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The Holy Spirit Sustains the Virtue of Hope

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

On the first Ascension Thursday, just before Jesus ascended to His heavenly Father, He made a promise to His apostles that we desperately need to hear in our day. He said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The subject of our present conference is “The Holy Spirit Sustains the Virtue of Hope.” My plan is to cover three areas of this immense topic, which deserves not a one-hour lecture, but a lifetime of prayerful reflection.

First, we ask ourselves what is the virtue of hope; then, why does the virtue of hope need to be specially sustained in our day; and finally, how are we to assure ourselves of the help of the Holy Spirit to remain hopeful as Catholics and as consecrated persons in the most devastating century of Christian history?

What is the Virtue of Hope?

The virtue of hope is related to faith as desire is related to knowledge, or, in the question posed by St. Augustine, “what can be hoped for which is not believed?” If the object of faith is natural, the hope it inspires is the same; but when the truths believed are divinely revealed, the hope which aspires to possess them is supernaturally divine.

Hope implies seeking and pursuing, in other words, the appetite of desire and not of delight and enjoyment. And though hope and desire are often equated, they differ a great deal. Strictly speaking, when we respond to that instinctive urge which likes pleasure and shrinks from pain. But hope is for a difficult good, and responds to that higher part of our nature which is readily to tackle opposition. Moreover, desires may be vague yearnings for an object without reckoning whether we can obtain it or not, whereas hope is always evoked by some good that can be secured and even inspires a sense of confidence of achievement.

Speculative theology distinguishes hope by the four qualities that characterize the things we hope for. Hopeful things are invariable good; we do not hope for what is evil. They are future, and in this hope differs from joy which implies satisfaction over something good already possessed. They are difficult of attainment, otherwise than mere desire which prescinds from the hardships involved. They are also possible, and therefore hope is the opposite of despair which looks to a future prospective good that cannot be obtained.

Just as we speak of a human and divine faith, depending on the persons (man or God) on whose authority we believe, so we have two kinds of hope, natural and supernatural, according to the things desired and the persons from whom we expect to receive them. In the natural order, an object is possible whether because we can secure it by our own efforts or because we rely on the help of friends, in which case two elements enter, the good hoped for, and the person who will support our desires. Supernaturally, however, no one is able of himself to grasp the supreme good of eternal life, whose very existence would be unknown except for a gracious revelation from God. To reach heaven we need divine help, so that hope as a theological virtue has a twofold object: the beatific vision we look forward to attaining, and the supernatural grace by which this heavenly goal is attained.

Essential Elements.  The two basic elements of Christian hope are desire and confidence, so that hope itself may be defined as the confident desire of obtaining eternal beatitude. Already in the Old Testament, notably in the Psalms, we find this dualism expressed, where the just man looks forward to the consummation of happiness in the Life to come. “I am sure,” sings the Psalmist, “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord” (Ps 26:11).

However, it was not until the fullness of revelation was made under Christ that the full meaning of hope became clear, since the clarity of what we desire determines the surety of what we hope for. Once the mystery of man’s elevation to the divine life and the love of God in the person of His Son were made manifest, the well-springs of desire to reach this high destiny were opened as never before. Compared with the glory that awaits us, the trials of our present existence are as paltry chaff, of which St. Paul wrote to encourage the Romans. “I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us.” We who are the first-fruits of the Spirit, “groan within ourselves, waiting for the (perfect) adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope were we saved. But hope that is seen is not hope. For how can a man hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:18-25).

Implicit in the notion of hope is that we do not see, but accept on faith the glorification that awaits us. The will strives for what the mind, on the word of God, presents to us as desirable; yet in the same faith that we believe in heaven as the goal of our striving, we see the incapacity to reach that goal of ourselves. Trustful reliance on divine grace is more than a feature of supernatural hope; it is that quality without which hope would be a fabulous dream. The phrase “to hope in God” recurs in all the writings of Peter, Paul, and John, to impress the faithful that what makes them distinctive is not only the sublimity of their religion, or the certitude of their destiny, or even the purity of life to which God calls His chosen ones—but the confidence they should have of passing out of their “great tribulation” into the day of eternity. The effort they expand in serving God will be recompensed as only the Creator can reward those who are submissive to His name.

The grace of God our Savior has appeared to all men, instructing us, in order that, rejecting ungodliness and worldly lusts, we may live temperately and justly and piously in this world; looking for the blessed hope and glorious coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us that He might redeem us from all iniquity and cleanse us for Himself an acceptable people.

