The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 62, No 6, Nov-Dec 2009

Theology for the Laity

The Theological Virtues, III: Hope

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       God is the source and object of the faith, hope, and love we call the Theological Virtues. Because God is infinite, we will never be able fully to comprehend the habitual dispositions - or virtues - that lead to Him. Nevertheless, in the virtue of Hope we find a great deal that speaks to us on a human level, making this virtue one of the more accessible.

       The dictionary defines hope as "the feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best." We reasonably expect this definition to change somewhat as we apply it to our spiritual lives, and to those dispositions we call virtues, but St. Thomas Aquinasí definition of hope remains extremely easy to grasp, "...a future good, difficult but possible to attain...by means of the Divine assistance...on Whose help it leans" (ST II-II, 17.1).

       St. Thomas also calls hope "a movement or stretching forth of the appetite towards an arduous good." If we think of the many things we long for, this physical image of "stretching" to achieve a good is one we can easily understand. Robert Browning describes this longing quite aptly when he writes, "Ah! But a manís reach should exceed his grasp, or whatís a Heaven for?" The effort we are willing to expend is proportionate to the good we seek. The "highest" good we hope for, of course, is everlasting happiness in Godís presence. This is worth quite a stretch, indeed!

       We cannot - or should not - wish anything other than this happiness, so the virtue of Hope allows us to place the many good things that surround us in a proper order. Once we place our eternal happiness at the top of the list, everything else should fall into place. Of course, this is not a step we can take all at once; even good habits take time to develop. Nevertheless, as we progress in the spiritual life, and our life with God emerges more clearly as the best thing we can desire (and, therefore, the prize worth the most effort), other goals, which may once have seemed highly desirable, assume their proper character and seem much easier to achieve.

       Because Hope is the habit by which we long for our eternal salvation, it is a very personal matter. However, when we come to consider the virtue of Charity in our next reflection, we shall see how loving God enables us to love Godís creation. This includes loving ourselves, of course, but also loving our neighbor. Thus, we may properly identify a social dimension to the virtue of Hope, whereby we long not only for our own salvation but for that of others. Our Catechism teaches, "Buoyed up by hope, [an individual] is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity" (1818). As we saw when we considered the virtue of Faith, a gift is not given just to enrich the individual who receives it. The virtue of Hope encourages us to embrace a selfless love that reaches out to all of Godís creatures.

       We began this reflection by observing a peculiarly human dimension to the virtue of Hope, and here we might reflect that Hope can only exist in beings who have not yet achieved the goal they seek. It is, thus, always concerned with something in the future. The angels, and the souls in heaven, have no need of Hope, for they enjoy Godís eternal life as an everpresent reality. Similarly, the souls of the damned have no Hope, although for a far different - and quite frightening - reason. Those condemned to Hell are aware their punishment is everlasting. Because they cannot escape this state to attain happiness of any sort, they have nothing to hope for.

       We have all heard the expressions "to give up" or "to lose" hope. In everyday life this ordinarily means concluding that some good thing is beyond our reach. Such a conclusion is unquestionably disappointing and painful, but usually, after a time, we are able to leave behind the pain and disappointment. However, when we consider the state of the damned (those souls which, by definition, are without Hope) we see that giving up or losing theological Hope is a far more serious matter.

       St. Thomas teaches, "the true opinion of the intellect about God is that from Him comes salvation to mankind and pardon to sinners...." (II-II, 20.1). The habit of Hope leads and encourages us to embrace this truth, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23).

       This is a comforting and compelling message, but the freedom of our will always allows us to reject it - to our peril - either by imagining that God refuses pardon to repentant sinners, or to believe that God does not turn sinners to Himself by means of grace. This error (and here we must remember that theological error is not simply a mistaken notion, but rather a denial of truth) is the sin of despair. It is an extremely serious sin, because its consequences can prove fatal to our hope of everlasting life. Despair denies Godís justice by refusing to believe God will remain faithful to His promises. It also denies Godís mercy, refusing to acknowledge that God wants us to enjoy everlasting life with Him. St. Paul offers an antidote to these temptations, encouraging us to surrender to "The Holy Spirit...He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs In hope of eternal life" (Titus, 3:6).

