Comfortable Words: A Series of Reflections

Comfortable Words

By the Rev’d Dr. Thomas H. Curran


  • ASB The Alternative Service Book (1980), England
  • AV Authorized Version, King James Version
  • BAS The Book of Alternative Services (1985), Canada
  • BCP The Book of Common Prayer (1962), Canada
  • tr. = translated by

1. Comfortable Words

Our use of the “comfortable words” in the service of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer (pp. 77-78) ties our regular Sunday worship right back to the origins of our priceless Anglican liturgy in the great upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. The use of the “comfortable words” after the general confession and the priestly absolution is intended to confirm the certainty of the pardon obtained through the mediation of Christ Himself. This assurance (using these Scriptural texts) goes back beyond our Prayer Book of 1962 and the great English Prayer Book of 1662 right to the very first attempts to produce an English language version of our common worship in 1548; and these same words have continued to be used and proclaimed throughout all forms of Anglican worship, right up until they became “optional” in the great liturgical reforms of the 1970s and the 1980s.

But the inspiration behind their use is not specifically Anglican or English, but derives from a German attempt to find a new way between the old Latin worship of our Western Church and the now universal use of the vernacular (the common language of the people) in public worship. We owe the introduction of the “comfortable words” into our worship to Archbishop Hermann of Cologne, who was excommunicated and deposed from his office in 1546, and died a member of the German Lutheran Church in 1552.

The first thing that is “comfortable” about these words, then, is the knowledge of their use in public worship for nearly 450 years in the presence of faithful (and repentant) Christian souls: they provide us with the assurance that our generation did not invent sin and need not regard itself as inherently more sinful than any previous generation, and that the guarantee of Christ’s mercy delivered to our forefathers in the faith remains undiminished in our time. Our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents all had these same words read to them in their time, and all drew the comfort from them that we require so much today in our generation.

But we need to be careful about this word “comfortable”; it has nothing to do with our favourite easy-chair or the luxury of a properly heated home, nor does it have anything to do with casual attire; the “comfortable words” are one means by which we feel the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit in our lives, the presence of the “Comforter”. In its root sense, to comfort means “to strengthen”, not to encourage ease, or to enhance leisure. You will all recognize this if you think of the function of a “fort” in a nation’s defences; it is set up to protect a port or harbour from the invasion of hostile or alien forces, and so the sending of “the Holy Ghost, the Comforter” is the sending of God’s strength to us and with us (from the Latin word meaning “with” cum, God with us), so that “we may evermore dwell with him, and he in us”. Martin Luther called God “a mighty fortress”, or “a safe stronghold”; God is our Comforter, our strong tower.

When I was a lad, the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned a survey of the Anglican scene by the well-known journalist and author Pierre Berton; he entitled his study of our national church The Comfortable Pew, which he did not intend as a compliment, and which does not reflect the sense of “comfort” of which I am speaking.

Nowadays it doesn’t seem a very accurate way of describing church life with falling attendance, shrinking revenues, increasing doubts, and endless controversies. (Nor has it ever, I suspect, reflected how people have felt sitting on a hard wooden pews half-way through a particularly long sermon!) But he would be right in seeing our Anglican Church as a place in which the people of God can derive “comfort”, the strengthening of the Holy Ghost for the purposes of amending our lives and persevering in the tasks that God has given us in our homes, in our places of employment, and in our acts of charity.

I find myself as priest assisting in the parish of Seaforth on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, and here the practice is for the people of the parish to recite the “comfortable words” after the priest has delivered the formula given for the Absolution. How this local custom arose no one seems to know; technically, it is not permitted as the rubric (or instruction) reads “Then shall the Priest say…” We do keep to the rubric to the extent that the priest introduces the “comfortable words”, but then the people actually recite out loud the celebrated words of Holy Scripture, and since my coming here this has meant a lot to me.

I am given the impression by our faithful congregations that they are in turn imparting to me the “comfort” of Christ’s holy words, that they (of their charity) are including me in the Absolution which has just been imparted by me in virtue of my office. And from these words, and from the parish’s generosity of spirit, I derive the “comfort”, the strengthening to make my way through another week of shortcomings and blunders, secure that these imperfections will be overlooked both by Christ’s mercy and by the goodness of those souls of whom I am supposed to have “the cure”. They “comfort” me, by accepting my ministry — with all its warts and blemishes.

