The light from beyond the dome

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13 Jan 2022

Hope encourages us to have a larger vision than the ‘dome’ within which we live.

In ordinary life we can’t escape from hope. If you find that your football team, which you know will lose, is ahead at half time, a sliver of hope will return. It will torment you even more when your team eventually loses. In the Jewish world into which Jesus came, hope underpinned their faith. The prophets foretold that the people would return from exile, and shared visions of the victory of God in a new heaven and a new earth. In Luke’s stories of Jesus’ childhood devout Jews keep that hope alive during a lifetime of waiting. Jesus himself promises that God will be with those who believe his message no matter how close they are to disaster. For Jesus at the heart of faith was a hope that triumphs in the face of all the evidence.

Suspicious of hope

Many Greek thinkers of Jesus’ time were deeply suspicious of hope. They had many experiences of hoping for a better world only to see their hopes brutally crushed. This made them see hope as a tempting and deceptive spirit to be feared. We were better off to guard against its coming because it could destroy us by making us forget our precariousness and aim too high. Better to believe that fate controls our life and to prepare bravely to face the worst.

That can be a noble vision. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two perceptive books about her experience in Stalin’s Russia, Hope against Hope, and Hope Abandoned, are a deep reflection on hope. Nadezhda is the Russian word for hope, and the books speak of an inner battle in which high hopes lead to disappointment and disillusionment. She hoped for a decent Russia where people would look beyond their fears to respect such values as truth, freedom and trust. 

This hope was embodied in her poet husband, Osip, whose commitment to live by these values in his writing and life had him sent to a Siberian gulag where he died. In her life, Mandelstam discovered how cowardice, self-deception, toadying and delating replaced these virtues in national life and in people whom she had respected. Hope for a generous world led to disillusionment, which was at the same time the recognition of a hard reality. And yet her unflinching description of the defeat of hope remains a triumph over despair. Its writing said that more
was possible. 

Large vision

Hope encourages us to have a large vision of our world. We can imagine it as surrounded by a dome under which our daily living – our business, our science, medicine and politics – takes place. In this space we can expect that all our ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions might be answered. For people of faith, the dome is like a jigsaw patterned with cracks between the pieces. Through them comes light from beyond the dome, from a sun that we cannot see. It is in this outer world of God that we might look for answers to the larger questions of why we exist and what we are made for.

Most of us, for most of the time, live comfortably within the dome. Our hopes are met there. Drought is usually followed by rain, illness by cure, broken relationships by time’s healing, business failure by new enterprise, threats of war by continued peace. 

We can find hope within the world of ‘hows’ and ‘whens’, and perhaps live and die without finding the need to look beyond it. But sometimes, as for Nadezhda Mandelstam, the hopes that we have in life within the dome may be systematically shattered. We then live in a world without grounds for hope. Hope becomes a decision, one that might seem to us as abandoning hope, and is an unrecognised gift. Mandelstam’s decision to write and finish her memoirs were both an acknowledgment that she had no rational grounds for hope and the expression of an unreasonable hope in humanity. For her readers it was a gift that strengthened their hope.

Hope in the extreme

Her experience and its challenge to hope were extreme. Many people, however, find themselves in a similar position towards the end of their lives, when the lights beneath the dome are steadily dimmed and hope that takes us beyond it comes into question. 

Christians may begin to question their hope in life after death, which earlier in life was taken for granted. I remember vividly a conversation with my mother towards the end of her life. She was devout, went to Mass daily, helped clean the church, loved religious art and stories and the seasons of the Christian calendar with its colours and feast days. Her faith seemed unquestioning and practical – she used to put a picture of Our Lady on the lawn before big events such as weddings and parties to ensure that Mary’s self-interest would keep the rain away. 

I was surprised one day when late in life she asked me levelly and with the seriousness reserved for important business, whether there was really life after death. I answered with equal seriousness that I hoped so, which seemed to satisfy her. 

Sometimes a modest hope shared is better than a ringing hope untested.

This article first appeared in the summer 2021-22 edition of Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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