Arts and Culture

Hoping Against Hope

First in a series

Another advent! My mind immediately turns to thoughts about the virtue of hope. I agree with St. Paul that the greatest virtue is charity, but I suspect that hope comes in a close second.

For as far back as my days in high school, I have been aware that I should be more hope-filled because of God’s love for me. For one entire year when I was a student in the major seminary, my director had me read every book or essay I could find about the virtue of hope. He thought this might help me with the anxiety I was experiencing. I think his idea was that I should flood my mind and my imagination with images of a loving God, a God whose love for me goes beyond my understanding. The reading helped me enormously. I probably would have profited from some psychological counseling, but that was not feasible back in those days.

In preparing for the Advent season, I have taken from my bookcase a few books that shed light on the mystery of hope for me. Philosopher Robert Johann has an essay on hope that I like in his book, “Building the Human” (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968). Stressing that hope is central to our relationship with God, Johann writes the following:

“Hope is a willingness to look to other persons and to rely on their love for one’s own coming-to-be as a person. A virtue is a personal disposition enabling one to realize his destiny as a person. What hope enables us to do is to enter the realm of communion with other persons to which we are called. Without hope, we could never take this step. Unless we are willing to rely on one another, love is impossible…

“Hope is that disposition of the person which allows the creative presence of the Other to function creatively in his life. It is the practical recognition that Being Itself is also Being-for-us, that God, in short, both in Himself and in the finite beings that mediate His presence, is love. Only in terms of this recognition, this disposition to trust the Other, can we begin to share in that love.” (pp. 152-153)

So even to receive love into our lives, we have to take a chance. We have to believe in God’s love for us, and hope in that love. If we don’t, then it would seem that we are blocking God’s loving presence from touching and transforming us. To hope seems to demand that we – to some extent – abandon ourselves and place ourselves under the care, concern and compassion of God.

Perhaps it is good to remind ourselves that there is no magic in Catholicism. There is a great deal of mystery, but no magic. We can hope in God’s love because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Our act of hope is free, but is made possible because of the Spirit’s presence. Indeed, any action we freely perform that moves us into a deeper relationship with God is possible because of the Spirit’s presence.

Of course, trusting other human persons can be dangerous because finite human beings can disappoint and fail us. I suppose that is one reason that I find the marriage vows so amazing. Two people make vows to be faithful for life, no matter what problems or difficulties arise in their relationship. The words “for better or worse” are frightening. That two people can say those words and mean them is a tremendous sign of their love. It is also an inspiring sign. I find it inspiring when I hear couples say the vows during a marriage ceremony and also as I observe them living out those vows in their lives.

Vows that people make in choosing priesthood or religious life are awesome and frightening in a different way. When a person makes a vow of celibacy, poverty or obedience to God, I don’t think the person is taking a chance on another finite human being, but rather placing hope directly in God. Therefore, the person can be sure that God will not disappoint or fail to fulfill God’s role in the covenant. What might be frightening is the person’s self-doubt: the fear that he or she will not be able to live up to what he or she is promising.

I am aware that there are many questions that might be asked about life commitments that would require not a column, but a book. Though I may be oversimplifying in my comments about life commitments, I am certain that the virtue of hope is one of God’s great gifts.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).