Christian Hope in Contrast

One of the major themes of the Church’s Advent liturgy is hope as exemplified in the lovely hymn, Rorate Caeli. That this is a season of hope is something of a commonplace in considerations on these first four weeks of the liturgical year. But commonplace or not, it is never a wasted effort to meditate on a theological virtue, so let us proceed with some loosely collected thoughts on hope.

Often misunderstood, the theological virtue of hope is not what people often think it to be:

  • It is not optimism as opposed to pessimism.
  • It is not positive thinking as opposed to negative thinking.
  • It is not “glass half full” rather than “glass half empty.”
  • It is not a rosy forecast of future affairs of the Church Militant, the State, or one’s own personal life in this vale of tears.

That the Church Militant will triumph in the end and will always retain the means of our salvation are articles of faith. That we can profit from those means of salvation efficaciously is part of hope. That we must love the Church and our fellow Catholics such as they are is a demand of charity. But looking to a “better day” for the Church on earth is not, strictly speaking, part of the theological virtue of hope. I say this in an effort to spare my readers the tragedy of losing either faith, hope, or charity when the expected renaissance does not come in their lifetime. (There are reasons to “hope” for a better day, but they are not the subject of theological hope. Besides, working out our salvation in the here-and-now of the present-day Church is what we are called to do, however unpleasant certain aspects of that may be.)

Christian hope has very specific motives, very specific objects, and a very specific meritorious cause. The motives are God’s power and mercy. The objects are, primarily, heavenly glory in the next life; and, secondarily, the grace we need in this life to obtain that final goal. The merits of Jesus Christ constitute the “meritorious cause” of the virtue of hope.

Hope as a virtue is exclusively supernatural in character. In fact, if it is not a theological virtue, it is not a virtue at all, for there is no natural virtue of hope. There is a natural hope, but it is most certainly not a virtue. Why is this? Let us answer in the words of Josef Pieper:

When we say, then, that hope is a virtue only when it is a theological virtue, we mean that hope is a steadfast turning toward the true fulfillment of man’s nature, that is, toward good, only when it has its source in the reality of grace in man and is directed toward supernatural happiness in God.

Justice, for instance, is already a true virtue, a clear tending toward good, even outside the supernatural order. When justice ceases to be directed toward good, it ceases to be justice. Hope, on the other hand, can also be directed — even in the natural sphere — toward what is obviously bad and yet remain real hope. Natural hope lacks the distinctive quality of virtue: “quod ita sit pricipium actus boni, quod nullo modo mali” — that is it is so ordered to good that it cannot possibly turn toward evil.

Obviously, hope experiences this firmness of orientation toward good above all as a God-given turning to God, that is, as a theological virtue. — Faith Hope Love, pg. 100

If hope is not a virtue naturally speaking, what is it? It is one of the five “irascible passions,” which are: hope, despair, daring, fear, and anger. As an irascible passion, hope is directed to the “difficult good,” that is the good as it is only achieved with some struggle accompanied by the real possibility of non-achievement.

This hope has something in common with the theological virtue, for the very real possibility of not achieving the object of our hopes is common to both. It is the denial of this possibility that makes for the sin of presumption, which violates hope by excess. Opposite of presumption is the sin of despair, a sin of defect that offends God’s mercy, His power, and the merits of Jesus Christ, which can indeed make us possess that great good and tremendous gift of eternal salvation.

As with all the passions, natural hope can help us aspire to the true good. Dr. Pieper points out that if natural hope is to succeed in achieving the good, it needs the assistance of the virtues of magnanimity, which makes us aspire to great things, and humility, which makes us to realize our smallness in relation to God. To summarize the matter in the vernacular: the former keeps us from being small and cramped, while the latter keeps us from getting too big for our britches. The two virtues complement and temper one another well. I will not develop this point further, but I wanted to include it here so that we do not get the idea that natural hope is somehow bad while only supernatural hope can be good.