Some years ago Prince Charles spoke of the great “comfort” that a score of generations in the British Isles have derived from the memorable phrases of the Book of Common Prayer. I believe the Prince said that, in their “foxholes” and “trenches”, the British soldiers who suffered the miseries of the First World War would have drawn “comfort” — not ease, but strength and fortitude — from the great phrases of the Book of Common Prayer, that they would have known these phrases by heart from their Sunday worship in English churches from their childhood onward.

In the damp and wet, in the cold and the squalour, this tragic generation would have found within themselves the resources of divine “comfort” in the great phrases which they would have recited publicly from their youth up. Can you imagine a world in which we are deprived of these inner resources, in which no one approaches “the throne of the heavenly grace”“with meek heart and due reverence”, in which God does not write His “laws in our hearts”, in which we do not finally “beat down Satan under our feet”, and in which we are not invited to receive Christ’s Holy Sacrament to our “comfort”?

A Nova Scotian priest has told me that the most moving thing he has ever experienced in his ministry since ordination was his presence at the deathbed of a faithful parishioner, whose last words were “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden…” Most of us are not capable of great dying words, but we pray that we may still have at our disposal some of those great phrases of the English language “to our comfort” when our hour comes. And so many of these phrases are derived from the King James Version of Holy Scripture, and from the Book of Common Prayer, that “pearl of great price” of which we are the guardians.

2. Devices and Desires

My rector has pointed out how important it is that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells those assembled: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This “Beatitude” (or blessing spoken by Jesus) suggests that, even in their grief, those who mourn shall be comforted, or strengthened, by the coming presence of Christ, through the operation of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter. We hope that in our Anglican burial offices, there may never be wanting that sense of the comfort of Holy Scripture most manifestly offered in Deuteronomy’s assertion that underneath us are “the everlasting arms” (BCP, p. 592), or in St Paul’s assurance that “we shall be changed” (BCP, p. 597). But, of course, part of the comfort that we can derive from the Book of Common Prayer is just that familiarity of phrase and syntax and rhythm, which has been the glory and sustaining power of the reformed English Church since its inception.

These are comfortable words, in that we are familiar with them, we have heard them with our ears, we have seen them with our eyes, and our hands have handled this Word, and these words, of life (1 John 1:1). Sometimes we want to pull on an old sweater, or insist on keeping a favourite easy-chair, long after these possessions are worn out, just because they are familiar, they have been ours for so many years, and they just “feel right” — which in no way obscures the fact that there are newer, more practical, unmended products on the market. These have become our words, we know them by sight and name, and the simple recitation of them can give us comfort and pleasure, as we are invoking old, familiar friends.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the great phrases of Common Prayer which pop up all over the place in English poetry and prose. Surely, the most obvious example is P.D. James’ use of the phrase Devices and Desires for the title of one of her recent detective novels.

This striking phrase is taken from the confession that we make at Morning and Evening Prayer, where we acknowledge before God that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, pp. 4 & 19), and there can hardly be a phrase which more neatly captures that sense we all have of undermining the good we want to do, by the scheming and calculations we are constantly making to our own advantage, always by necessity at somebody else’s expense. These words evoke that sense that we are always calculating and bargaining, we are looking for advantage and trying to wriggle out of what we know we should be doing: we pretend to others that our motives are pure and unalloyed.

As it happens, in England, I had two special friends, both of whom intended to publish books with this very same title (Devices and Desires) long before anyone knew of Baroness James’ novel in the making. One (Dick Davis) did publish his collected poems under this title well before the appearance of the novel, while, with the other, the intention to give an autobiographical fiction of his days as a cathedral chorister and then as a “lay clerk” in several cathedral choirs never came to fruition — and to that extent at least he stayed in character!

My friend’s book of collected poems does give the whole passage as a frontispiece, but P.D. James declined her publisher’s suggestion to give an account of the origin of her title, on the grounds, I believe, that ordinary literate British men and women could be expected to know its origin. While the publisher’s view that the title needed explanation was probably the more accurate reading of the cultural scene, there is no evidence that P.D. James’ sales suffered for choosing this evocative (if obscure) title! We could say that such is her clout as an author, that she may do as she very well pleases!

Devices and Desires is just a late entry in a slew of allusions to the Prayer Book, which has as other notable examples, A.N. Wilson’s more recent Incline Our Hearts (presumably from the rehearsal of the Ten Commandments: “incline our hearts to keep this law” on pp. 68 & 69), and the American journalist Joan Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer (1977). Now whatever else may be said about our modern alternative Anglican liturgies, one certainty seems to have been established already: no great work of poetic imagination, and no new book titles are ever likely to be inspired by them, and to that extent, in adopting these liturgies, our Anglican Church is likely to yield its “high ground” in the “common culture”.

