I struggle through winter.
If you live in a part of these United States that endures the wonders and sufferings of all Four Seasons, then you are likely familiar with the seemingly endless darkness of the mid-Winter months and the toll it can take on your mood. If you live in the South, I can hear your condescending chuckling from Boston.
But seriously guys, Winter. Hold on, I have a picture:
Yet even this year’s horrendous winter proved worth the endurance in March, when we finally turned those clocks forward - er, when my iPhone automatically did it for me - and the smell of Winter’s dying frame began to stir. There was one particular moment that struck me: It was slightly after 6, I was walking out my Church, it was slightly warm, and the sun was just setting. My heart did the Mass Fitness dance. The hair on my arms stood on edge. The ice and snow were officially receding: Spring was coming.
But then a thought ran through my mind, almost immediately. This exact same scene - the same sunset time, the same temperature, the same smell... - some 7 months previous filled my soul with sadness. In October, when it was time to finally let go of the Summer weather, this same scene had the opposite effect on my mind and heart. All of those experiences and memories and joys that are uniquely summer: no more. Only the cold reality of snow lay ahead. The slightly warm, slightly after 6 sunset pointed toward the sterility of Nature’s death. Winter.
So, I wondered, if I had a case of the Jason Bourne and was an amnesiac, and I had just woken up: how would I react to this moment that, currently, was filling me with such joy? Sure, I would initially find comfort in the present pleasant weather, but it wouldn’t take long for my mind to turn to what came next.
I wouldn’t know how to feel without knowing what lay ahead. My interpretation of that moment in March depended on my certainty that Spring was, in fact, around the corner.
The joy, I realized, lied in the anticipation.
This will all make sense, I swear.
In his excellent and totally-worth-purchasing-on-your-own Faith and the Future, then Joseph Ratzinger draws our attention to the writings of French atheist Simone de Beauvoir. the final words of Beauvoir’s memoirs are devastating:
“Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve ever read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing... Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold mine at my feet: a whole life to live. The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze toward the young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.”
With her firm belief that only nothingness awaits her after death, Beauvoir laments that all those beautiful things she has tasted, “all the music, all the paintings, all the culture...”, likewise, were nothing. Meaningless. Illusions. Beautiful teases of an unattainable joy. She was gypped.
And so, much like that evening in March, life’s significance lies in the certainty of a beautiful future. Ratzinger writes, “It is precisely when a man possesses an eternal future, which determines his present, that this present acquires an un-heard-of, almost unbearable, significance... Faith in the risen Christ, in the God who gives life beyond death, creates responsibility, gives substance to the present, because it then falls under the measure of the eternal.”
The Catholic Christian is gifted the overwhelming hope of Resurrection and of a New Creation. Hope is, of course, also a theological virtue, gifted and infused into the believer’s soul at Baptism: “Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God...” (CCC 2090).
This hope, this confident expectation of a future beyond death gifted to us by Christ and the sacraments, provides substance to our present lives. “All the paintings, all the culture, all the music,” are hints, glimmers, haunting foreshadowings of the Life of the World to come. And so our daily activities are given an “un-heard of, almost unbearable, significance.” Our life on this earth matters. As the Council Fathers told us: “...the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.”
Certainly, there are going to be moments in life when it really seems like Beauvoir had it right. In the face of death, suffering, anxiety, doubt, natural disasters, and the like, it is unbearably tempting to echo the chorus: “I’ve been gypped.” Hope, like Faith, is a gift, a gift that we have to protect and nurture. Much like the believer ought to pray “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” so to he ought to pray, “Lord, I hope in you, help my lack of hope.”
Life is not a mild, partly cloudy day pointing toward the nothingness of Death. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gifts us the certainty that an eternal spring awaits us.
Decades after writing Faith and the Future, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, would tell us: “The One who has hope lives differently.” Let’s.