About ten years ago, I felt overwhelmed with all sorts of things in my life, and I confided some of my troubles to a wise mentor. I later found out that he was going through something truly awful at the time; my concerns were ultimately very trivial by any standard, but must have seemed especially so to him at the time.
When I told him my woes, he had paused for a long while, then looked at me and unexpectedly asked, “Is it real?”
“Is what real?” I replied.
“All the Jesus stuff. The cross, the empty tomb, all of it? I know you say it is, but do you really believe it?”
And at that moment, I realized that far too often in my life, I am practically an atheist.
That is, when it comes to how I react in difficult circumstances, my instinct is not to think of God’s goodness and mercy, or even his wrath and judgment. My first instinct is not toward hope. Rather, I only think of myself. How will this situation create even greater inconveniences than I already face? How will that problem ever be resolved? How am I expected to deal with this?
Even in the most mundane matters, I find myself imagining the worst-case scenarios and leaving God’s grace completely out of my calculations. In such moments, when they come, I seem to answer my old friend’s question with, No, it’s not always real.
Last week, I woke up from a difficult night of pointless worrying only to find a tweet from another wise friend, who quoted the first stanza of St. John Henry Newman’s great hymn:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.
My night was not a complete catastrophe, but it did concern a family matter—the kind of thing every parent says is normal and relatable but which feels so lonely when you’re actually dealing with it. We parents are often so quick to see problems, as they arrive, as indictments of our own character rather than simply life, as it comes. Newman’s familiar words were just the reminder I needed to keep it real.
My friend shared these words because it was the 188th anniversary of their composition. Newman tells us in the Apologia,
I was aching to get home; yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the Churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. I knew nothing of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament there. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. Then it was that I wrote the lines, “Lead, kindly light,” which have since become well known.
I would not call Newman an optimist. Being a good Christian does not always mean being cheerful or bending over backward to put a positive spin on the worst things. Newman’s words do not evoke a facile “God is in control” affirmation.
But they are full of hope, and Newman was a man of great hope, which has always made me feel better about my life and the world. His work makes Christ real again, deep within me. Newman’s great hymn, written at the height of his Anglican influence, foreshadows his entry into full communion with the Catholic Church twelve years later. I endured the losses and enjoyed the gains of my own similar journey in large part because of his example. Newman disabused me of any idea that I would be entering an assembly, or living a life, without any problems. But his witness always assured me that if I moved forward in God’s direction, however slowly, I would find my way.
Seeing Newman’s familiar words pop up on my screen after my own recent dark night reminded me that the Church—and especially Catholic media—should do a bit more for its underserved market of people who would like—nay, badly need—a greater sense of hope in everyday circumstances.
People have hard times for all sorts of reasons—stress, loneliness, anger issues, health problems, financial woes, you name it.
There’s nothing wrong with stating this plainly: Because Christ died and lives for you, it’s all going to be ok. There’s nothing wrong with reassuring people: Your lousy situation could very well get better, and if it does, it is a victory for the kingdom of God.
Again, Newman’s words set the tone: “One step enough for me.” Sometimes that’s all we need. Just a little bit of good news can pack a powerful punch of grace.
And that’s how hope works. It is not particularly reasonable. It is not dependent on facts. It is not what we or anyone should expect. It is all because the Jesus stuff is real—the cross, the empty tomb, all of it.
What evidence-based judgment does an alcoholic have to think he can quit drinking? All the evidence seems to be stacked against him. And yet, he goes one minute, one hour, one day, one week. He is led to a new place with a whole new rhythm of life. He becomes someone who does not drink anymore, but he cannot ever dare to walk alone. It never stops being one step at a time.
Newman’s “encircling gloom” is always there. It’s not just the pandemic or the lockdowns or elections or protests or Church fights. It’s all those hope-sapping moments of emptiness at the first sign of difficulty in our daily lives.
We lie to ourselves if we ignore the possibility that everything that matters to us could just fall apart. And sometimes things are just really bad—like they were for my wise friend ten years ago, and like they were for Newman, seriously ill and stranded alone on an island where he did not know the language and did not practice the religion. But in both men’s cases, the Lord was there.
And there is the source of hope, even for those unaware.
I may forget God, but he never forgets me. Until the day I take my last step toward him, I pray I keep following where he leads.