Hope in the Darkness

For thou art my hope, O Lord GOD: thou art my trust from my youth. . . . I will hope continually, and will yet praise thee more and more. – Psalm 71:5, 14

Many psychological and scientific studies will be published in the upcoming months regarding the outcomes of the 2020 pandemic. Among other points of vital necessity will be the repeat-lesson of personal vulnerability, that a virus of 125 mn size (1/203200 inch) would send the world into frenzied hiding to spare our lives.

This fact evokes an eerie memory of walking through Auschwitz in the summer of 1994 and noticing my familial name on numerous registration pictures of the Nazis’ inhumane “marking system.” One young woman in particular, Antonia Bogdanowicz, who died at a mere 14 years of age, drew my attention instantly: she was a precious relative whom I would have deeply loved, but she was killed before I was born. What was her story? Did she hide in hopes of escaping the concentration camps? Was anyone with her when she died? I will never know, this side of eternity.

Two women, of whose World War II–era stories I do know a portion, have won universal admiration. Both were of Jewish heritage; both were writers and creative thinkers; both escaped into hiding; both finally faced execution in the infamous Nazi death-camps. The first, Edith Stein, has become a well-known figure in the world of academia and in the Catholic Church, through her philosophical treatises and her 1998 canonization as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by a future Polish saint himself, Pope John Paul II.

The second heroine, Anne Frank, was but a girl when she was forced into hiding (we might call it quarantine, isolation, or some other nuanced pandemic term) in an attic in Prinsengrach, Amsterdam. Two years of such harrowing existence ended in the Nazis’ mysterious discovery of the Frank family and the deportation of Anne and her sister to Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Though Anne had been forced to spend her otherwise promising teen years hidden away, as if she were better forgotten, her diary captured her indomitable spirit of hope, immortalized with these words: “Whoever is happy will make others happy, too.” Her musings will lead us through this meditation on hope, a virtue more important than ever as we face our future.

What Is Hope?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (§1817). It goes on:

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity. (§1818)

The virtue of hope involves three elements: first, an active pursuit of God and Heaven; second, a belief that the attainment of Heaven is possible; and thirdly, a realization that failing to attain Heaven is also a possibility.

Ultimately, the hope of attaining Heaven gives breath and meaning to our lives. Those whose eyes are fixed on Heaven are the ones who do the most good even for our earthly society. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

In Anne Frank, we come to know one such towering example of hope.

The Life of Anne Frank

Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank was born on June 12, 1929, in Germany. Her family moved to Amsterdam when she was four years old. In a strange coincidence, this happened to be the same year that the Nazis seized power in Germany. But the Nazi cancer soon spread through Europe, and the Frank family found themselves trapped in Amsterdam after the Axis occupation of the Netherlands. As persecution of the Jewish population increased, the family disappeared one night of July 1942 into secret rooms of her father’s office building. Just one month earlier, on her thirteenth birthday, Anne had received a red-and-white-checkered autograph album which she had decided to use as a diary to hold her most intimate thoughts, dreams, and hopes. She never expected anyone else to read her entrustments to this silent friend.

After two years, the clandestine group was betrayed and hauled off to concentration camps. Anne and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where they both died of typhus in March 1945, less than one month before the camp was liberated on April 12.

But in a strange twist of God’s Providence, Anne’s spirit was to live on. As her father, Otto Frank, the only survivor of the family, made his way back to Amsterdam after the war, he discovered his daughter’s diary mysteriously stuck in his abandoned briefcase. Surprised, he sank to the floor to read the musings of this beloved daughter. Tears flowed as he realized his ignorance of the depths this child had carried within her. It was through his efforts that the book was published in 1947. Within five years, the world would come to know Anne Frank, as her secrets were successively translated from the original Dutch into English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and even Greek. The play based on this diary was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and earned Shelley Winters an Academy Award, which she later donated to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

We ask how it was that, in World War II’s horrific physical, psychological, and spiritual unrest, this young girl never despaired. Not only that, but she continued to find meaning and hope in life. What can this young woman of hope teach us?

A Great and Trusting Heart

Anne, like each of us in youth, dreamed of her future. She hoped to become an actress. She loved watching movies — until the day Dutch Jews were forbidden access to movie theaters, January 8, 1941. But instead of falling into self-pity and the resultant internal vacuum, Anne turned her energies towards alleviating the pain of others. When she wrote, “No one has ever become poor by giving,” she anticipated Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes §22, which teaches that we find fulfillment in self-giving, rather than in the self-absorption of modern culture. Sadly, too many people remain close-fisted and fearful before God and man. They harbor the illusion that if they choose to live for God, he may ask more of them than they wish to give.

