The thing with feathers


As a Christian exploring Buddhism for its technologies of meditation, mindfulness and being peace, I found many coherences among the two traditions. And I’m not alone in that; Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has described how – once he learned about Jesus – he adopted Jesus as one of his spiritual ancestors.

But I confess I got thrown off the horse when I came to Buddhism’s tenet of no-hope, or hopelessness. Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, calls this letting go of the “deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold,” that there’s something outside of ourselves that we can abdicate our responsibilities and authority to.

Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledges that hope can make the present moment less difficult to bear, but says that that is the most it can do. He sees something tragic when we “cling to our hope in the future” and do not “focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment.”

These teachings seemed quite antithetical to the Biblical injunction to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you …” (1 Peter 3:15). The liberative tradition, too, is rooted in the hope for the undoing of oppression and injustice: Maria Pilar Aquino speaks eloquently of the necessity for Christians to be steeped in an empapamiento of hope: “Empapamiento refers to … ‘saturating ourselves,’ of ‘imbuing ourselves,’ of ‘permeating ourselves’ with hope so that we explore more freely the open possibilities of our reality and bring about the open possibilities of our transforming imagination.” (from A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice.)

Looking at hope this closely renders the familiar strange: What is hope to me? What is it to God? Does it help or hurt?

I find myself thinking of Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” A lift in our spirits when we look forward … the surge we feel in acknowledging that things are not as they should be … the energy that arises with us in the morning at first light. And then I come across Stephen Batchelor’s words about Buddhism, describing “insight and compassionate response as ‘two wings of a bird’” where “authentic Buddhist practice necessarily leads to … engagement with the world” (from Engaged Buddhism in the West).

This works. Hope is that thing with feathers, a bird that rises on the wings of insight and compassion. Hope rises when I do not hold it too closely, when I do not tether it with expectation, when I do not box it up with my attachments to the way or the destination. Hope in God is not a hand to hold that keeps me safe from all harm, but a hand that holds me as I sit and pray, as I walk and work, as I open myself to God’s loving/knowing what I can become and be, give and grow. I account for this hope by acknowledging that it does not come from me, or end with me, but moves through me like a bird through air, rising, ever rising.

Hope is something I want to be.

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2 Responses to The thing with feathers

  1. Shugie says:

    “Hope is something I want to be.” Amen! Thank you Rev Tam. I feel without hope there is no future.
    I am dealing with the sudden death of my husband. Even though we have been having trouble and have been separated for a few months the love of 32 years can’t be erased. Without hope, his death is for nothing. Only resentment and anger could possibly be the only emotions during this grieving process….Resentment at my husband for leaving us when we still had things to work out; resentment and anger at God for taking him so young and too early. Hope gives me the strength, courage and faith to carry on with the knowledge that his death is within God’s plan and at some point I will know fully about that purpose. With hope, I know my daughter and I will begin to feel better, to continue on with our lives while holding onto the good memories first and foremost in our hearts and minds.

    • tam121 says:

      Oh, Shugie … I am so sorry. Dealing with a loss like this is never easy … and in this case, yes, it’s complicated. My prayer for you is that you will extend to your daughter and yourself the grace of taking time and receiving help, as you can. Death always interrupts life … I believe your husband can still perceive you, though, and now understands with God’s perfect understanding everything that was going on between you. Perhaps even better than you can imagine. Even though you may not have the comfort of a clear response, you can say anything and everything you need to say … and I believe he will hear you. Rest assured that understanding will come, and that redemption already has. My hope for you is that you will allow God to be both your refuge and your strength. The rest will come with time.

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