Health Care and Hope: Part 2

June 1, 2016

This weekly series of posts is from Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, a ministry of the Province of St. Joseph centered at St. Catherine of Siena Priory in New York, NY. Untitled Reflections on Ethics, Faith, and Health Care Health Care and Hope: Part 2 by Fr. Jonah Pollock, O.P., Associate Director, Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York Part 1 of this series introduced J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinction between two kinds of hope, expressed by two different words in an Elvish language he invented: amdir and estel. Both words can be translated to the English word ‘hope,’ but they have different meanings. Amdir is the expectation of good things based on evidence and experience. Estel is the trust in God that is based not on experience but on one’s nature as a child of God. Estel hope is both similar to and different from amdir hope. In both senses, hope is the anticipation of good things to come. The differences between the two senses of hope have to do with what those good things are and upon what basis we can hope for them. The basis for estel hope is the faithfulness of God. Hoping in God means trusting that God will be faithful to His promises to us. We expect good things from God because God is good and God has been good to us and so we trust that God will be good to us in the future. In particular, we trust that God will be good to us in the ways that He has promised. God’s promises are given to us most especially in Sacred Scripture. In Scripture, God has promised to answer our prayers, to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks, to give eternal life to those who believe in his only begotten Son and to make all things work for the good for those who love Him. All these things we can be hopeful of receiving because God has promised them and we can trust God to be faithful to his promises. The good things for which we hope, in the estel sense of the word, are the good things God has promised us. These are the best things of all: the Holy Spirit, Christ’s abiding presence among us, eternal life. But they do not include many of the good things we rightly desire in this life. God does not promise us good health and long life, success and prosperity, freedom from suffering and deprivation. These things are indeed good and we can hope for them and even hope to obtain such things from God. But this is amdir hope. It is hoping on the basis our experience of the world and what seems possible based on that experience. God has blessed people with health and prosperity and deliverance. Based on that knowledge, we can hope that God might bless us and our loved ones in those ways as well. But God has not promised those blessings and some people do not receive them. Estel hope is about what God has promised. It is the trust we have in God to be faithful to those promises. In caring for the sick and the dying, how can we encourage patients and their loved ones to hope in this way? One answer is that we can pray for them. This is something that everyone can do. We can pray for the sick and the dying and we can pray particularly that they will be strengthened in hope. Serious illness and especially terminal illness can be causes for despair. The sick and the dying face the challenging task of persevering in hope despite the possibility or even the certainty of a future with bad medical outcomes. It’s not easy to see beyond that future to the future that God has promised. We need to pray for them. Another way we can encourage the sick to hope in God is by building them up with assurances of faith. When Jesus encountered Martha after her brother had died, He assured her of the truth that “I am the resurrection and the life.” Family members and visitors to the sick and the dying can encourage such people to hope in God by reminding them of God’s promises and the assurance we have that God will be faithful to his promises. Chaplains and ministers to the sick are especially called to give this kind of encouragement. Many heath care providers cannot offer this kind of encouragement in an explicit way. Professional standards may prevent clinicians from overtly witnessing to their Christian faith in God’s promises and God’s trustworthiness. Nevertheless, they can inspire this kind of hope through the way that they care for the sick. When a clinician demonstrates her respect for the dignity of the persons for whom she cares, she is a witness to hope. When a clinician says by her actions, “This person, no matter how ill and debilitated, no matter the prognosis or quality of life, is a being of inestimable dignity,” she is sending a message of hope. She is inviting the patient and the patient’s loved ones to look beyond the apparent hopelessness of the situation and recognize the source of that dignity in God. Whenever we recognize the dignity of a human person, we implicitly acknowledge that that person is a child of God. And it is that understanding of ourselves, as children of God, that is the ground of our greatest hope. We belong to God, who can be trusted to take care of his children. To believe that is to have hope.

Image: Konstantin Bogaevsky, Stars (1922)

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