       Despair consists in denial, but one can also sin against Hope by over-affirmation; this sin we call presumption. Presumption is the error by which one imagines that eternal life is a goal within his unaided reach or by which he places too little value on Godís justice, imagining Godís mercy to be so great that an individual need not repent of sins he has committed.

       In each of these sins we encounter a lack of moderation, an absence that can seriously harm our spiritual life. The remedy, by which one maintains a virtuous middle course, is fear. When we considered the virtue of Faith we determined that one of the first effects of Faith is to comprehend what happens if we turn away from God. This understanding results in fear, the fear of punishment, and - more important - fear of separation from God. Our faith allows us to see Godís infinite goodness, and it also makes us realize how much we sacrifice if we separate ourselves from this goodness. Indeed, Faith allows us to understand that separation from God is the greatest evil we can suffer.

       The virtue of Hope enables us to see life with God as a goal possible - if difficult - to attain. We cannot fear the God who is goodness itself. However, we may reasonably fear the just consequences of our sins against Him, and if our fear is purified through love, we will reasonably fear offending God by sin. The fear of Godís justice is called "servile," because it is based in a desire to avoid punishment; the fear of committing a fault against one we love is called "filial" fear, the fear a child feels at the prospect of offending a loving parent.

       Theology, like any science, allows us draw a vast number of conclusions. As we study the virtues in themselves, our conclusions allow some very sophisticated distinctions. However, we must never forget the practical aspect of virtue. Virtues are the everyday habits by which we strive to attain eternal happiness. Hope is a very practical virtue, the disposition of wayfarers: individuals on a pilgrimage that will only end in heaven.

       At some point we may be moved to ask how we manifest the virtue of Hope. As we look at our lives, we can tell very clearly when we are acting with faith, and we have no problem discerning whether we are acting charitably. Hope, however, may remain somewhat elusive. We can avoid the extremes of presumption and despair, but does this guarantee we have embraced the virtue of Hope?

       Our Catechism tells us that prayer is one sign the virtue of Hope is at work in our lives. Why? Because both prayer and Hope are concerned with the future. "Prayer is an indispensable condition for being able to obey Godís commandments," the Catechism teaches, so prayer is an all-important element in our quest for the salvation for which we long. Prayer enables us to align our will with Godís, so prayer brings us one step closer to the everlasting life that is the goal - possible, but difficult - of the virtue of Hope.

       We who are living experience Hope because grace enables us to perceive everlasting life as a reward we may attain. The souls in Purgatory, who rejoice in an imperfect happiness, experience Hope because they understand that no matter how long they must endure the temporal punishment due their sins, they know they shall, at last, be admitted into Godís Kingdom. Hope encourages us to pray for the souls in Purgatory, that they may speedily enjoy the state of rest we look forward to.

       In the gospel we read, "[we] ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Lk 18:1). These words assure us that our Hope is not in vain. And if we look for examples, individuals who demonstrate most clearly what Hope enables us to accomplish, we need look no further than our ancestors in faith. In the Old Testament we find a model in Abraham, strengthened by Hope to surrender to what must often have seemed Godís incomprehensible demands. In the New Testament, of course, we find the Virgin Mary, humbly looking toward a future in which all Godís people will recognize the blessedness that is the reward of her fidelity.

       We have also the example of the saints. In what is practically our own day - slightly more than a hundred years ago - we encounter St. Maria Goretti, a girl of twelve, and a victim of what we would today call a sexual predator. We draw this reflection to a close with the words Pope Pius XII preached at the canonization of St. Maria Goretti. "Sustained by divine grace," the Pontiff said, "and the response of the firm resolution of her will, she laid down her life and preserved her glorious virginity."

       He continued Let those who are in the happy days of youth learn not to waste their energies on the transient empty pleasures of self-indulgence...Rather may they strive vigorously to form their character in the way of Christian living, hard and rough though the way may be. For this perfection can indeed be attained through personal determination, helped by the grace of God, prayer and perseverance.

       These sentences sum up everything we believe about the virtue of Hope: that it is Godís gift, sustained by Godís love. That it is a way of life, built on prayer and practice, and that - although fidelity to the virtue may not always be easy - it leads to an everlasting goal God will enable us to grasp. The Catechism teaches that our worship of God sets us free. The virtue of Hope allows us to revel in this freedom, for the possibility of everlasting life in Godís kingdom encourages and enables us to look beyond the lure of the present, and to reject the many idols we encounter each day.


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