“Signs and wonders are always doubted, and perhaps they are meant to be. In the absence of certainty, faith is more than mere opinion; it is hope.”
(Mary Doria Russell in Children of God)
Hope is, by definition, tenuous. It is not certainty, not even probability. It is a clinging to the barely possible, in the face of more likely, undesirable possibilities. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson insisted, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune—without the words, / And never stops at all.” Hope is illogical and necessary, in equal measure. “Faith, hope, and love,” declared St. Paul, are the bedrock of theology. Also of sociology and psychology.
Also of stories. Whether the stories are fiction or history or memoir or true in some other sense, we listen with longing for wisdom and for a resolution that will satisfy. For this reason, modern fiction and drama often frustrates because of its seeming hopelessness, its bleak endings. I would argue, though, that hope is visible in the stoic courage of those who endure suffering without seeing an end. The little thing with feathers still “sings sweetest in the gale.”
One of literature’s frequent symbols of hope is the birth of a child. One tiny being suggests possibilities where none existed before. At the most elemental level, a baby means that the parents are fertile—the clan will not die out, there will be another harvest, the tribe can thrive under better leadership. Ancient myths are replete with miraculous stories of birth. Anything is then possible; all things are possible.
Yet nothing is guaranteed. The hope-full Advent story includes swords and later on, a cross. Even a cursory survey of literature offers sufficient examples of what T.S. Eliot calls the “hope for the wrong thing” (East Coker). When hope forgets humility and love turns into demand, the promised little one can only disappoint.
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster’s classic British novel on social class, a rich capitalist family, a cultured, artistic, intelligent family, and a struggling low-class family with little in common encounter one another through tentative friendships, and brief romances, only to fall into misunderstandings and antagonism. It all seems hopeless, until an illegitimate son is conceived out of a brief passion between the lower class young man and the younger daughter of the cultural elite. Despite that intimation of hope, though, the poor baby seems the child of an artificial marrying of intellectual concepts, not actual people.
Similarly, in two Canadian novels, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, literally illegitimate children are made to embody hope for resolution of age-old conflicts. In Wild Geese, the conflict is between a pioneer patriarch’s cold, selfish drive to possess and control both property and family, and his daughter’s earthy vitality, sensuality, and rebellious drive for freedom. It is a gender-driven conflict that pits materialism against nature itself, and nature, through the now-pregnant daughter, wins, if one can overlook the swashbuckling, impulsive father of the child who may or may not be able to provide adequately for his new partner and child.
In As For Me and My House, set in the 1930s, the situation is even bleaker. The narrator/protagonist and her husband, who have moved through several dustbowl towns, giving inadequate ministerial care to survivors of repeated crop failures, are both failed artists: he’s a painter and she’s a pianist. Neither had sufficient courage to match their artistic ambition and instead stumbled into a marriage and a half-sham performance as preacher and preacher’s wife. Everything around them and in them is infertile; they have no child (to the acute disappointment of them both) and their gardens die. The baby at the end is born of a brief liaison between the minister and a young parishioner (who conveniently dies in childbirth). The minister’s wife, who knows of the affair, insists that they adopt the baby and then move away into the big city to begin a new life with a new career. Such an adoption and such a marriage have but a snowball’s chance in hell of thriving, but there is no doubt that Ross is using an ancient symbol of hope, possibly ironically.
Indeed, the hope seems the hope for the wrong thing. The poor babies are asked to bring peace to ancient oppositions and to do so without an adequate foundation of love.
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, also offer us babies as carriers of hope, but the tone is different. These novels are speculative fiction, located on earth and on Rakhat, a distant planet with two sentient species. The Jesuits’ first exploratory mission ends in seeming disaster, both for the planet and for the protagonist, whose faith, once close to sainthood, is utterly destroyed. Two babies play a crucial role. The first is born among refugees from an inter-species war of survival. The only human child on Rakhat, Isaac is fatherless and autistic; his mother, Sophia, sees no hope for this strange child among alien species. Yet he is gifted and creates an unearthly, uniquely beautiful piece of music based on the DNA sequences of humans, Runa, and Jana’ata. All three species recognize, in Isaac’s music, an example of God’s grace made manifest in the midst of on-going tragedy. Audacious as it may seem, hope remains.
Back on earth again, at the end of the second novel, the weary ex-priest has gone, on the Day of the Dead, to weep alone at the tomb of the woman he had once hoped to marry. He has, he thinks, lost everyone he has ever loved. A young woman with a baby approaches, addressing him as “Padre.” He looks in amazement at her features, startlingly familiar, and sees a daughter he did not know he had begotten just before he was forcibly taken back to Rakhat. In submission to this new manifestation of grace, he opens his damaged arms to receive little Tommaso, his grandchild. Not all doubt has been resolved—it never will be—but love has become possible again. Nothing else is asked of this little one, just love.
I end with a personal story. When I finally became pregnant with our oldest child, my parents had probably given up hope that we would ever give them grandchildren. At the time, my mother had entered another long period of depression. Even the brief return home of my older brother from Africa failed to rouse her from inner pain. My pregnancy was merely another cause for anxious fretting.
Yet among my family treasures is a photo of my mother holding our son for the first time. Her smile recalls the beauty of her youth, when she was full of hope for the future. Our baby brought her back out of the darkness, admittedly not for very long. Life rarely works that simply. Yet those few months of newfound joy were a gift, and still are.
As T. S. Eliot warned, hope can be the “hope of the wrong thing,” just as love can be “the love of the wrong thing.” Even our worthiest expectations can be hubristic wishful thinking, just as Jesus’ birth, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, raised hopes of immediate political deliverance that were later nailed to the cross. This is not to say that we should not hope, for without hope, life—and love—cannot be sustained,
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. (T.S. Eliot)
Originally published in Prairie Messenger, December 13, 2017.