Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Seed of Hope

"Death is, then , no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind's salvation."  Whatever precisely St. Ambrose may have meant by these words, it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would pace the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, even for the individual would bring no benefit.  Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence.  On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die.  Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view.  So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact 'life?'  And what does 'eternity' really mean?  There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this what true 'life' is--this what it should be like.  Besides, what we call 'life' in our everyday language is not real 'life' at all.  St. Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which eh addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only on things--'the blessed life,' the life which is simply life, simply 'happiness.'  In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer.  Our journey has no other goal--it is about this alone.  But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like.  We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. 'We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,' he says, quoting St. Paul (Rom 8:26).  All we know is that it is not this.  Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist.  'There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorancia), so to speak,' he writes.  We do know what we would really like; we do not know this 'true life;' and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.
I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man's essential situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes.  In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not now the thing towards which we feel driven.  We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for.  This unknown 'thing' is the true 'hope' which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity.  The term 'eternal life' is intended to give a name to this known 'unknown.'  Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion.  'Eternal,' in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; 'life' makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.  To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way sense the eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more life the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality--this we can only attempt.  It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time--the before and after--no longer exists.  We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.  This is how Jesus expresses it in St. John's Gospel: 
I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and non one will take your joy from you' (16:22).  We must think along these lines if we want  to understand the object of Christian hop, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.
from the Encylical Letter Spe Salvi by Pope Benedict XVI

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