Hope: The forgotten virtue of our time.
A few years ago, I attended a four-day conference on the theological virtues. The conference included numerous talks on faith and no shortage of presentations on charity, but there was only one offering on hope, and it almost did not happen. None of the presenters had thought to talk about hope. Not surprisingly, the planning committee realized you could not have a four-day conference on the theological virtues but deal with only two of them, so a member of the committee volunteered to share a few thoughts about hope. Still, I wondered, why didn’t it occur to anyone that hope was worth talking about?
Hope has been called the forgotten virtue of our time. Although we live in an era of considerable technological and scientific achievements, it may also be an age of diminished hope or, perhaps more accurately, misdirected hope, because it is tempting to replace the theological virtue of hope with flimsy substitutes that cannot possibly give us what our souls ultimately need. We also live in an era marked by violence, which leads to a barrage of images sent worldwide that show citizens fighting police, children in Syria bloodied by war, refugee children washed up on a beach in Greece. These can threaten hope. But perhaps what threatens hope even more today are not these tragedies and calamities but the soft and subtle despair we settle into when we slip into ways of living that rob us of the exalted good God wants for us. The problem is not that we hope for too much, but that we have learned to settle for so little. We have caused the horizons of hope to shrink. We have lost sight of hope’s transcendent dimension because we have forgotten the incomparable promise to which hope always beckons.
The Shape of Christian Hope
When writing about hope, St. Thomas Aquinas noted that hope is born from the desire for something good that is “difficult but possible to attain.” There is no need for hope if we can easily get what we want, but neither is there any reason to hope when what we desire is completely beyond our grasp. But Aquinas also observed that there are far more reasons to be hopeful “when we have friends to rely on” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 17, 8). If the object of our hopes can extend no further than what we might be able to secure for ourselves, then our hopes will necessarily be rather cautious and limited. But if there are people who not only love us and care for us and want what is best for us but will also help us achieve it, then our hopes can be much more daring and expansive. We do not hope alone, we hope together. Hope requires companions, people who want our good and who help us along our way.
Christian hope should never be puny or timid, because when Aquinas spoke of help from others and friends we can rely on, who he really had in mind was God. Like any friend, God desires our happiness and seeks what is best for us, but the good that God wants for us is the richest and most fulfilling of all, namely God and everlasting life with God. And, like any friend, God accompanies us, blesses us, steadies and encourages us so that the absolutely best thing we could ever hope for will be ours. This is why hope is not something we achieve through hard work, grit and determination. Hope is inescapably a gift. Hope is the gift God bestows on us so that we can turn our lives to God, seek God, grow in the love and goodness of God and someday know the unbroken beatitude that comes from living in perfect communion with God. If hope arises from the desire for something good, then Christian hope is naturally audacious because Christian hope reaches for an unsurpassable good we already, if imperfectly, possess: the very life, love, goodness and joy of God. Christianity infinitely expands the horizon of hope because, as the whole of salvation history testifies, the scope of Christian hope is determined not by our own power or resources or ingenuity but by God’s inexhaustible love and goodness. Christians should never be anything other than bold and daring with hope because they know that God is both the object of our hope and the means to attain it.
In “Saved in Hope” (“Spe Salvi”), his 2007 encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life” (No. 2). These words remind us that hope is not a fleeting emotion, much less an attitude that fades when life is hard, but a resilient stance toward life marked by trust, confidence and perseverance. Hope empowers us to live differently because a Christian understanding of hope is rooted in the unshakable conviction that God loves us and wants our good, a fact memorably exclaimed by Paul’s declaration in Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” ( 8:31). To live with hope is to take those words to heart and to allow that knowledge to change our lives in creative and surprising ways.
To live in hope is to want nothing less for ourselves than what God wants for us. If that were the fundamental desire of our lives, what would change? How would we be resurrected? At the very least, it would free us from the enervating habit of worrying excessively about ourselves and unbind us from the joyless pastime of always comparing our status and achievements with another’s. Because God is for us and wants our good, we do not have to be anxious and fearful, calculating and cautious. We have time to love our neighbors. We have time to be merciful and compassionate, patient and generous. We have time to listen and to be present, time to encourage and support, because we know, thanks to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that what God’s love envisions for us will be fulfilled. Hope frees us from the intolerable burden of thinking that so much depends on us that we become oblivious to the blessings around us, and especially to how each day God calls us out of ourselves in order to draw others more fully to life through our kindness and goodness. For Christians, hope is a new and abundantly promising way of life characterized by joy and thanksgiving, service and generosity, hospitality and celebration and even the wonderful freedom to fail.
The Waning of Hope
The greatness of our hope will always be in proportion to the greatness of the good on which we have set our lives. But that’s the problem. Hope is imperiled not so much by the misfortunes, struggles and sometimes inconsolable losses that come our way because, as a virtue, the very nature of hope is to steady and strengthen us during those moments lest they defeat us. Rather, hope erodes when we no longer aspire to something sufficiently good enough—something sufficiently blessed and promising—to sustain us in the life that God wants for us. Or, as David Elliot observes, hope diminishes—and eventually disappears—when we lose sight of who we are and where we are going. Who are we? We are pilgrims on a journey to God, making our way to God and helping others do so as well. Where are we going? We are heading to that great feast that Jesus called the reign of God, the heavenly banquet where we rejoice together in the presence of God and love one another as we do so. Hope guides us on the journey by keeping us focused on the feast. That’s what is different about Christian hope. Christian hope fixes our sight on the only thing that can ever truly complete us, fulfill us and bring peace to our restless hearts, so that we do not settle for anything less than what God wants to offer us. Christian hope summons us to look up and out lest we lose sight of the feast.
