Last Friday we watched starling murmurations at dusk and we were transfixed. Look up Emergence Theory. When a whole nation flocks, rises and turns unexpectedly, as it did last week, many ask, ‘what is God up to?’ The answer must be, God is right there in the shifting patterns and the unexpected. Pray for America’s next President and keep on asking the question.
Such a response to recent events is itself unexpected, but he must be right. We shouldn’t take his point in a simplistic way, assuming that manifestly wicked things are God’s will. But God turns evil to good. The world’s reaction to political problems is to get angry, hurl abuse, draw scurrilous cartoons, write satire. And we quite naturally get drawn in. But the distinctively Christian response, of course, is to pray: for our enemies, for those whom we dislike, for those whom we fear, for people who say and do the most obnoxious things, for extremists.
And do we pray for those who read our books and other writings? For those who hear us giving talks? I was speaking on Friday the 11th at a ‘Tolkien Day’ at Liverpool Hope University. What a great name that is for a uni! And especially for a place to speak about Tolkien. It gets its name from the initiative of two great bishops, the RC and C of E bishops of Liverpool, who brought together a Catholic and an Anglican college, separated by a main road, and made a university out of them.
I suspect Hope is one of the virtues we understand least. In ordinary use, it is mostly just a completely passive experience engendered within us by positive circumstances, such as meeting up with nice people, finding we’ve got a bit more money than we expected, noticing our cold symptoms improving, and so on. But like Faith and Love, Hope has a lot more to it. We know that theological Faith and Love are not passive experiences that just happen to us. They are active exertions of the heart towards God. They are creative. They make things happen. They change things. And so does Hope. And also there is an objective meaning to Hope. ‘The hope laid up for you.’ It can’t be seen, but it’s there, waiting for us.
The present age desperately needs to be shown Hope. This is something that Christian writers can distinctively do. It doesn’t need to be spelt out. ‘Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you’ seems to me to imply that people are supposed to notice the air of hopefulness in us and ask about it, not that we are to go around inflicting it on them. Our writings should surely contain that seed of hopefulness. I know that it is something that Mari Howard tries to sow in her novels.
‘To worry’, many centuries ago, meant ‘to get by the throat or strangle’: it’s what dogs do when they worry sheep; the sheep don’t just look harassed, they get their throats torn. I hope no one reading these words is being throttled by worry. The thing is, worries cannot be ordered off. We have to acknowledge that they are there, like all negative emotions. But we need to get to the point of awareness, the point at which we are aware that worries are not objective external reality; they are thoughts. And neither are they our real self; they are just thoughts floating round us, like clouds round a mountain. That is the wisdom of the ages. But as Christians we have a further recourse. ‘Cast all your anxieties on him.’ We can offer our worries to Christ. We don’t have to wait till we have nice things to offer him. Every nasty thing within us can be offered and he will accept it. Suddenly we realize that we are rich in things to give him!
So, Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry. This was the motto of one of the great RC saints of the twentieth century, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, who is now St Pio.