The reason for this is simple: in our search for the rhythms and idiom of the everyday, common speech of our contemporaries, we are, by definition, looking for something more readily digestible, more easily comprehensible, more immediately accessible, than some of the magnificent, but difficult (and even obscure) phrases of the Prayer Book tradition. In that way, the liturgical product must by its very nature be blander to the taste: it must be marketable, inclusive and inoffensive.

A useful parallel here can be drawn with another aspect of old country British life, recently much revived: the traditional pint of bitter. This may seem a strange parallel, but if you bear with me, I think you will see what I am driving at. Brewers are, of course, primarily concerned with marketing their product, and there is constant pressure in our society to maximize sales by producing as much (inoffensive) beer as a mass-market will bear, so that every brewer’s dream is to turn out as much bland, canned, convenience product beer as the market will bear.

But in England, there has come into existence a highly organized and committed popular movement which calls itself “The Campaign for Real Ale” (CAMRA), a pressure group, which has as its aim to force brewers and pubs to provide “traditional bitter” which is not pasteurized, which only completes its aging in the cask in the cellar of the pub and must be maintained at a certain temperature there, and which can only be drawn up by hand, thus avoiding the gassy quality of most beers which are pumped into the glass like “pop” by the means of CO2.

Now the important thing to note about this is that neither the brewers nor the landlords had any real interest in shipping out and serving beer which was by its very nature unstable, could easily “go off”, and which required high maintenance. Nonetheless, the campaign did succeed because the consumer demanded it and was prepared to pay a higher price to get it. And what a richer country Britain is for it!

The English have an expression which is the equivalent of our “no big deal”; they will often talk of “small beer”. Its early usage can be found in Shakespeare, where a rebel would (if he had his way) “make it a felony to drink small beer”, because it is, by definition, something tasteless, watery, and bland. Shakespearian characters will reject “small beer” as being light, weak, and inferior. By its transferred meaning “small beer” now means something inoffensive and insignificant: “small beer” is “no big deal”.

You will probably have understood by now, that my hope for the Prayer Book Society of Canada is that it can harness the same enthusiasm as CAMRA in ensuring that the landlords and innkeepers of our churches (the rectors and parsons) do not get away with serving up weak, bland, gassy “small beer”, when we are asking for a drink of “living water” (John 4: 10). I am reminded of what a wag (Peter Ackroyd) said about our modern ecumenical theology; he suggested that it has the same quality as airline food: everybody can eat it, because it is so singularly inoffensive, but nobody actually enjoys it. (I am told that this may not ring true for the airlines’ first and business class patrons, where the smoked salmon and champagne are anything but bland, but from where I sit in the airplane, I wouldn’t know about that!).

I am arguing that an important pastoral tool is being forfeited, when we abandon the rhythms and language of the Book of Common Prayer, because a great deal of our book can properly be called “poetry”, at least by Coleridge’s definition of the same: “the best possible words in the best possible order”. It is just because the Prayer Book is poetry in precisely the sense given above that it has been a well of inspiration for generations of British poets and authors.

I should like to add a final ingredient to the heady brew that we have been serving up, by sprinkling in a few more hops and a little more malt right at the end of the fermentation. By this means we may begin to brew something in imitation of the best British bitter, which one compliments by calling it complex (also an apt way of speaking about our Prayer Book, which is complex in all the senses given above: rich, tasty, fecund, but also obscure, difficult, challenging).

Remember Keat’s poignant description of “the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home / She stood in tears amid the alien corn” (Ode to a Nightingale). What many of us are afraid of in our parish churches across this country is that we shall one day discover that, in place of the familiar, comfortable words of our tradition, we have been transported against our will into an alien environment, where the ancient, majestic language of “common prayer”, the language of novels and poetry, has been replaced by the “corny” idioms of sentimentality and soap opera. Let us “make it a felony to serve small beer” in the inns and banquet halls where we worship!

The last “comfortable words” in this column must go to Baroness James for doing so much to keep the language of our Prayer Book in the public domain and discussion. In a tribute to her “hero” Thomas Cranmer, she wrote (with admirable precision): “The Prayer Book may be ignored and superseded but it will never be surpassed”. Amen.

