(Pemptousia) Hope in God redeems those who have fallen into sin, restores the wounded to health and looses the bonds of the prisoners. Hope rises like the rosy dawn in the moral firmament and illumines those darkened by the grime of the sorrowful soul. It pours the balm of comfort onto the wounds of the heart which is in mourning.
Saint Nectarios of Pentapolis
I have always had an affinity for St Nectarios of Pentapolis (1846-1920). What primarily attracts me to him is that he during his life he was both loved and misunderstood. To be sure, some people neither loved him nor understood him. This is why he was chased not only out of the Patriarchate of Alexandria but often scorned when he returned to Greece.
And yet for all that he was rejected by many in the Church, he remained faithful to Christ and to his own monastic and episcopal vocations. He spent the last years of his life the Holy Trinity Convent on Aegina, writing, preaching and hearing preached and hearing the confessions of “those who came from near and far to seek out his spiritual guidance.”
Though he engaged in intellectual and spiritual work, he didn’t neglect manual labor and philanthropy. “While at the monastery, he also tended the gardens, carried stones, and helped with the construction of the monastery buildings that were built with his own funds” (Nectarios of Pentapolis). In spite of all he suffered, and he suffered much, St Nectarios never lost hope.
It is this last quality, his enduring hopefulness, that I think makes Nectarios an especially fitting saint for contemporary Orthodox Christians living as we do in an era characterized more by optimism than hope.
The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel argued that the difference between optimism and hope is this; optimism is self-centered, hope, however, looks outside the self to God. The former says that everything will be alright because I’m special; the latter says that “all will be well, and all will be well” (to borrow from Juliana of Norwich) because God is loving, man befriending and easy to be entreated.
This is why, to turn to the epigram, hope redeems and loosens the bonds of sin. Sin, like optimism, is ultimately static. Neither can face the complexity, the great and joyful mystery, of love. Optimism, like sin, may offer a surface cheerfulness but ultimately both reduce life to a dreary sameness. Both sin and optimism can only function by savagely excluding anything that doesn’t fit their narrow vision of existence.
But hope? Hope is faith in the future tense, it opens us to a joyful future and helps us see the great pluriformity of God’s grace pour out in Creation and especially in the many gifts given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder that after praising God for the many gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), he immediately offers his great hymn to love as the greatest of all God’s many gifts?
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, NKJV).
St Nectarios as the apostle of hope is also the apostle for love. And so he is an antidote for the mere optimism that has come infect not only American culture but, too frequently, American Christianity.
St Nectarios, pray for us!