. Its source is a Presence that dwells within each one of us. The fruit it bears is strength, joy, satisfaction and an “unbearable lightness of being.” [ii]
Once again, our task is not to conjure up hope but to become open to receive it as freely as it is given. We do this by creating space within our hearts and minds for it. We accept, with humility, that the common hope that so many of us look to is shallow and is easily swept away by circumstances. Why else would we declare certain situations as “hopeless?” We let go of our expectations and demands and pray for the grace to trust in God’s love and mercy. We find ways to connect with, plug into and be restored to the Ground of our being, who is the Source of mystical hope. Meditation, prayer, living mindfully and contemplatively with gratitude, reflection and spiritual reading are practices that help us to create that space for the gift of God that is hope.
In spite of the darkness of this winter, in spite of the many personal and communal crises that we will face let us resolve to be more like the prophet, Habakkuk, (see the epigraph above) who knows in his heart-of-hearts that it is the Creator of the cosmos who is his strength and joy and who empowers him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
[i] Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, (Lanham, UK, Cowley Publications, 2001)
[ii] Ibid, p. 9.