3. Reasonable Hope

These words can be found in “The Order for the Burial of the Dead” in our Canadian Book of Common Prayer (pp. 599-600), and they are a token that not all change is bad or to be derided, since they do not originate from either the 1662 or 1928 Books currently in use in England. They are a brilliant addition to an already very fine and moving office.

What do these words convey to those who are mourning? First of all, they speak of the comfort of our religion. This is the comfort that Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This “Beatitude” (or blessing spoken by Jesus) suggests that, even in their grief, those who mourn shall be comforted, or strengthened, by the presence of God in their lives, and by the “hope”, which our Burial Office demands we acknowledge.

We are to embrace hope even on those saddest of days, when we are forced to say farewell to a loved one, relative or friend. Our order of service exhorts us — at a funeral most of all — to remember and affirm the teaching of God’s “holy Apostle” Saint Paul, namely, “not to be sorry, as men without hope for them that sleep in Jesus” (BCP, p. 603).

Our “comfortable words” offer us three adjectives describing our Christian hope, but these adjectives are not a random collection, three nice turns of phrase — what they actually do is to provide a stairway of ascent: our hope must first be “reasonable”, then “religious”, and finally “holy”. Here, we shall ask about the character of a “reasonable” hope, and shall leave for the future, what the defining characteristics of hope that is “religious” and “holy” might be.

The easiest entry into this question is to remember that the opposite (the antonym) of hope is despair, and that despair can be described as that “sin against the Holy Ghost”, which removes us utterly beyond the “comfort” of God’s holy Word and sacrament. Despair suggests that there is nothing worth living or fighting for, and places the individual, who succumbs to it, beyond the reach of earthly friends or heavenly ministrations. But what is “reasonable” about hope in such a world as that which we inhabit?

One must constantly remember that none of us can see the end of our doings beyond all doubt. Despair can only be justified if we know absolutely and unequivocally what the future holds for us, our families and friends. We do not. And what is the opposite of “reasonable” hope, other than “false hope”?

It is very simple to establish the distinction between the two: reasonable hope is that your circumstances can and might improve; “false hope” is the certainty that they will improve, because you are about to win the national lottery! When we come to the lowest moments in our lives, the choice before us seems to be between the darkness of despair and the “folly” of hope. Well, to hope is not folly, it is in fact the reasonable course, since no one can know how things will turn out, and hope alone offers us the hand of opportunity, a way forward, a course of action; despair has nothing to offer us except the destruction of our personality, and the rejection of friendship.

The world may very well be going to the dogs, but how does it help us to think so? How are we able to help our parents, our children, our neighbours with that attitude? To believe that things can and will improve, this gives us opportunities and options, it leaves a space for the future (which is hidden from us); despair has no room for anything other than itself. Despair cannot acknowledge the providence of God, that there are real opportunities in this world even for us.

Our Prayer Book is seeking to remind us that the antidote, the medicine for despair is hope, the faith that we cling to in our darkest hour and saddest moments. This faith is like the cock that crows during “the watch that ends the night”. Faith is the constant reminder that daybreak is yapping at the heels of night. Reasonable hope is waiting for that moment when “the day-spring from on high” will visit us, where we are, here, today (BCP, p. 10).

4. Religious Hope

In our earlier discussion of this phrase from the Prayer Book Burial Office (pp. 599-600), we made two essential arguments: 1) the order of the adjectives here describing hope is not arbitrary, but represents a ladder of ascent; and 2) hope is the reasonable course, because a) no one can know the future with absolute certainty, and b) despair (which deludes us into thinking we do know the future) has nothing to offer us except the destruction of our personalities. There is a comfort (of sorts) to be had in reasonable hope, so how does a hope that is “religious and holy” go beyond it?

When a spouse, a parent or a child dies, our world literally falls apart. The security, the warmth, the whole order of our domestic life is tossed into a pit; the picture of a happy home is disfigured, as if a lunatic has entered into an art gallery and slashed the canvas of a masterpiece beyond repair. The components that made up the work of art are still in place, but the attraction of the unity of the composition is at best a memory. We feel that there is nothing of beauty left: “The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…” (W.H. Auden, 1936).

Put baldly, a “religious hope” is one in which we continue to believe, amidst insupportable grief and sorrow, that there is nothing that “shall separate us from the love of Christ”. It is St Paul who argues that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come… shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:35-end and appointed for use in the Burial Office on p. 592). This is the essence of a religious hope in Christ Jesus, as St Paul would say again, “so we preach, and so ye believed” (1 Corinthians 15: 11).

