Philip often said, “I am past hope!” and one day, meeting two Dominicans, he passed between them, saying, “Let me pass, I am without hope,” meaning that he had no confidence in himself or in anything he had done. The good fathers, understanding the words in their ordinary sense, stopped him and began to console him, and to ask him a multitude of questions; at last he smiled and said, “I am past all hope of myself, but I trust in God.”
—from the Life of Saint Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome by Father Bacci
In ‘the ordinary sense’, hope is given to us from God, it leads us to God, and it makes us more like him — as with all of the theological virtues. It is by hope that we look forward to our union with God, something we trust is possible not because of anything we ourselves have done (as St Philip illustrates so dramatically) but because of his free gift to us.
The life of virtue is all about forming our character through our actions. We can see how the virtue of faith is a necessary part of that — it will be much easier to behave as God wants if you habitually believe he exists. Similarly, it is obvious that charity — the habit of loving God and our neighbour — will inform all of our actions for the better. But we can sometimes miss what hope contributes to our moral life. And yet its contribution is essential.
Hope tells us that all this is possible. We may very well believe by faith that God exists, and want to live always motivated by our love for him, but we may doubt that we really are capable of knowing him or loving him. Hope tells us that we are. Hope is the habit of looking forward to that union with God that we know by faith and desire by love. Without hope, the virtues of faith and charity would be a cruel form of torture, dangling before us joys we could never expect to obtain. But combined with them, hope gives us something to look forward to:
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
This does not mean that hope itself is something for the future. It is a key part of our life here and now:
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.
Sometimes we are faced with real difficulties in this world. We might be struggling to find a job, worrying about money, or doubting that our sick relative really will get better. In such cases, people often accuse themselves undeservedly of hopelessness or despair. But true despair is abandoning all hope of union with God. It is not a sin to admit that we are suffering, or to foresee difficult times ahead.
There are those who would say that we just have to keep trusting in God, and it will all work out fine in the end. But this is not the lesson of Christ’s life, who surely trusted perfectly in his Father, and allowed the virtue of hope to influence all that he said and did. Christ trusted in his Father, but that did not mean he did not experience the pain of losing friends and family members, or of suffering physical pain and even death. It is not despair to acknowledge that God does not guarantee our worldly health, success or prosperity.
It is easy to confuse hope with optimism, which is where we close our eyes and tell ourselves everything will get better — but without any reason for doing so. Hope tells us that, no matter what does go wrong, God never abandons us. And it is based on something more than wishful thinking. It based on God’s faithfulness, as demonstrated in the resurrection of Christ and as promised to us. Christ’s passion did not mean that he was abandoned by his Father. Hope tells us that whatever we may undergo in this world, nothing can separate us from the Father. And that makes us live differently in this world. ‘The one who hopes lives differently; the one who hopes has been given a new life.’ (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi)
When we place our hope in good things happening to us here on earth, then we will face constant disappointment and obstacles to our happiness. But when all our hope rests with God in heaven, our hope is secure. No one can take it away from us, and nothing that happens to us can destroy our blessedness. We may still be upset. We may still suffer. People may still hurt us. But we can overcome all of this. Because by that hope, which goes before us and already resides in heaven, we have ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’ (Heb. 6:19) joining us to God.
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