[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 16 October 2008]
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Heb. 11:1
I have a problem teen on my hands. She stays out late at night without asking, she brings home entirely unsuitable friends, she is fighting with her peers in the neighborhood and she hosts the occasional noisy late night party.The final straw came when she ran out of the house in a temper, and didn’t return for almost three days.
Thankfully my adolescent headache is not one of my children — but the family cat, who has taken to bringing home live chipmunks and getting into dust-ups with the local top cat. Fluffy recently went missing for several days, leaving my youngest son distraught.
“What if she doesn’t come back?” Chris wondered the first night. “She always comes back,” I reassured him. “Tomorrow we’ll find her meowing at the kitchen door.”
The next morning, there was no sign of Fluffy. Chris and I searched the neighborhood for her. No luck. “What if she doesn’t come back?” Chris asked despairingly as I tucked him in that night. “I hope she comes back. We can say a prayer.” He rolled his eyes at me. “I already did that, Mom,” I was informed. We said another one anyway.
Privately, I’d given up hope. I prayed that night not so much for Fluffy’s safe return, as for the grace to hope that she might, or at least the grace not to squash Christopher’s hopes.
Monday dawned. No cat. Hope was turning out to be a difficult virtue.
Chris headed out to catch the bus, I gathered my keys and dashed out the door to morning prayer — when I nearly tripped over the cat sitting patiently on the doormat.
Amidst the great rejoicing that ensued at the prodigal’s return, I was left wondering at Chris’ firm hope that all would be well and his awareness of its root in God’s care for him. Had I become so jaded that I could not hope along with him?
Perhaps. In his recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI observed that those of us who have been accustomed to living in Christ have “almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.”
The Pope began his letter by reminding us that Christian hope is not about what we know, but about how we live in that knowledge of the Gospel of our redemption. “The one who has hope lives differently.” Prayer, he says, is our first school for hope. Or as St. Augustine has it, prayer is that true encounter with God that stretches our heart enough that there is space for hope.
We know so much sometimes, that we fail to remember what it is like to not know, to rely on the “assurances of things hoped for, the proofs of things unseen,” to turn first to God and not our own wisdom.
I know that cats sometimes don’t come back; meanwhile Christopher takes a different tack and asks God for his heart’s desires. Chris prays, and learns hope.
In her poem “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” Mary Oliver offers those who are inordinately learned some advice on prayer: “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray.”
I know the fancy words: faith, hope and love are the three great theological virtues, infused by God into our souls so we might, in the end, merit heaven. Can I tear them from my tongue, and pray? I hope so.
Lord, be merciful to Your people. Fill us with Your gifts and make us always eager to serve You in faith, hope and love. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Opening prayer from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time