According to His mercy He saved us through the laver of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit; whom He has abundantly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior; in order that, justified by His grace, we may be heirs in the hope of life everlasting (Titus 2:11-14, 3:5-7).

Christians, therefore, are not as other men, who “have no hope,” because the faith is lacking. They see through the eyes of God what the Lord has prepared for those who love Him, and this vision gives substance to the future which is closed, or at least uncertain, to all who do not believe.

Why Does the Virtue of Hope Need to be Sustained in Our Day?

In the centuries since the New Testament was written, the vagaries of philosophy apart from revelation have reached their zenith in the utter pessimism that characterizes a great deal of modern thought, sometimes in circles that are only nominally Christian but always among people who have lost their faith (and consequently hope) in the supernatural. “The universe is what it is,” for Bertrand Russell, “not what I choose that it should be. If it is indifferent to human desires, as it seems to be; if human life is a passing episode, hardly noticeable in the vastness of cosmic processes; if there is no superhuman purpose, and no hope of ultimate salvation, it is better to know and acknowledge this truth than to endeavor, in futile self-assertion, to order the universe to be what we find comfortable.”

Cut off from the moorings of Christian hope, the alternative is stark pessimism which sees no finality in man’s existence and no purpose beyond the grave. Among the ancient Romans, Seneca ventured the opinion that “death is the end of all sorrows,” because once a man dies, “he no longer exists.” Modern naturalism offers nothing more hopeful.

Since the world is not ruled by a spiritual being, but rather by blind forces, there cannot be any ideals, moral or otherwise, in the universe outside us. Our ideals, therefore, must proceed from our own minds; they are our own inventions. Thus the world around us is nothing but an immense spiritual emptiness. It is a dead universe, purposeless, senseless, meaningless.

Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws. If the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, but his life is hollow at the center.

If not all naturalists are equally frank (or clear), the reason is only because they have not followed their philosophy to its logical conclusion.

How Are We to Remain Hopeful as Cathlics?

Object and Motive.  The object of Christian hope is heavenly beatitude and the divine grace by which we aspire to the intuitive vision of God. Those who believe in Christ, live “in the hope of life everlasting which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.” Faith and hope are theological virtues because both have God as their direct and immediate object; but where God is the object of faith as infallible truth, He is the object of hope because He is our highest good, towards whom the will of man constantly aspires and in whom alone it finds rest.

Co-essential with the tendency to reach God, hope relies on the divine goodness to furnish the instrumentalities of reaching Him. We desire to possess Him in eternity, and to receive the help He alone can give us in time. Both elements are a part of hope: the goal, which is God, and the way, which is grace. Without the first, there would be no destiny; without the second, no means.

Theologians differ in their ultimate analysis of the motive for hope. If we look upon hope mainly as the virtue of trust in God, and reliance on becomes God as our Helper. For St. Thomas and the more common tradition since patristic times, hope is essentially a confident dependence on God’s help. It does not include but presupposes the desire of union with God. It consists mainly in the expectation of a good difficult to obtain, namely the possession of God, so that the motive on our part is the assisting divine Omnipotence that elevates our souls, weans them from seductive desire for earthly things and bears them in the direction of heaven. God’s promises, as revealed in the Scriptures, simply confirm the certainty of His aid.

If, on the other hand, hope is conceived primarily as an act of desire, then its dominant motive is God as supremely able to enrich us. Scotus and the Franciscan school prefer to look upon hope in this light, where the principal act of the virtue is the desire or love for God, not as He is in Himself but as our happiness and the terminus of all our wants. This emphasis is traceable to St. Francis himself, whose exhortations to the Friars were built on the same theme.

Let us desire nothing, wish for nothing, take pleasure in nothing, and delight in nothing except our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior, the one true God, who is the plenitude of goodness, all good, complete good, the true and supreme good. For He alone is holy, just, true, and righteous; He alone is beneficient, innocent, pure, and from Him, through Him, and in Him is all pardon, all grace, all glory for the penitent and the righteous, as for all the blessed saints who rejoice together in heaven.

Objectively, of course, the virtue of hope comprehends two responses to God, trust and desire, and therefore includes both motivations, confidence in His help and yearning for Himself; nor is it possible in practice to separate the one from the other.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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