Life can be hard. There’s stress at work or school, finances to balance, relationships to manage.
It can sometimes seem like no matter where you turn, there’s some obstacle to overcome.
We can end up wondering if there’s anything good in our lives, or ever will be; if God, fate, our enemies are conspiring against us; or if it’s somehow our fault that things are so hard.
If such wondering suggests we are psychologically depressed, we should get medical and counselling help with that. If it means we are spiritually despondent, we should get spiritual help. If we are bleak by temperament, we should make sure we have some sunnier personalities around us and activities to cheer us. But one way or another we will sometimes feel very down about things.
Though it’s not much comfort to be told this at the time, the fact is that many people have felt like this through the centuries, sometimes regularly or for extended periods. ‘Why is this happening?’ asks the prophet Habakkuk.
‘Why is there so much evil in this world? Why does God let the innocent suffer so much injustice?’ (cf. Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4) It’s a question asked by every sensitive soul at one time or another; whether it’s natural disasters or human cruelty, on a large scale or very personal one, we all wonder why.
The ‘problem of suffering’, as it is known, has been explored in great classics of philosophy and literature, such as the Peanuts comics of Charles Schulz. In one episode Charlie Brown is at baseball training and wonders aloud why his team never wins.
This sparks a theological debate among his team-mates. Linus quotes the Book of Job to the effect that “Man is born to trouble”. Lucy offers a feminist critique. The others proceed to debate whether suffering is punishment for sin or has a more positive, maturing effect. At this point, we can see why their baseball team never wins a game!
Though the puzzling of these cartoon kids is intentionally humorous, it treats something that perennially vexes us. Many answers have been offered, some more satisfactory than others, at least for some people, at least some of the time. In the chapters that follow today’s first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is given a consoling vision of a future in which the unjust are punished and the victims vindicated.
In our epistle St Paul tells Timothy that in his trials he must cultivate fortitude, love and self-control (2Tim 1:6-14). While exhorting him to fan these dispositions into a flame, Paul recognises that the spark first comes from God and so it is upon God’s power that Christians must lean. Ordinary human courage, temperance and friendship can by God’s gift be raised to theological Hope and it is with this virtue that we forebear in the hard times when Christian life is a struggle and Christian death a witness.
Like Habakkuk we hope for a future in which things will be better, especially for those who suffer; but we have the advantage over him of having our hope assured by Christ and seeing that future already flowering before our eyes in the kingdom of God.
So Paul calls Timothy not only to maintain the pattern of life he’d taught him, not only to hope amid his trials, and but also to live “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2Tim 1:6-14; cf. 1Cor 13:13).
Mario Melazzini is a medical doctor, cancer researcher, and Chairman of the agency that regulates pharmaceuticals in Italy (Agenzia italiana del Farmaco).
He also suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a version of Motor Neurone Disease characterised by stiffening, twitching and wasting of muscles, which gradually but remorselessly worsen until the person has difficulty moving, speaking, swallowing and breathing. Melazzini shares this prognosis with the American baseball legend Lou Gehrig and the British cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
He already needs a wheelchair, medical assistance in breathing and feeding, and constant care.
Now, you might think that if anyone has the right to be bleak, it would be him. And, indeed, when first diagnosed in 2002, Melazzini was depressed, and even contemplated travelling to Switzerland for assisted suicide.
In the end it was his Christian faith, and especially the Book of Job more than the Peanuts cartoons, that gave him hope. In a recent book The Gaze and the Hope (Lo sguardo e la speranza) which he subtitles La vita è bella, non solo nei film (Life is Beautiful – and not just in the movies), Melazzini writes, “Hope is a path… to a better space.
Pain and suffering, as such, are neither good nor desirable – but that doesn’t mean that they are meaningless.” Suffering can be “contextualised,” he insists, and even be an important “life experience”.
Not that Melazzini, any more than Habakkuk or Job, Paul or Charlie Brown, thinks it’s easy to see things that way, especially when you’re in the middle of suffering.
Hope can’t be founded on itself or sustain itself: no end of exhortations from Paul or attempts by Timothy to pull himself up by his own shoelaces, will be enough to keep him strong; our Hope must be founded on Faith and informed by Faith – the faith that moves mountains or, in today’s Gospel (Lk 17:5-10), mulberry trees; and it must be nourished by Charity and enacted in Charity – the love that draws us outside ourselves and our present troubles in service of others.
“Faith,” says the Letter to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) It is what transforms ordinary human forbearance into genuine Hope, so that, in Paul’s words, we can “bear our hardships for the sake of the Gospel, relying on the power of God” (2Tim 1:6-14).
Catholics are not primarily Lenten people: we do not morbidly obsess about sin and suffering, even as we rightly seek to prevent, relieve and heal them. Our focus is on what comes after Lent: Easter and Ascension.
For those for whom life seems a long hard Lent, Christian Hope transforms this into preparation, a ‘looking-towards’ the eternal Easter yet to come. So it is Faith that assures us our Hope is not groundless, not mere wishful thinking, or glass-half-full human optimism. And it is Charity that unites us, even now, to the object of our faith and hope that is God, the things of God, and life with God.
How are we, like young Timothy, to fan the flickering flame of human hope into the reliable “power of the Holy Spirit” that will sustain us through thick and thin? By expressing our Faith and
Hope in the life of Charity – in acts of worship of God and mercy towards our neighbours!
This is the edited text of the homily given at St Mary’s Cathedral on Respect Life Sunday on 2 October.