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How to Find Hope When Everything Seems Dark

by Dr. Tom NealJune 23, 20161 Comments

"There is so much deep contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God – so deep that it is painful – a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. Souls hold no attraction – Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His – so He has every right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God."

— Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light

A friend of mine suffered for nearly a year with very deep depression. He said at one point to me:

The future totally vanished. Everything became dark. Nothing awaited me. Everything seemed empty of meaning. I could remember nothing good in the past, only regrets and failure. I could see nothing good in the present and had nothing to hope for in the future. No compass. No center. When it was over and I emerged out of the depression, everything looked different. What I used to hold most important now seemed peripheral, and what I saw as peripheral now seemed most important. Money and work success fell away to the edges, while relationships and God wound up in the center. Almost magically, like it just happened. Only when you lose all your props can you see what’s left is what matters.

After I spoke with him I wrote a slew of thoughts down in my journal, and then used them to build a retreat on hope. Here’s a few lines from my journal:

Hope is certitude that the future holds good in store for me. Theological hope, the infused virtue, sister to faith and charity, is the certitude of faith that the immovable ground of reality is love. That the promised future of God’s Kingdom, punctuating the Beatitudes, holds imperishable good in store for me. If I make the Kingdom my treasure, and the words of the Word my life’s foundation, joy remains, abides.

Joy is delight that springs up from hope’s certitude.

Hopelessness is not simply an absence of hope, but attachment to a form of hope that has been lost, that lacks enduring substance. Hebrews 11:1 — “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Substance! Literally “what stands under” you. Faith is substantial, stable, real, unshakable, enduring. It’s where I throw my anchor, center my identity, plant my many micro-hopes.

We have so many hopes! Some proximate, some remote. Some trivial, penultimate, some ultimate. Where are my anchors set? If you wish to see which hopes truly define you, watch what remains firm in times of adversity. When you lose everything, what’s left? Only what was substantial. The psalms are filled with this insight.

Substantial hope thrives in adversity. St Therese: When everything in you and outside you rages against hope and still you make an act of will to hope in God — then you have awakened within the theological virtue of hope, and not just optimism or well-wishing.

You can’t really call faith faith when you feel it’s all settled and obvious. When everything falls apart, the sun sets and night falls, faith begins. When you cry, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” or “How long, O Lord?”– only then can you meaningfully say, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” When you cry out in distress, sinking down with hands raised up, then you know you really believed someone was listening.

Hardship alone exposes and tests the structure of our inner hierarchies of hope: which hopes define me, which don’t. My spiritual director said to me once when I complained — “Why is this happening? Why is it so hard?” — “One day you tell me you begged God for greater trust, now you tell me He gave you a chance to trust and what do you do? Complain. What do you want?” I said, “I guess infused trust and not the virtue, or a reason to trust.” We laughed.

Sometimes hopelessness is necessary, as it can in short order expose the sandy securities we’ve built our lives on and lead us down to the bedrock. Trust is the hard virtue to acquire, but is absolutely necessary. Without trust, no one would dare hope. Babies stop crying when they cease to believe anyone will answer. When I cry out to God from the pit, decrying His absence, I have received a new and more profound mode of the divine presence: God under the from of yearning. Veni! Veni! O Come! O Come! Yearning stretches your capacity for God, and your capacity to give away what you receive.

Those who have suffered darkness are uniquely empowered to be missionaries of hope to those who live in darkness.

In the darkness illumined by faith I can reset my anchors. In the transition from sand to rock, it seems I almost lose who I am. But what I lose are the illusions. What I gain is the faith of the Cross. Try it now, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

There’s no turning back.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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