How can such a demanding, almost incomprehensible, “religious hope” be put into practice? Here I wish to turn away from our Book of Common Prayer in order to examine instead another glorious example of “the Protestant Reformed Religion” (so described in the Coronation Oath of Queen Elizabeth II) of which our Anglicanism is only one expression.

It is very instructive to compare the marriage vows of our Common Prayer service with those prescribed for couples being wed under The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland. We are accustomed to promise “to love and to cherish, till death do us part” (p. 566), but in Scotland the vow actually made by bride and groom is to “promise and covenant to be a loving, faithful, and dutiful” husband or wife until God shall separate us by death.

This is not just a matter of semantics, but an open, public assertion by the would-be spouses that when the divorce of death from life puts an end to their public pledge of fealty, it is not just the indiscriminate, arbitrary, maniacal work of the grim reaper which destroys the possibility of all human happiness: God must be seen to have a hand in the whole tragic business somewhere. God does not make people die; they die of old age, of illness, or by accident, or as the result of crime, or cruelty, or inhumanity — but God Himself is not simply divorced from the process, this is after all His world, we believe, and so He cannot be a bystander, who watches all this suffering and sorrow from a distance (as a popular song performed by Nanci Griffith would have us believe).

Remember that the Christian religion is the one which teaches that God Himself must die in the person of His Son, otherwise Jesus would not be fully human (or humane). And we know from our Scriptures that Jesus does not welcome death as a blessed relief from “all the dangers of this troublesome world” (BCP, p. 523), that He does not simply long for the separation of body and soul, so that His soul may at last find its eternal rest in God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we overhear Jesus saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38 & Mark 14: 34) — these are not the words of a man who yearns to be separated from everything that He loves and holds dear on this earth.

The problem with a “religious hope” is that it is not something that can be switched on at will like a light bulb, and it’s not like going to the bank to draw on money that we are holding in reserve. To have a “religious hope” in a time of sorrow is only possible because of the sustained effort of a lifetime. Just think what the word “religion” means. It is connected to the Latin word religare, which means “to bind”. A religious life is one then in which we bind ourselves to God, as He has already bound Himself to us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us…” (1 John 4:10). We bind ourselves to God through the reading of His Holy Word, through our Baptism and Holy Communion, through the keeping of His commandments, and when we follow the injunction “to do good and to distribute forget not” (BCP, p. 73).

But this is not the work of an afternoon, or of one Holy Week, or a holiday fortnight; to be kept in “the fellowship of Christ’s religion” (BCP, p. 193) is only possible by the grace of God in conformity with a sustained spiritual discipline, by which that free gift of grace becomes the central reality of our lives. In His religion, we bind ourselves to Christ, as He first bound Himself to us.

We have not yet said anything about that “holy hope”, which represents the summit: a “reasonable hope” is the foothills, and a “religious hope” is the arduous climb up the rockface. But in anticipation, allow me to cite the incomparable “Exequy” of Henry King, Bishop of Chichester. The word “exequy” conveys the sense of a “funeral procession” or “funeral rites” and was written for his wife Anne, who died in 1624.

In his poem the grieving husband awaits his “dissolution with hope and comfort”, and the title of this poem deserves to be given in full, for it surely represents the feelings of millions and hundreds of millions who have tried to support the grief of losing a spouse: “An Exequy to his Matchless never to be forgotten Friend”.

King’s poetic conclusion allows us to see at a distance and through the mists and shadows of grief, as it were, the faint outlines of that “holy hope” to which we are called:

Dear (forgive The crime) I am content to live

Divided, with but half a heart,

Till we shall meet and never part.

5. Heirs Through Hope

Each service of Holy Communion performed according to The Book of Common Prayer assures us that we are “heirs through hope” of God’s “everlasting kingdom” (p. 85). This formula brings us into the central mystery of our religion: we have been individually named in Christ’s last will and testament. We have been assured by our loving Father that we are rightful heirs of that “hope of glory” (BCP, p. 15), which is the common legacy of the saints in light.

The problem, as every offspring discovers, is that we may indeed be the legal inheritors of our parents’ estate, we may already be named in their wills, we may in principle partake of their substance, we may be assured that everything belonging to our parents may soon be ours, but there remains the fact that what will be is not yet, that our desperate endeavours to eke out a livelihood here and now are not really made all that much easier with the promise of future inheritance. In fact, those adults of our acquaintance who are constantly eyeing their parents’ estate and wealth are likely to commit grotesque errors of judgment, all the while assuring others that present difficulties will be ironed out shortly, when….

