Articles, Theology

The Darkness of Hope

Recalling Mark 10 or its synoptic correlates,[1] we are often told to relate our faith to that of a child, surrendering our attempt at autonomy and resting in the security of being loved as the kind of creatures we are—namely, finite beings dependent on God for the beginning, continuation, and end of our existence. The model of a child has much to commend it. It contains not merely the virtues of unconditional love and trust but also the qualities of unflagging curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for repetition. Without discounting the attachment of this description to the virtue of faith, French author and poet Charles Péguy offers another suggestion for our imagination in his poems, where the personification of hope is the one who enlivens all with her childlike enthusiasm and with the simplicity of her dependence. Hope becomes the “rest” of the child, and Péguy links this virtue explicitly to the Resurrection, arguing that Christian salvation from the consequences of sin must, if it is to truly be the new life of the risen Christ, radiate the appropriate elation and peaceful security at the wonder accomplished. While in Péguy faith and charity are the beautiful older sisters of hope, it is only when this smallest takes their hands in her own that the three can begin a journey that not only gives charity its joy in animated motion, but also lends faith its strength of optimistic perseverance as the childlike love of repetition dares to say “once more!”[2]

We ought to pause, however, and seriously question whether Péguy’s approach to hope is tenable today, considering not only the suffering of the present moment but also, as Walter Benjamin describes in his “On the Concept of History,” the ever-increasing mountain of fractured victims at which the angel of history can only gape with horror.[3] As Benjamin points out, it seems as though history’s chronicle of injustice demands some type of messiah, but as he also so aptly questions, what kind of messiah is possible? Without halting history, there is no end in sight for its burden of devastation. In consequence, the only hope that Benjamin sees for the world comes in the muted register of recognition, where the empowerment of those who have already died is accomplished in and through the quasi-resurrection of their voices as we, the messianic witnesses, remember their victimization, mourn their loss, and make their memory bear weight in our present courses of action. Our hope is not for the dead but that we, in this posture of lament, might halt further material addition to the tragedy of history.

But are we then forced into the space of dialectics, where we must side either with Péguy’s vision of hope given by the Resurrection or with the reality of history’s tragedy recalibrated but in no way resolved by resurrected victims? Let us risk a further complication. Let us turn to the depiction of hope given by Hans Urs von Batlhasar in his text on Thérèse of Lisieux, where he argues that this saint’s life presents the Church with a new way to embrace the mystery of God’s love. In this text, Balthasar’s vision of Thérèse offers both an objective example of Christian hope as well as valuable insights into the virtue’s manifestation in the subjective register of experience, both of which not so much challenge, but rather reinterpret, Péguy’s description. The question we will ask of Balthasar’s Thérèse is the question we must ask on a much broader scale: simply put, can the virtue of hope offer the condition of the possibility of connection to the darkest experiences of history’s tragic woundedness as a part of the Resurrection’s life, rather than merely solidify the grammar of an oppositional logic with the foreclosure of real messianic promise, apocalyptic and eschatological?

On the one hand, we see that Thérèse looks very much like a perfect embodiment of Péguy’s exposition on the childlike character of hope. Thérèse offers herself up as the one whose only desire and delight is to “bring a smile to the face of Jesus” by conforming her will completely to whatever he might ask in the freedom of trust and love. This theme of willed abandonment to God’s desire is central for her approach to faith, securing not only conformity in action but her personal delight as well. Balthasar writes that Thérèse sees that “faith, hope and charity become what Christ wills them to be: a living representation of the Father, which means the pure service of the Father’s will.”[4] As Thérèse notes, one can never be disappointed if the will is trained to joyfully receive what God gives; no blessing is too small in which to rejoice, and similarly, no trial is too great not to celebrate the spiritual growth that arises in bearing it out. The Ignatian indifference that orients Thérèse’s spirituality is not determined by the result of subjective enthusiasm; however, the effusive and saccharinely sweet words of her embodiment of spiritual childhood seems to offer a lived expression of Péguy’s joy-filled hope in both its dependent trust and delight in God’s will.

