Sadly, a priest recently committed suicide in the rectory a block down the street from my house. In my view, this priest (and anyone else who has committed suicide) must have lost all hope. To me, a person can only take his or her own life if steeped in utter hopelessness.
That got me thinking about hope as one of the theological virtues and what we can do to maintain it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes hope as, “…the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817).
Hope, according to the Catechism, saves us from discouragement, sustains us during times of abandonment, preserves us from selfishness, and leads us to the happiness that flows from charity. Hope keeps us centered on God and his promise of eternal salvation and stops us from giving up.
To a greater or lesser degree, I think we all feel like giving up from time to time. For some of us, that leads to a bad day or even a few bad days. For others, it leads to depression and anxiety. And, sadly, for far too many, it leads to a darkness so deep that one takes his or her own life.
I’ve never been steeped in anxiety or depression, and I’ve never been suicidal. But I have had my bad days – sometimes many in a row – and I have come to the point of wondering how in the world I could go on. I’ve never been utterly hopeless, but I have at times struggled to keep my hopes up. For those times, I’ve devised for myself a five-point system for maintaining hope.
1. Read the Scriptures daily. The Church teaches that the Scriptures are truly the Word of God and ”forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (CCC 133) It’s easier to place our hope in Christ when we know him and his Word thoroughly.
2. Receive the Eucharist and Reconciliation as often as possible. The sacraments are our gateways to God’s grace. The Church teaches that the Eucharist lays the foundation for every Christian life and its principal fruit is an intimate union with Christ Jesus (CCC 1391). Reconciliation, according to the Church, “”is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” (CCC 1468) The sacraments unite us with Christ and when we’re united with him, we’re less tempted to hopelessness.
3. Acknowledge your feelings, and offer them to our Lord. Pretending that everything is just fine can only work for so long, and then we crash. It’s fine to feel hopeless as long as we allow ourselves to recognize that we’re feeling that way and then turn it over to Jesus. When I’m feeling dismal, I meditate on the Agony in the Garden. Jesus didn’t feel hopeless, but he did feel anguish over what was about to come to pass. He understands our human feelings and is both willing and capable of carrying them for us.
4. Do something positive. Hopelessness makes it seem as though we’re inadequate, Doing something that makes us feel adequate changes that thought pattern. Get some exercise, pick up a favorite hobby, re-arrange the living room, or call an old friend. For me, the cure-all for discouragement is baking bread. It puts me back in that “can-do” mood. If our family doesn’t need bread just then, I give it away.
5. Pray and sleep – in either order or at the same time. Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps, but it works. We can lose hope simply because we’ve run ourselves ragged and are exhausted. What better way to lift the fatigue than resting (literally) in the arms of our Lord and his Blessed Mother? When I feel overwrought and depleted, I’ll grab my Rosary, find a comfy spot, and pray until I doze. As long as it doesn’t become habitual procrastination, a nap can do wonders to adjust one’s perspective.
These are my five ways to maintain hope; you may find mine beneficial or you might come up with your own. Regardless, the objective is to create interference, so so speak, so that a moment, day, or week of hopelessness doesn’t become ingrained, all-encompassing and dangerous.