Such an attitude, devoid of the virtue of hope, is something I have encountered as Vocation Director for our growing Dominican community. Interestingly, this attitude does not tend to come from youth. Rather, it is often parents who fear their sons and daughters making commitments. Recently, I received a letter from a couple filled with anger and fear at their daughter’s decision to pursue religious life. It quickly became evident that I believed in this eighteen-year-old’s maturity, whereas her parents demanded that she “see the world first.” I wondered just what “life experiences” her parents deemed valuable enough to supersede her decision to test a radical commitment to Christ in religious vows.

It is, at least in part, this same lack of trust in the innate heroism of young people that has engendered what Jean M. Twenge, research psychologist at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, terms “a full-blown mental health crisis for adolescents and young adults.”1 Recently, my cousin’s eighth-grade daughter, who lives in a well-to-do Michigan suburb, suddenly lost her dear classmate through suicide; sadly, this was not an isolated case in her school. One might wonder if we have abetted our young people’s loss of imagination and surrender of their dreams through our acquiescence in their addiction to computer and iPhone use.

Anne Frank, a teen, reminds us how important it is to cherish dreams that extend beyond present realities. She tells us: “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains. . . . I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young, and know that I’m free.” In short, Anne understood that to be psychologically healthy, one must nourish hope.

Anne saw beauty everywhere. Her insights bring to mind a story Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, recounts in his book One Jesuit’s Spiritual Journey. While working in a desperately poor area in Latin America, Father Arrupe had the following encounter:

When it was over, a big devil whose hang-dog look made me almost afraid said, “Come to my place. I have something to give you.” I was undecided; I didn’t know whether to accept or not, but the priest who was with me said, “Accept, Father, they are good people.” I went to his place; his house was a hovel nearly on the point of collapsing. He had me sit down on a rickety old chair. From there I could see the sunset. The big man said to me, “Look, sir, how beautiful it is!” We sat in silence for several minutes. The sun disappeared. The man then said, “I don’t know how to thank you for all you have done for us. I have nothing to give you, but I thought you would like to see this sunset. You liked it, didn’t you? Good evening.” And then he shook my hand as I thought seldom have I met such a kindhearted person.

Scientific research has shown that hope floods our brains with serotonin, thus promoting feelings of contentment. In direct contrast, despair is not only a feeling of gloominess but ultimately the stark refusal to strive after God.

Overcoming Despair

One primary cause of despair is excessive self-focus. This fixation on our weaknesses lulls us into forsaking the hope that our best efforts could ever be enough for our salvation. “I’m too weak, too sinful, why bother trying any longer?” An excellent Scriptural example concerns St. Peter, who, as long as he kept focused on Christ, was able to walk on water. When his focus switched to himself, he began to sink.

What response does Anne Frank give regarding despair? She, who must have been tempted to this, chose rather to focus on one’s God-given potential.

Everyone has inside a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. . . . I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out. . . . I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death. . . . I think peace and tranquility will return again.

A second reason for despair is attachment to sin. One of the most common symptoms is sloth, classically named acedia, which afflicts a person who resents the greatness to which he has been called. Laziness prompts him to think: “I don’t want to be great, to be a saint, to be a hero. What a burden that would be! No thanks. I’d rather drift along.”

Whether despair stems from excessive self-focus or attachment to sin, it thrusts us down along the road known as “mediocrity.” For youth, it might be noticed in the student who trades honest study for more enjoyable recreation. For the adult, it could be hiding behind excessive work lest one confront self in quieter moments of prayer, reflection and personal sharing with others. While such ploys are not unknown to all of us, our wise heroine writes, “The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

Life isn’t always easy; it is not supposed to be. God’s loving guidance may at times allow us to suffer through the irrational decisions or the biased judgments of others. Is this not why the crucifix adorns the homes of all true believers? Inside us all, there is a longing for Eternal Truth and Wisdom, and a desire for the fortitude necessary to obtain these. Anne Frank admits: “I’ll keep my ideals because, in spite of every­thing, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Imagine the strength of hope in this young woman who, under severe persecution, possessed such magnanimity or “greatness of soul.”

To be sure, Anne Frank had her darker moments. “I’ve asked myself again and again whether it wouldn’t have been better if we hadn’t gone into hiding, if we were dead now and didn’t have to go through this misery.” But she refused to allow herself to get stuck in this sentiment and added: “We still love life . . . and we keep hop­ing.”

