The gateway where hope and history rhyme

Migrant Mother - Dorothea Lange 1936
Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange 1936

In her beautiful blog, Maria Popova describes Reverend Victoria Stafford’s meditation in The Small Work in the Great Work (in the collection The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times) as “gorgeous”. Stafford is “interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are … spiritual beings and all that implies from creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life.” Here is how Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy where hope and history rhyme:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Popova frames her post with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of Migrant Mother. The woman moved by Lange is possibly a Californian pea picker in the Great Depression. Perhaps Popova has been prompted to turn to this photo by Stafford’s anecdote:

“I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known and counselled,  had committed suicide… My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.

At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them toward beautiful life and love.”

Michael Sadgrove also claims the “gate” as the standpoint for Christian ministry. Considering Job in his book Wisdom and Ministry, Sadgrove asks about the piety required of those who are called to be friends and comforters to those who have to endure pain, and says that we don’t stand apart from suffering humanity, but face the world as it is. “We must often sit among the ahses where Job is, and must always go outside the gate to the place of the skull, where Jesus is.”

Opening the gate of Hope at the meeting point of  hope and history begins with holding a moment (as in Lange’s photo) closely and deeply, and meeting that with all that we are. For me, this is a passionate rendition of all the pastoral cycle seeks to do in theological reflection and pastoral practice. The final word goes to Victoria Stafford: “Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope.” There we see the world “as it is and as it could be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle” Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is in the public domain.

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