The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near a-kin:
Both weather-beaten are without,
And empty both within.
Jonathan Swift, “Epigram IV,” (1726)
Alexander Pope was, I fear, taking some license when he wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”* Hope is a hardy and tenacious growth, and its root can send out green shoots after calamities of frost and fire, but it is not deathless, and there are times when a man awaits those green shoots in vain.
“And then, the death of hope confessed,
The quivering lip and heaving breast,
The burst of tears, the homeward way
Made hateful by joy passed away.” **
Now I must at once admit that the hope of which Pope wrote was not a sanguine expectation of joyous success in love or war or the getting of gold. It was, most decidedly, hope of “future bliss” in a “life to come.” As for this life of struggle here on earth, Pope tells us it is decidedly hopeless.
“Oh sons of earth! Attempt ye still to rise,
By mountains pil’d on mountains to the skies?
Heav’n still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise.***
What Pope means is that the specifically Christian hope of heaven entails a specifically Christian pessimism about earth. A Christian’s hope of “future bliss” entails a profound pessimism about every project and program that promises to improve life here on earth. In the eye of a Christian pessimist, everything a “son of earth” undertakes in the hope of earthly paradise is, as Pope says, a “vain toil” that is ultimately doomed to failure, disappointment and destruction.
The placement of pessimism and hope is, of course, reversed for a toiling “son of earth.” He toils in the hope of making an earthly paradise because he has conceived a profound pessimism about paradise in the life to come. Indeed, he will intentionally spread pessimism about the heavenly paradise because he knows such pessimism excites earthly activity (vide Marx and Nietzsche).
It is easy for a Christian to see “vain toil” in the projects and programs of his enemies. He joins in the laughter of Heaven when he surveys the earthly paradises that are promised by utopians of every description. But his mordant mirth disappears when he turns and surveys the projects and programs that are closer to his heart.
He forgets that he remains, himself, in large degree, a “son of earth,” and that his ecclesiastical projects and political programs are also, therefore, “mountains pil’d on mountains to the skies.” He forgets that heaven laughs as he writes a Constitution that he believes will preserve Christian liberty in a Godly republic. Heaven laughs when he builds a Church and boasts that it will defy the “gates of Hell.” Heaven laughs and awaits the burial of these Christian madmen in the “heaps” of earth they have raised.
The seed of these dolorous thoughts was planted at the close of last Sunday’s mass, as I listened to our priest plead for continued faith in the Church. Last Thursday, as you may have heard, the bishops of Texas published a list of Texas priests who had been credibly accused of sodomy, rape and molestation. The list was long, and it was far too long coming. I strained my ear to hear the laughter of Heaven, and I do not think that what I heard was just wind whistling ’round the corners of a weather-beaten church. The seed of these thoughts was watered the very next evening as I stomped around my usual Monday walk, brooding on the near certainty that my golden years will be spent under the administration of a President Kamala Harris.
“The burst of tears, the homeward way
Made hateful by joy passed away.”
False hopes, false joys, false home. The time has come to fully embrace the pessimism of the Jonathan S. with whom this post began.
*) Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733-1735)
**) William Morris, The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870)
***) Pope, Essay.