Perhaps here is the difficulty behind any acquisition of virtue: it is a freely made decision to strive for the greater good. The opposite of hope, presumption, finds one claiming heaven as one’s right. In the stinging words of the great Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas: “Now this sort of presumption is properly speaking a species of sin against the Holy Spirit, because through this sort of presumption what is destroyed or disdained is that assistance of the Holy Spirit by which a man is called back from sinning.”2

The fact is, we cannot find heaven alone. “Heaven” is relationship; it is friendship with God and all His followers, and it must be gained through personal decision and commitment. Presumption, therefore, is twist on despair: both silence the vital enthusiasm of hope.

Anne Frank surely must have overheard her parents’ whispered concerns regarding the precarious state of their family. Sitting in her small attic space, she entrusted the depths of her soul to her diary while remembering the promises of El Shaddai and the beauty of the world He created: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, some­where where they can be quiet.” Nightly, she would peer through one tiny window, and the sight of the sparkling stars would set her free!

Anne’s heroism shouts forth a challenge for all people and a warning to her captors: “[The person] who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.” On August 4, 1944, the Gestapo stormed her attic and led her family to slaughter. I imagine that her hope was tested to the very end, but each night, as she looked up at the sky, she willed her spirit to soar among its stars, even as fear battled within her against hope. Her nightly visitation of the stars found her reciting the Kaddish: Yehei Shmei robba mevorakh l’olam ul’almei almaya (may His great Name be blessed forever and ever). She would have agreed with a Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, who wrote at about the same time, but an ocean’s distance away: “Courage (and hope) come and go. [One must] hold on for the next supply.”

Anne Frank and Today’s World

Anne Frank’s story has become symbolic of the scale of Nazi atrocities. She remains a stark exemplar of Jewish suffering under a totalitarian regime of godlessness and thus, hatred — a dire warning of the consequences of both. Yet in the midst of her ravaged world, she emerged as a symbol of greatest hope precisely because she refused to give up on Hope. “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart. Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

In June 1999, Time magazine published a special edition entitled “Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.” Anne Frank was selected for “Hero & Icon” while the writer Roger Rosenblatt described her legacy in the following words:

The passions her diary ignites suggest that everyone owns Anne Frank, that she has risen . . . and become a towering figure of the modern world — the moral individual mind beset by the machinery of destruction, insisting on the right to live and question and hope for the future of human beings.

Years before Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, Anne wrote: “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same. Everyone has inside a piece of good news.”

I ask myself what might have become of this young teenage girl if she had been blessed, as I have, with the reception of the Sacrament of Hope, the Holy Eucharist. How might this personal union with Love Himself have further inspired and strengthened her! And why am I so blessed? In the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “Love told the secret of its goodness to nothingness and that began creation.” From our nothingness, too, Love can mold, in the words of St. Mother Teresa, “something beautiful for God.”

Perhaps the most difficult portion of the pandemic was the closing of churches for so long a time. People lived a lengthened Holy Saturday waiting for a resurrection. Pope Francis had reminded all on June 23, 2019: “We must not get used to [the Eucharist] but it must every time be as it were our First Communion.” Maybe we learned that the Holy Mass is built, after all, upon emptiness — not ours first but Christ’s! He emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives (though not of His Divinity); the Eucharistic Preface states that “Jesus became one with us in order that the Father might see and love in us what He sees and loves in Christ.” This reminder would also serve for our spiritual Communions when we are unable to actually receive Holy Communion. In the end, the Eucharist is self-found-in-God, because love only desires union.

The simple diary written by a Jewish girl in World War II became a child’s De profundis. This young girl, living in the shadows of death, knew that hope alone sustains. Hope gives the reason for our eternal “yes” to God, a hope made in the likeness of another young Jewish woman who lived under the shadow of persecution 2000 years ago. Her hope-filled prayer makes her the living “Mother of the Eucharist.” Our present age of pandemic follows a long story of those who have risen above the despairing crowd because they held high the virtue of hope. Let us take our place in this heroic lineage of saints!

  1. Jane E. Brody, “The Crisis in Youth Suicide,” New York Times: December 2, 2019.
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.21.1.
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP About Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP

Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP, is one of the four founders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As vocations director, she lectures on topics related to religious life and theology, speaking at youth conferences, parishes, to university students, religious women, priests, and seminarians. (www.sistersofmary.org)

Comments

  1. Avatar VICTORIA B PARCO says:

    I am most grateful to have read this article since I am due to write a short spiritual sharing on the significance and importance of hope and how the Holy Spirit helps us focus on and live the Christian virtue of hope received in baptism. The author has used two well-know historical figures, both connected with the Holocaust. I am inspired to seek historical figures in my own Philippine context who can be considered witnesses and inspirations for hope today. THANK YOU

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