The purpose of Holy Communion is not primarily, or even necessarily, to bring to mind some future reward, some future happiness, some future resolution of our problems. This is perhaps made more clear in some modern liturgies, where the phrase from the Prayer of Absolution (BCP, p. 77) which speaks of Almighty God’s “bringing” you to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, is replaced by the formula that He is already keeping you in the eternal life which is your destiny and hope (e.g., BAS, p.191).

Of all the “comfortable words” which make our Book of Common Prayer an outstanding example of the English language and of Anglican piety, this notion that we are already “heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom” is the one we must most completely take to heart. May each of you hoard it, and care for it, and treasure it, so that in your moment of need, you can bring it to mind and “hope against hope” for that just, providential, beneficent resolution of all things, when the end comes, and Christ Himself shall have delivered the kingdom to His Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). These words of Scripture, which form so essential a part of our burial office, find their echo in Julian of Norwich’s famous conviction that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

In the meantime, while we continue our difficult homecoming, our journey of “threescore years and ten” or, if we should be so fortunate, “fourscore years” (Psalm 90), allow me to remind you that we live and die in “the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope” (BCP, pp. 599-600). I want to reconfirm this teaching under these same three headings.

Hope is “reasonable” the psychologists tell us: your disposition, your attitude is so important in the wake of the inevitable minor and major setbacks that we all have to face each and every day. Do you think that the bottle is “half empty” or “half full”? Do you sink into despair, because you have been the victim of a car accident, or do you remind yourself how lucky you are that you were not, in fact, involved in a far more serious accident? Do you regard yourself as continually subjected to bad luck, or do you try to make the most of all those unfortunate situations, which are simply the condition of a human life?

A hopeful, optimistic outlook is the “reasonable” course because, even in adversity, optimistic people are known to go out and create more opportunities for themselves, whereas their pessimistic counterparts see themselves as the victims of a terrible fate that then renders them completely powerless.

Hope is also a religious matter. Recently, there was that terrible sinking of the car ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea. 910 passengers and crew are said to have lost their lives. Two strangers, however, managed to survive: Sara and Kent met for the first time on the deck of the sinking ship.

Sara was sitting on the highest part of the deck not yet submerged in water — she had a life-jacket — and Kent was tugging at a lifeboat that had got stuck. With seconds to go before the complete sinking of the ferry, they made a pact that somehow they were going to survive this ordeal and meet for dinner in Stockholm the following week; then the two of them walked hand and hand “towards the water and the darkness”.

Somehow they managed to drag themselves into a lifeboat, after they had actually been submerged in the icy water. They had 15 companions in the lifeboat with them, not one of whom survived the effects of hypothermia. Kent and Sara alone of all those in their boat were rescued alive by the helicopters that appeared the following morning. To cling to life in this way, to “hope against hope” in the icy, wintry sea, that can be described as a religious hope: such a profound binding of yourself to the principles which govern human life can only be described as spiritual.

Finally, there is the holy hope, which is the greatest of the three. Hope may be reasonable, and hope may be religious, but the essence of a holy hope is not to be too hasty in judgment: not to be certain of the outcome as being “beyond all hope”. At the most mundane level, don’t give up hope yet, wait until morning, for “tomorrow is unknown, and resolution is often found at the rising of the sun” (or so we are advised by the elf Legolas of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth).

More profoundly, we have the warning of St. Thomas Aquinas (in Dante’s Paradiso) that, contrary to all reasonable expectation, he has actually seen on the tip of the briar “a prickly thing and tough the winter through… the very rose at close of spring…”(Canto xii; tr. Sayers). So too, we should not always judge people and circumstances too immediately by their outward appearances, by their labels and packaging; we should not be too smug in the power of our own reason and insight, not be too certain that there is no room for hope in our wayward condition.

We do not know the end, how things will turn out; we cannot say for certain how the rest of our days will be spent; our tomorrows are unknown to us. But they are not unknown to God, who does not live in time, but dwells forever in His eternity, the simultaneous possession of all time in its everlastingness. And it is just because all the threads of all the lives we live out in sequence here on earth come to rest in the hand of God, just for that reason, we are now “heirs through hope” of that everlasting kingdom, which is His and will be ours. For the present we should be content with Alexander Pope’s famous dictum:

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.” (An Essay on Man)

But those who know themselves as “heirs through hope”, will want to amend these lines to read:

“Hope’s source eternal in the human breast;
Man’s present Is, and future Will be blest.”

Comfortable Words: A Series of Reflections