On the other, though, we must consider the actuality of the way Thérèse conceived of bearing out this “little way” of love for God – namely, through an almost excessive embrace of suffering itself.  Balthasar reminds us that the cross was a determinative factor for those who embraced the veil of Carmel, and Thérèse was no exception. Her famous “I choose all” thus becomes a means of embracing whatever suffering might result from her vows to utter poverty, consecrated virginity, and total obedience.[5] Thérèse sees her vocation of “winning souls” as directly linked to Christ’s suffering on the cross; hence, the more she can will to embrace the burden of suffering, the more its heaviness might be transformed into a gift given for the sake of others.[6] Although Balthasar admits that her words tend to excess, seeming to wish for that which is clearly opposed to the heart of God as perfect love, he reminds us that Thérèse understands her mission as participation in life that only comes through the cross, whereby she might reach those who have fallen in sin precisely by herself entering the “law of Christ’s fall” which moves from the Father’s gift of the Son in the Incarnation to Christ’s sacrifice the cross, and even into hell itself.[7] Thérèse’s spiritual progress, therefore, is not marked by a great ascent, as she recognizes in the example of Theresa of Avila, but rather we find in it a descending motion where she effects the faith of a child even in the depths of hell. In her, the hope of the Resurrection is irreparably joined to the suffering on the cross, and thus becoming the “child of faith” in the little way of love means that she “puts one foot in front of the other along a road whose direction God alone knows.”[8] She learns to participate in the love whose will it is not merely to save history from its broken condition with the gift of life, but rather to bring salvation into that condition. Thérèse thus offers herself as a sacrifice that might join with the cross, being led into the experience of sin’s fracture and isolation, without fear of the latter’s domination overall.

While Thérèse’s example of simplicity and hope might give witness to the objective possibility of Péguy’s Resurrection in a negative cruciform inflection, we must also consider the question of the subjective disposition associated with Péguy’s words, where hope not merely endures suffering but rather persists with the lightness of child-like joy. Again, on the one hand Thérèse’s reflections resound with an abundance of praise, extolling the objectivity that is the thrill of following the God she loves so deeply. We see, however, that Thérèse erects a barrier between the objectivity of her actions and the subjective experience that one might expect. The joy that follows from her faith and hope in no way depends on her ability to feel that joy.  Instead, Thérèse relies on “unfelt joy,” where renunciation of pleasure that normally accompanies love is not simply used as a means of magnifying God’s greatness, although admittedly it does achieve that end, but is also the very way that her subjective disposition might join with her objective purpose in carrying Christian hope to those whose location removes them from joy’s warmth. With this unification of her subjectivity to her objective connection to the Christ’s suffering, the case for Thérèse as a compelling model for an alternative inflection of Péguy’s virtue of hope seems complete.

Balthasar resists, however, in giving an uncomplicated endorsement of Thérèse’s manifestation of love’s little way. He directs our attention to two important experiences in Thérèse’s upbringing that prompt a difficult block that she must overcome—first, the subjective awareness of her own sanctity, and second, the belief she is not to be counted among sinners for whom she prays as she has been preserved from mortal sin. In terms of our discussion, the ramifications are particularly significant. On the objective side, until the last two weeks of her life Thérèse fails to identify fully with those in hell’s abandon. Unlike Christ whose perfection allows him to “become sin” in order to eradicate sin’s division, Balthasar notes that Thérèse’s view of her sanctity raises an objective separation between herself and those who suffer. In her prayers Thérèse maintains the distinction between the “them” of sinful humanity and the “I” of herself. In addition, although she does not calculate or condition her plunge into the abyss into which Christ’s cross goes, her subjective self-awareness follows her objective failure.[9] Despite the total subjective aridity of the theological virtues that she possesses, Thérèse never loses subjective footing in her mission of descent into hell. As Balthasar notes, a true “dark night of the soul” that embraces the path of the cross can have no such certainty.[10] Thus it seems as though Balthasar brings us to a conclusion wherein Thérèse’s objective indifference and self-emptying of simple virtue proves greatly tainted for most of her life, with only a possibility rather than a certainty of actualization in her final days.[11]

