J.R.R. Tolkien is sometimes accused of being a pessimist, and the alleged cause is his devout Catholic faith. In the year his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings was published, he admitted
I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' -- although it contains some samples or glimpses of final victory.
If a pessimist sees a glass half-empty, and an optimist sees the same glass as half-full, Tolkien expects the glass will crack sooner or later, and the water will seep away if it hasn't already evaporated. Yet Tolkien maintains this is not pessimism but Catholicism.
Both pessimism and optimism are too 'shallow', too narrow to encompass the important things in life. To be an optimist is simply to expect the best, and a pessimist expects the worst. But on what grounds are the best or worst expected? Wishful thinking? Hoping that today will be a good day doesn't make it so. Assuming that everyone hates you doesn't make it true.
A Catholic view moves beyond the 'shallowness' of wishful thinking. It is grounded in hope -- not hope despite the fact, but as trusting in God 'who can neither deceive nor be deceived'. It does see history as a 'long defeat', of wasted opportunities and squandered grace. But it also sees many victories along the way, victories which foreshadow, and are made possible by, the ultimate victory of Christ over sin and death.
Catholics view the world as shot through and through with divine Providence: God directing all things to their proper end, drawing forth good out of evil and suffering, and gracing us with the hope that all hurts may find healing through the sweet wounds of Christ. The Catholic view necessarily sees miracles in the world, not simply as possible but as necessary.
If the disciples had faith 'as a grain of mustard seed' they could work the great miracle of throwing a tree into the sea. In the passage immediately preceding, throwing something into the sea (in this case, a man with a millstone around his neck) is an image of the rejection of sin. But it is also a wonder if the tree could grow in the sea, living on the unliveable.
The image is an apt one for forgiveness: a rejection of sin, but also a transformation of harm into something good, something living coming out of what is deadly. If the disciples had that kind of faith they could share in the great miracle of forgiveness: of bringing forth life and hope where there had been none.
History is not about progress and never will be; it will always be a 'long defeat'. It is not our task definitively to establish a paradise on earth, which we will never have through our own efforts, and certainly not in this life anyway. What is given to us is our own 'patch' of history, to tend and weed. One of Tolkien's characters, Gandalf, explains:
Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. (The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 9)
In many Dominican churches today the custom is practised of giving out blessed roses, in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary. In was on this day in 1571, that Don John of Austria won a decisive victory over the Ottoman navy, freeing thousands of slaves and signalling the beginning of the end of Turkish aggression against the West.
The victory at Lepanto was won by the power of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by that trust in the saving mysteries of Christ's conception, birth, circumcision, suffering, death, burial, descent, resurrection and ascension into glory. Although history itself is a long defeat, we are called to share in many miraculous victories, until the complete victory of Christ is made manifest -- when history itself is completed.