On Hope and the Holy Spirit
“Be worthy of the flame consuming you.” —Paul Claudel
When a word is spoken, does anything happen? Take the word hope, for instance. When you hear it, does anything at all compute? In other words, will it signify in your mind some extra-mental reality, or is it mere sound and spelling? Samuel Johnson, in his famous dictionary of 1755, reminds us that words are like the daughters of earth: they point only to things. But these very things are like the sons of heaven, beyond which we need not go. Now, apart from the obvious sexism of which poor Dr. Johnson was perhaps unaware, he was clearly onto something. And in that little word hope, it seems to me, we have the most exquisite application of the point, especially in the wake of Pentecost.
Begin with this datum, which is that it is never the sound or the spelling of the word we cling to when we hear the word. Words, after all, only signify; they do not save. Rather it is the saving reality to which the word points that we find ourselves clinging, even as it reaches into depths we can no more parse than we can scale the heights to which it aspires. It is in the very nature of hope that it will always exceed the grasp of those who reach for it. Or, to put it a little differently, the outcome of my hope does not depend on me. It depends on Another, one in whom I have entrusted myself entirely.
When God tells us, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (31:3), what else can it mean but that God, having taken such pity upon our nothingness, actually took the trouble to bring us into being; and then, from moment to moment, prevents our falling back into nothingness. Hope, therefore, is not something I do, but rather the awareness that Another is doing it for me, and upon that rock I ground everything I’ve got.
Very specifically, then, on whom is this weight of hope to rest? The answer is plain: Jesus the Christ, who, in the only prayer he gave us, anchors everything to the Father, who is the primal and supreme source from whom every good thing is to come. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we ask. It is the perfect prayer of petition, ideally suited for those who have nothing yet, in assuming the outstretched arms of the beggar, yearn for more. And Christ, before his return to the Father, made two promises that would precisely and forever fulfill that hope, that holy desire we have which fires the human heart more than any rocket fuel for launching satellites into deep space. “I go and prepare a place for you … that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Followed by: “I shall not leave you orphans” (John 14:18).
Here are two wonderfully explicit promises, one for eternity, the other for time. Two sublime and unspeakable gifts, lavished upon those whom he loved to the very last: the gift of everlasting life, and the capacity to endure even this life. Both, of course, entrusted to the treasury of Holy Church, Christ’s very Bride, whose keys unlock all the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is worth recalling the narrative here. That Christ, before taking leave of the world, is at some pains to assure his disciples that he is not simply tossing their lives and fortunes to the four winds. Instead, he tells them, that they and the Church, and all her members to the end of time, shall be guided and shaped across that great and fearful sea of history by a very special wind, namely, the breath of God’s own Spirit, who brings unfailing comfort and counsel to God’s Pilgrim People. “I am with you always,” the Lord says, “until the end of the world.”
And what is the form that this being-with-you takes? It is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, of course, who, from all eternity, spirates the very love of Father and Son, transmitting it then to all who cleave to Christ. “If we imagine the Father,” writes St. Bernard in his Commentary on the Song of Songs (“the masterpiece of the Holy Spirit,” he calls it), “bestowing the kiss, and the Son receiving it, the Holy Spirit will be the kiss itself.” Which he thereupon bestows upon the world in the consuming event brought on by the great Pentecostal fire.
Who then is the Spirit? He is God’s very own presence among and within us, even as he remains effortlessly, eternally transcendent to us. Who descends into the gap that lies between heaven and history, in order to enable us — the Father’s own children, bought by the blood of his Son — to secure safe passage back to God. The Holy Spirit, “the inseparable companion,” notes St. Basil the Great, of Jesus while on earth, offers us today that same companionship. One cannot imagine a better friend.