All my friends are talking about the pandemic. That is not all that they are talking about, but whatever else a conversation is about, somehow the pandemic enters the conversation.
I also find myself bringing the pandemic into every conversation. When the latest news about the pandemic is good, that provides an encouraging moment in the conversation. When the news about the pandemic is bad, that provides a real downer. The pandemic has taught us more about sickness and vaccinations than we ever thought possible. Words have entered our vocabulary that we never used or even previously understood.
Increasingly, during the pandemic I find myself thinking about the virtue of hope. That should not surprise me. Whatever else the pandemic has accomplished it has made frighteningly clear how vulnerable and fragile we are. I agree completely with St. Paul that charity is the greatest virtue, but in my own life, I have come to appreciate in new ways the importance of the virtue of hope. I suspect the aging process has made the importance of hope more clear to me.
In his really wonderful book What Is God? : How to Think about the Divine (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, pp. 143, $14.95), John Haught makes an important distinction between wishing and hoping. Haught writes the following:
“Hoping is an openness to the breaking in of what is radically new and unanticipated. Wishing, on the other hand, is the illusory extension into the future of what we want at the present moment. Wishing is not an openness to the future but is oriented entirely from the present.
In order to hope, on the other hand, we need to relativize our wishing and open ourselves to the prospect of being surprised by the radically new. Such an attitude requires a courageous asceticism of its own, a painful renunciation of our tendency to cling obsessively to the present or past. Hoping is not an escape from reality, nor is it as easy as its critics insist.”(p. 37)
During the pandemic I have been recalling many of the activities that I was engaged in before the pandemic from going to the theatre to see films to moderating discussion groups. I miss all these activities and I think when I am able to engage in them again I might appreciate them and value them more than I did in the past.
However, those activities did not completely fulfill me in the past and they will not fulfill me in the future. Nothing finite will ever completely fulfill me. Perhaps I occasionally deceive myself and think some wishes when fulfilled in the future will completely fulfill me. They won’t.
Hope opens me to God as the absolute future. Nothing less than God will fulfill me and to live with that hope does require a courageous asceticism. The best automobile in the world or winning the lotto may temporarily make my life more enjoyable, but there will still be a profound need for something more, and that “something more” is God as the absolute future.
Noting that we are driven by a hope for an absolute future, Haught writes the following:
“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible future is God. That future is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of your ultimate future, of what you hope for in the depths of your desire.”(p.33)
Haught’s point that a courageous asceticism is required for us to hope in God as our absolute future is especially important. Think of all the “false gods” that are presented to us in some advertising. All types of fulfillment are promised to us if we purchase the article being advertised. But it is not just some advertising that presents false gods to us.
In our daily experience we can be seduced into embracing a false self image or some goals as our ultimate fulfillment and the goals are counterfeit. Once we achieve them, we may become more aware that they do not fulfill us the way we thought they would.
As I am writing this column, the vows that people take when they enter religious life have entered my mind. Why those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? At least one reason is that the vows are to help those making them to keep their lives focused on God, their absolute future. In effect the vows are supposed to remind those who take them that nothing less than God will fulfill them.
The vows are meant to help those making them give special direction to their lives and help them achieve a profound freedom. At the root of any life commitment, I believe, is the virtue of hope. A liberating life commitment is impossible without the presence of God. Hope can remind us of that.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.