While these failings might be true of Thérèse’s personal history, they do not diminish her significance in Balthasar’s eyes. On the contrary, Balthasar urges us to remember that the importance of the little way that Thérèse attempts to live out is precisely the point of her existence, offering to us a moment of apocalyptic manifestation in her weaknesses, rather than despite them. When we look at Thérèse and what she offers, she provides a “lightning bolt” of revelation regarding the operation of Christ’s love in the world, which pierces our understanding of the virtue of hope in connection to the Resurrection and changes the way we live within a world that is “already and not yet.” Thérèse thwarts the logic of dialectic, where the choice is determined to be either a flattened, saccharine interpretation of the child-like Christian hope in Péguy, or Benjamin’s refusal to pass over fracture that cries from every moment of human history, foreswearing a world beyond lamentation. Thérèse shows us how hope is drawn into the form of the cross. Hers is a clarion call that unites Christian spirituality and action, and her life records the reality of this virtue called into service by the cross. In Thérèse, we are able to see that the rest Péguy advocates—the surest sign of a soul content to trust and hope utterly in the Father’s love—is not simply the contented slumber of the innocent child, but it is also the sleep of the Son’s death into which every believer’s baptism initiates her and to which every Eucharistic embrace conforms her more fully. It is the confirmation of conformation into the one who remakes the world through glory’s wounded transfiguration.

Moreover, the muted activity of a cloistered nun in combination with her personal failures spoils the deification, and thus daimonization, of Thérèse’s activity. Thérèse is no Zarathustra. Both personal and “geographical” limitations preserve her from overt and unholy glorification as we ponder the meaning of what she reveals—where prayer is efficacious in the world’s transfiguration, even though it remains quite imperceptible to visible political, ecclesial, and even personal outcomes. Balthasar stresses that Thérèse must never supplant the one she serves in the minds of those who look to her as an example.

But precisely in her littleness is Thérèse the most powerful kind of witness. Thérèse as the child of hope challenges the despair that naturally seems to follow upon the heels of a world as filled with lamentations for the dead as it is devoid of the divine transcendence and veritable messianic expectation. She reveals the possibility of a Christian who can travel down into hell without herself becoming demonic. In Thérèse, hope is dramatic, not dialectic—formed, animated, and directed by the glorious, yet wounded, Lamb of God. The littlest of ways matter, and hope takes on pluriform aspects as it approaches a world that is brought into the Resurrection’s joy as surely as it retains distinguishing marks of its own temporal history.

Editorial Statement: This post is part of an ongoing “Ressourcement Futures” series that will look at the mid-century (mostly) French movement of recovering the sources of Christian culture, the movements antecedents, its continued influence, and satellite figures. Posts will be collected here as they are published.

SEE ALSO:

The Anti-Catholicism of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks

Featured Image: George Frederic Watts, Hope, 1886; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] Mark 10: 13-16; Matthew 18:3; Luke 18:17.

[2] For Charles Péguy’s personification of hope’s animating presence, see Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. David Louis Schindler Jr. (New York: Continuum, 2005). For elegant poems on hope’s connection to the trustful rest of the child, see God Speaks, trans. Julian Green (New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1945).

[3] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006), 389–400.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux & Elisabeth of the Trinity, trans. Donald Nicholas and Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 272.

[5] Ibid., 148.

[6] Ibid., 152

[7] Ibid., 280, 312-313.

[8] Ibid., 277.

[9] Ibid., 327

[10] Ibid., 340-42.

[11] Ibid., 352.

Kristen Drahos

Kristen Drahos is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Western Heritage Program at Carthage College. She is a systematic theologian by training and explores various intersections between continental philosophy and contemporary Catholic thought.