During this past year, especially the past couple of months, I find myself reflecting frequently about darkness, light, and hope. Daily during Lauds in chanting or reciting the Canticle of Zechariah, we profess our hope in God’s Love and Light: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78). Despite whatever darkness yesterday brought, we begin each day with a glimmer of hope. Yet each day during the past year it seemed the light and hope of the morning would be dashed during the day by the darkness of more losses.
Although all of us encounter loss and grief sooner or later, now all of us are collectively living in the darkness of loss and grief. And just as we never forget the last minutes or hours of a dying loved one, all of the painful images of these past months are burned into our memories, leaving our hearts aching and broken. As such we are overwhelmed by a raging flow of losses from a hidden deadly enemy, the SARS-CoV-2 virus: the loss of health, the loss of friends, co-workers, and family members, the loss of jobs, homes, food, security, and even the loss of the physical presence of community at work, school, church, and in our neighborhoods. Moreover, as if these losses were not enough, many of us have also had to continue enduring the loss of freedom and life just because we are refugees or immigrants, or people with brown or black skin. And, although all loss entails a loss of identity, we are now confronting the loss of our identity as Americans, as we can no longer evade the reality of racial injustice, police brutality, white supremacy, violence, and attacks on democratic values and institutions. We are confronted in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Denial, anger, sadness, and hopelessness are normal responses in grieving our losses. However, to heal we must accept the reality of loss and that we can’t return to life as it was and to who we were. Instead we must find hope in order to forge a new identity, a new life.
Thus in the midst of the darkness we are enduring, I search for signs of hope as perhaps you do. For me some of the fleeting glimpses that “dawn comes after the darkness of night” and “spring will follow winter” have been the song of a bird, the beauty of a leaf or flower, the appearance of buds on a bare tree, the sun shining after a day of gloom and rain, the picture of a mother smiling over a newborn and a toddler moving with joy. In recognizing these signs of hope we remember in the words of Desmond Tutu: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”
The most persistent messages of hope for me, however, have been the images of people reaching out to help others and to make our world more just and loving. These images include the exhausted healthcare worker clad in protective gear sitting with a dying patient, the teenager delivering food to a senior, the volunteers in masks loading food into a car at a food bank, the teacher delivering food or books to children in need, the thousands who marched and protested against the slaying of African Americans by police, and the thousands who stood in line for hours to vote despite a deadly pandemic and voter suppression. Diana Gaillardetz in her Advent reflection in Give Us This Day offered similar images concluding, “These are the messages of hope we cling to as we prepare for Emanuel. God is with us” (December 16, 2020). Indeed, the actions of so many are announcing God’s love to a world in darkness and thereby offer a way to God’s peace and justice. These images of people helping people enable us to “never lose hope in God’s mercy” (RB 4.74).
Also, in meditating on God’s loving presence and mercy as a source of hope, the concept of The Sacred Heart of Jesus as manifested in the passage from Mark where Jesus feeds the crowd because his heart is “moved with pity” comes to mind. Ultimately I find myself asking what will my response be to the immensity of God’s love, and what will I risk to reflect that love and be a messenger of hope. For as Johann Baptist Metz, a theologian formed by his experience of Hitler and World War II, said: “The Christian is not only responsible for what he (she) does or fails to do, but also for what he (she) allows to happen to others.” And Benedict said in the Rule’s Prologue, “If we wish to dwell in the tent of the kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds” (v.22). And yes Benedict also says to begin a good work, one must first pray earnestly for God “to bring it to perfection” (v.4). Likewise, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys stated “Prayer ought to carry over into our thoughts, our words, and our actions.” Or as Rabbi Herschel said in marching for civil rights, “I felt my legs were praying.”
In conclusion, I offer the closing words of Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb” that she recited at the Inauguration of Joe Biden:
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
By Marilyn Williams, Oblate OSB
(Board Certified Chaplain – National Association of Catholic Chaplains)