Hope tends to play a role for most of us who live with a terminal diagnosis, whether it is acknowledged or not. It’s there, either looming large and constant, or laying in pieces on the floor, fragmented and fragile. Or somewhere in between. Upfront or out of sight, out of mind, lurking. Or leading us on into what’s next. I think of myself as being essentially hopeful.
It wasn’t until I got into the book Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson (from the video Griefwalker) that I began to ponder how hope lives in me these days. His third chapter is titled The Tyrant Hope. My very first thought was “What the fuck?”
My second thought was “Fuck you!”
After that, I settled down to read what he has to say. As a worker in what he calls the death industry (hospice and palliative care), he writes “Sometimes you have to wonder aloud whether hope is all it’s cracked up to be, and then wait for the pieces to fall.” And so, they are. Falling, that is.
In his world, people with a terminal diagnosis generally hope for more time. Hope is the “conjuring chant taken up in the name of compassion.” However, “More Life is mostly More Death.” Hope is “an anesthetic of the spirit. It ensures that it will be too late to learn how to die, in a death-phobic culture. Dying in a death phobic culture is traumatic.” Hence, “Cope, Hope, and Dope” is what the allopathic, Western world has to offer the dying. In his world, Hope is a vote for a future, a mortgaging of the present. As long as you are hopeful, you are never in the land you actually hope for. By that, he means that you are always living down the road, not where you are.
Hope is not life, and hopeless is not death and depression. It’s a false choice.
“The alternative is to live your life and your dying hope-free: a subversive move towards lucidity. A revolution.”
Well, okay then. As a practicing Buddhist, I can practice letting go of hope and moving more strongly into the present, through meditation and yoga and so on. Got it.
Then along came the next book, Mystical Hope, by Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who is lucidity personified. And her book is an entirely different take on the concept of Hope. The subtitle is Trusting in the Mercy of God. If I hadn’t already read one of her very fine books, I would have passed this one by. However, the thing shimmered at me on Powell’s website, so I ordered it, a small gem.
Her whole book leads to this paragraph: “Hope is not imaginary or illusory. It is that sonar by which the body of Christ holds together and finds its way. It takes enormous courage to live the Christian gospel..to move forward in hope. ” But it takes her whole book to get you there. If you are willing.
Hope, most people feel, can help them live, providing a surge of energy that would make life feel possible again. Going from a Stage IV to a Stage III cancer has certainly opened up my heart again to hope. Here she agrees with Jenkinson: ordinary hope lives in the future, seeking some kind of good outcome. However, what Cynthia is addressing is about finding a deep and steady current of life that is the source of hope itself, a theological journey instead.
Mystical Hope has nothing to do with a good outcome, with the future. It has something to do with presence, the experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand: a direct encounter with Being itself. It brings strength, joy and satisfaction, producing them from within. If we rush into the future or stay rigidly focused there, we miss the hand of God who can only touch us in the now.
And that is, I think, what Jenkinson is also teaching, only with vastly different language and context.
Cynthia goes on to make a distinction between Grace and Mystical Hope. For her, mystical hope is not an extraordinary infusion, (such as we tend to think of with Grace) but an abiding state of being, developing a permanent connection to this inner wellspring, becoming a body of hope itself. It’s connected deeply to Mercy , “God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love”.
Mystical Hope is for her an electromagnetic field of love. “It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives. Hope’s home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It’s not a feeling that results from a happy ending, but lies at the very beginning, a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When we are attuned to this, hope fills us with the strength to stay present.”
I tend to think of this as radar, my own radar. Once, having taken too much cannabis oil, I found myself flying through time and space, no up and no down, no right or left, no way to navigate, no vistas, just space. It seemed that I needed to make micro decisions every few seconds, and had no way to know how to do that. It was infinitely scary. My notion at present is that death somehow holds moments like this, and we need to have a way to safely find our way.
If I consider Mystical Hope as the Source of Love itself, then simply attuning myself to this deep place would be enough.
Simply. Well, maybe not simply. So glad I have more time to do this necessary attuning. My pieces are falling, but into place.