If we live in a time of diminished hope, it may be because we have lost this sense of ourselves as wayfarers, as pilgrims in the world making our way to God. Instead of moving forward, we settle in and eventually do not think of ourselves as going anywhere at all. This is not to deny the genuine blessedness of life in the world or the goodness that shines forth in the gifts of God’s creation; indeed, hope provides the moral and spiritual vision that enables us to see, appreciate and enjoy everything’s distinctive value. With hope, we are much more likely to reverence another thing’s existence than exploit it. Still, it is one thing to contemplate the beauty and goodness that surrounds us, but another thing to look no further. Hope keeps us from being so immersed in the good things of this world that we forget who we really are, a people on the move, pilgrims who are called not to stay put but to move toward the feast. Most of all, hope prevents us from becoming so comfortable with the pleasures of life that the possibility of a journey never even occurs to us.
Early Christian writers maintained that we are most vulnerable to despair not when everything suddenly begins to go wrong in our lives but when we allow ourselves to be lured away from what is best. It is not, they suggested, the reality of evil that makes us most susceptible to despair, but letting our hearts be captured by things whose goodness is undeniably real but also inherently limited. They named this turning away from God to lesser goods the vice of worldliness. The language of worldliness may seem quaint and even strange to us, but the reality of worldliness surely is not. If hope is a matter of cleaving to God, in the grip of worldliness we cleave to wealth and possessions, pleasures and comforts, status and honor, power and influence, or else the endless trivialities with which our culture encourages us to fill our lives. Every vice damages. What makes worldliness particularly dangerous is that when cultivating it rather than hope we become so enamored of the attractions of this world that we shut the door on what is truly worth the gift of our lives. We narrow and reduce the horizon of our hope in such a way that we rob ourselves of hope’s great promise. What really matters no longer interests us, not because we have consciously rejected it but because we have grown oblivious to it. Habituated in worldliness, we may be comfortable and even quite successful, but our days are marked by the soft despair, of which we may not even be aware, that is the inescapable result of no longer caring about who God wants us to be and who we have it in us to be: friends of God who are summoned to share in the life and happiness of God.
Cultivating and Practicing Hope
Hope is God’s gift to us. But because it is a virtue, it is a gift that has to be cultivated, nurtured and practiced lest it shrivel and die. How can we strengthen the hope that God has entrusted to us? How can we be practitioners of hope, even living sacraments of hope, in a world that both hungers for it and doubts its existence? There are many ways to enkindle hope, but here are three to consider.
First, hope is nurtured and strengthened through the Eucharist, because every time we gather for worship we are reminded of who we are, what we are about and where we are going. At the Eucharist we remember that we, thanks to our baptism, have been incorporated into the story of God, a story that is much more promising and blessed than anything we could offer ourselves. In light of the Eucharist, we recognize that hope dwindles when we replace the story of God that came to us in Israel and in Jesus, a story of boundless love and unbroken faithfulness, with lesser stories, or else with the cynicism that holds there is no story at all. If hope is weakened when we shut the door on higher things, the Eucharist forms us into people who will not allow something other than God to be the object of their hope.
Second, the Eucharist is crucial for nurturing hope because the Eucharist forms us into people of gratitude, people whose stance towards life is marked by thanksgiving and praise. The Eucharist can rightly be described as a great sacrament of hope because there we gather to remember God’s goodness to us and to acknowledge that despite the struggles and hardships and sorrows and difficulties of life, despite the ills we note in our cities and in our world, life remains a blessing and a gift. Gratitude fosters hope because it draws us out of ourselves and opens our eyes to see the beauty and goodness of life, a beauty and goodness that is always there, but that we easily overlook. Gratitude and hope are closely intertwined because both hinge on learning to look for what is there instead of what is missing. Gratitude enkindles hope because grateful people notice; they see what others overlook. Gratitude is a reliable path to hope because with gratitude we realize that even though life doesn’t always give us what we want, it does bless us with unexpected goods and pleasures.
Third, hope grows deeper in us when we commit to being ministers of hope to others. Hope grows when it is shared, it blooms when it is given away. This is why Christian hope must be understood as both a gift and a calling. Because God has given us hope, we are called to bless others with hope, especially those who are struggling, those whose lives are bereft of meaning or any sense of purpose or those who for too long have felt estranged from anything promising. It is important to stress this lest we think that hope focuses so much on the promises of the next life that it distracts us from the work that needs to be done in this life. Rather, it is precisely because we are confident of the hope God holds out for us that we can attend to the needs of others and do what we can to work for the world’s healing. Far from allowing us to turn our backs on the world, hope commissions us to bring God’s love, mercy, justice and compassion to life in the world. Hope gives us work to do.
In “Saved in Hope,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action” (No. 35). This is why we can be ministers of hope every day in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. We minister hope through acts of kindness and attentiveness. We minister hope when we help people find healing for hurts that will not go away and for memories that still haunt them. We minister hope when we affirm the goodness in a person that they may not yet see in themselves. We minister hope when we ask another how she is doing and take time to listen to what she says. We minister hope when we forgive and allow ourselves to be forgiven. We minister hope when love is called forth from us and we gladly give it away. And we especially minister hope when we affirm the dignity of every person who passes in and out of our lives, celebrate their existence and let them know how poorer the world would be without them. As Pope Benedict wrote near the end of “Saved in Hope”: “It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain” (No. 48). Hope arises, both in us and in others, when that becomes a regular practice of our lives.