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As someone reasonably confident that he has more yesterdays behind him than tomorrows ahead of him, I was struck by Josef Pieper’s insightful contrast of natural with supernatural hope in terms of youth versus old age. Again, he is guided at least in part by Saint Thomas:

Natural hope blossoms with the strength of youth and withers when youth withers. “Youth is a cause of hope. For youth, the future is long and the past is short” [ST I, II, 40, 6]. On the other hand, it is above all when life grows short that hope grows weary; the “not yet” is turned into the has been, and old age turns, not to the “not yet,” but to memories of what is “no more.”

For supernatural hope, the opposite is true: not only is it not bound to natural youth; it is actually rooted in a much more substantial youthfulness. It bestows on mankind a “not yet” that is entirely superior to and distinct from the failing strength of man’s natural hope. Hence it gives man such a “long” future that the past seems “short” however long and rich his life. The theological virtue of hope is the power to wait patiently for a “not yet” that is the more immeasurably distant from us the more closely we approach it. — Ibid., pg. 110

On the very next page, Dr. Pieper stuns his reader with a terse but pregnant observation of Saint Augustine, from that Doctor’s work On Genesis: “God is younger than all else.” If youth and old age result from our living in time and therefore our being mutable, then God’s unique manner of duration — eternity — means that He is entirely unchanging and is therefore always young!

It is indeed part of the primary object of hope that we ourselves will participate in that eternity in a manner suited to our status as creatures. Our “youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 102:5).

Brother Francis used to say that this life is a vale of tears precisely because of change. Is it any surprise that the Church has us pray on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, “O God, who dost make the minds of the faithful to be of one will, grant unto Thy people to love what Thou commandest and to desire what Thou dost promise, so that, amid the vicissitudes of this world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys abide.”

To the degree that we are in the state of sanctifying grace and keep our hopes fixed “where true joys abide,” we are already saved — that is, we are actively “being saved.” The Apostle put it very strongly: “For we are saved by hope” (Rom. 8:24).

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As I complete these lines, it is the glorious Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Piety demands that I speak on this day of Her to whom I am a slave. Here, then, is a question that is germane to our subject: Why do we call the Blessed Virgin Mary “our hope” (spes nostra) in the Salve Regina? After all, we say in the “Act of Hope” that it is “through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer” that we hope.

In reply, I note that the Blessed Virgin has a past, a present, and a future role in human salvation. Regarding Her past role, the Immaculate Conception began the proximate preparation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and therefore of our salvation. What I am here calling the “proximate preparation” for the salvation of our race ran all the way from Mary’s holy and immaculate conception to Gabriel’s annunciation, which was answered with Her fiat (“let it be done,” Luke 1:38). She was the unfallen earth from whose clay the New Adam was formed. The “past” aspect of Mary’s role in salvation continued through the joyful and sorrowful mysteries, with Our Lady being a willing partner with Christ in His Passion, a role She consummated at the foot of the Cross. She did all this as the “Second Eve,” assisting the “Last Adam” in the redemption of man. The present role Our Lady has in human salvation is that Her prayers and intercession help us to obtain that forgiveness of sins and help of divine grace that we refer to in the Act of Hope. Lastly, Her future role is to continue this as She prays for us not only “now,” but also “at the hour of our death.”

The Immaculate Virgin is Herself the dawn of salvation and Her maternal mediation assists us in benefiting from Christ’s redemption unto the very fulfillment of our hopes in heavenly glory. If Eve’s partnership with Adam does not detract from the fact that the Original Sin was transmitted to us by Adam as the head of the human race, neither does the Blessed Virgin’s willing partnership with Christ detract from the fact that He alone is THE Savior. Therefore, we can call Mary “our hope” understanding very clearly that Her activity in our salvation is with, in, and under the unique salvific operation of Jesus Christ.

Without Jesus Christ, we are quite literally hopeless, being alienated from the only true God. Saint Paul, addressing the sorry state of the pagan Ephesians who dwelt in the darkness of unbelief, was far from the reckless and drunken optimism of our modern indifferentists:

That you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel, and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. — Eph. 2:12

But we do have hope. We have hope in Christ and as members of His Mystical Body — outside of which there is no hope of salvation. Apropos of this, Dr. Pieper quotes Saint Augustine, with whose words I bring these lines to a close: “As yet we do not see that for which we hope. But we are the body of that Head in whom that for which we hope is brought to fulfillment” (Ibid., pg. 106).