Surprised by Hope – Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Today’s Gospel includes the line, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Augustine of Hippo describes this Gospel verse as one of the more difficult passages in scripture. Others, notably Aquinas, list several sins that go against the Holy Spirit.

The first one mentioned is despair – the belief that one’s evil is beyond God’s Goodness. Involved with this is a perpetual hardening of the heart. Luke uses the word stiff necked in the Acts of the Apostles. The image of hardened hearts is very common in scripture.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the verse and stresses that “There are no limits to the mercy of God” (1864). Of course, obstinacy and a high degree of hardness of heart are experienced at times by most of us.

I suppose that we could place ourselves outside God’s love and compassion. It is possible, but most of us are able to move beyond this. Many cannot move beyond despair.

Approaching despair from the angle of sin is one way of dealing with it. However, I suspect that the majority of despairing people don’t have a serious concern about being apart from God’s mercy. They are simply despairing and lack hope. That is likely uppermost in their mind.

The Catechism sees despair as a sin against hope. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God (2090-91).

So, what about the many women and men who lack hope? I’m thinking of those who are desperate.

Think of people who are suicidal because they see absolutely no way out of the pain and confusion of their life, those who are suicidal because of their debilitating loneliness, those who are suicidal because of particular situations that have arisen (financial, legal, physical health concerns, cognitive decline), those who are suicidal because of their despair about being unable to find freedom from their addictions or a bleak life, and so on.

There are many individuals who live with that level of despair and hopelessness. All they can do is move ahead, one step at a time. Or, one or two steps backwards!

How do we bring hope to despairing people? I’m sure that the experts can offer all kinds of advice for helping hopeless people. I’m not such an expert, but I suspect that among the first helps is friendship.

That includes listening … sincere listening. Heart listening is a precious gift. Can I really hear the pain and anguish of someone who is truly hopeless? Can I help them to speak of the experience of hopelessness and despair? Perhaps in their speaking out loud, they will discover some freedom from their situation. I also think that sharing honestly is a help.

Am I able to share with others my own pain and vulnerability, to help them see that to be a human being is to suffer and struggle. A problem for many is that they think that they have to have it all together. It’s a gift for them to discover that none of us is perfect.

I remember working on the team of Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. One woman on the team gave a wonderful talk during a training program. I have long forgotten the matter of the talk, but I’ve never forgotten the phrase Sister Elaine Frigo used, basically taking the C.S. Lewis title, Surprised by Joy and inserting Hope instead of Joy.

I forget what she actually said, but I appreciate the fact that hope often sneaks into our lives, almost as a surprise when we are most in need of hope. I found this in my personal collection of quotes.

I forget where he said it, but these are wise words from Desmond Tutu: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

Here’s a quote from Joan Chittester’s Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope: “Hope is not a denial of reality … It is a series of small actions that transform darkness into light. It is putting one foot in front of the other when we can find no reason to do so at all.”

Can we help the desperate person to move forward, even one step at a time?


Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

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