Purely by coincidence (which means: by providential design), I spent my spare time in the days before the release of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Saved by Hope ("Spe Salvi") reading a book about hopeless people. Vile Bodies is one of Evelyn Waugh's early — i.e., pre-Catholic — novels and a powerful piece of work.
The book is a scathing satirical portrait of the British upper classes between two World Wars. Beneath the hard-as-diamonds glittering surface, it's a profoundly serious tale, and one that, though originally published in 1930, could have been written the day before yesterday and set in Tahoe or Palm Beach as easily as London.
The bright young people who circle like lost souls at the center of the story are casual nihilists whose motto, as one character puts it, is "If a thing's not worth doing well, it's not worth doing at all." Never having found anything worth doing well, they pass their days partying, drinking, and fornicating. By story's end, two are dead — one by suicide — and the rest dispersed. The surreal last scene takes place on a battlefield of a new Great War, where the hero, a general, and a prostitute drink champagne in an abandoned Daimler.
The book provided a singularly effective scene-setter for my reading of Saved by Hope, which in its own way is as brilliant as Waugh's novel. Unlike the novel, though, it has an irresistibly positive message that speaks directly to the state of contemporary hopelessness.
Why hope as a subject for Pope Benedict's second encyclical? Because many people today don't know what hope is, many have lost it or never had it, and especially because it's central to life in Christ. It is a "distinguishing mark" of Christians, Benedict remarks, "that they have a future…they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness." This is knowledge that makes all the difference. "The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life."
In the space available here it isn't possible to summarize this rich, complex, and extremely well written document. Let me simply suggest some of its richness by concentrating on just one section in which the Pope speaks about suffering.
For even the bravest nonbeliever, suffering is an experience ultimately without meaning — conclusive evidence for the terrible absurdity of human life. Not so for persons with Christian hope. "Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable," Benedict writes. "Yet the star of hope has risen — the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God….Suffering — without ceasing to be suffering — becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise."
This is not a solitary, individualistic experience. In the light of hope, suffering has a crucial social dimension. "The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer," the Pope affirms. And again: "To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer out of love in order to become a person who truly loves — these are fundamental elements of humanity."
Released November 30, Saved by Hope looks to the hope-filled seasons of Advent and Christmas. In these weeks the liturgies ring with Isaiah's words: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….For to us a child is born" (Is 9.2,6). Isaiah wrote of the saving light to come for which God's people longed. Now we celebrate its presence in the manger in Bethlehem. That presence, as Pope Benedict so beautifully explains, is precisely the ground of our hope.