Hope and the Cycle of Life
The world offers us various visions of life with aspects worth considering. Popular psychology borrows the phrase “cycle of life” from biology to provide a world view that describes our existence. Of course we do indeed live a cycle of life. But this fundamental truth of our existence is not, in itself, particularly revealing.
We are not mere animals; we are also human beings. Life must be more than birth, growth, maturity, reproduction, old age, and death. For humans, the cycle of life also includes many opportunities for hope and joy.
Progressives look to the cycle of life in the search for meaning. Progressive elites have the vision, and seek the power, to obtain happiness based on an ideology promising to bring about a perfect society. Unfortunately, while perfection is elusive, progressive tyranny is not.
Reactionaries have little interest in political power grabs. They look back to the good old days. Their lament of innocence lost is ambiguous. It is often real, but sometimes only a perception. For example, in many ways, the “cycle of life” in the 1950s was an idyllic time of cohesive communities, safe neighborhoods, and unlocked doors. But it was also a time of atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction.
For better or worse, popular music tracks cultural sentiments. Rock music has tracked (and helped to cause?) the moral decay of several generations. But the music from the “good old days” was also descriptive. Here are the melancholy lyrics of the classic tune, “Old Man River”:
You and me, we sweat and strain
Body all achin’ and racked with pain
Tote that barge and lift that bail
Get a little drunk and you lands in jail
I gets weary, and sick of trying
Im tired of livin’, but scared of dyin’
But ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin along.
For progressives and reactionaries alike, a sense of emptiness and even desperation can accompany every age.
Contemporary clichés offer more advice in the search for meaning: “Follow your dreams.” Again, there is a good deal of truth here (as long as we don’t share the dreams of Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin—to steal a quip from Justice Scalia). It is healthy and worthwhile to pursue things: good grades, a sports championship, a high-paying job, a spouse for marriage and a family. The list of worthy pursuits is endless. But we all have unpleasant and even bitter experiences of dashed hopes and failures. We lose the championship game. Our best friend marries the girl. Our health fails. So we often look to religion for consolation.
The cycle of life for Catholics is both progressive and reactionary. Catholics hope for a perfect life for eternity and look back to the life of Jesus to show us the way. With the eyes of faith, we identify our hopes, evaluate the morality of them, and pursue them according to the light of God’s grace. With that grace we order our lives toward heavenly glory, and Jesus accompanies us throughout the cycle of life in the sacraments. At every moment we have our religion to fall back on.
As we expand our understanding of the faith, we see that the “cycle of sacramental life” coincides with the cycle of life. After birth, Baptism claims us for Christ. Jesus feeds us with his Body and Blood. He forgives us in the Sacrament of Penance. As we mature, Confirmation strengthens us. The Sacrament of Matrimony consecrates our hope for marriage and family. Holy Orders anoints men to govern the Church. The Holy Spirit prepares and strengthens us for our final confrontation with our mortality.
But the purpose of the Sacraments cannot be reduced to consolation alone. Jesus also guides us to choose virtue and reject evil despite painful consequences. Sometimes unfulfilled hopes are the result of avoiding sins that rob us of the state of grace. Not only are disappointments in life inevitable, but they are also often necessary to keep us on a path of righteousness. Our hopes are always, in a sense, reactionary: rooted in the Cross.
There is even danger in wishing that all our hopes and dreams come true. One of the paradoxes of the cycle of life is that the fulfillment of all our desires can lead to ultimate hopelessness. We become victims of our success. It’s easy to forget that every fulfilled dream is transitory and will not withstand the passage of time.
The passage of time will dash even the noblest of our temporal hopes. Death will separate the happiest of marriages. Life-spans that exceed actuarial forecasts exhaust savings and ruin the most carefully devised financial retirement plans. A Super Bowl ring will, at best, end up as a family heirloom. Every hope fulfilled this side of eternity brings with it some inevitable disappointment.
It’s painful to recognize that all success in life is subject to revision. “[T]he Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” (Job 1:21) When we suffer disappointments, it takes considerable effort to bring ourselves to agree with the just man Job, “[B]lessed be the name of the Lord.”
In longing for the Messiah, John the Baptist surrendered every aspiration, including his desire for life. His example helps us understand this difficult teaching of Jesus: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Jesus marvels at John’s prophetic single-mindedness and celebrates him as the “greatest man born of woman.”
All hopes are fleeting, except for our hope for salvation. Jesus in the sacraments is not extraneous to the cycle of life; He is integral to it. For Jesus alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Hence our happiness must include learning to be content with discontent, with a holy resignation to the will of God.
We may be weary, and sick of trying, tired of living and afraid of dying. But God’s love for us in the flowing waters of the sacraments is like Old Man River and provides us with an enduring reason for hope. It just keeps rolling along.
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