Alicia Van Hecke: “Hope: An Act of the Will”

Our modern world is caught up in materialism to the point of misery. It shouldn’t be surprising to us as Christian parents that things will never make us happy, but it’s still difficult to avoid getting caught up in the mixed-up priorities of our society. After all, unlike monks or cloistered nuns, we are by practical reality forced to live “in the world,” even while we try not to be “of the world.”

The virtue of hope, which helps us to keep our heavenly goals in mind even while we trudge through the here-and-now, shapes how we live our lives. It frees us to live according to the Gospel by preventing us from being weighed down by concerns about what we have and what other people think of us. Hope provides an escape out of this dark world—and into the light of Christ.

In his encyclical on the theological virtue of hope, Pope Benedict XVI tells us:

Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. So now we can say: Christianity was not only “good news” – the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative.” That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life [emphasis added, para. 2].

It’s easy to take the virtue of hope for granted. We know it’s one of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), but we often assume that it’s a natural by-product of faith and so we focus more on the other two. When we do reflect on the supernatural virtue of hope, we rightly consider the connection of faith with our hope in eternal life, but don’t generally dig deeper into the concept of hope—or attempt to apply it to our everyday lives.

Hope as a Life-Transforming Reality

And yet, recent popes have placed a tremendous emphasis on hope. They have sought to show us that hope plays an integral role in the spiritual life. It is a practical reality that makes us different people.

According to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, hope teaches us how to live: “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” (1817).

Hope always looks toward our ultimate destiny. It requires us to place our trust in Christ rather than in our own strength. Hope leads us to a new vision of reality which has the power to order everything in our lives according to what really matters, keeping life’s anxieties and cares in their proper perspective.

Hope: An Act of the Will

The idea that hope is a choice, something which requires our cooperation with God’s grace, is a life-changing concept—one that has been powerfully articulated in God and the Atom by Fr. Ronald Knox:

Hope is something that is demanded of us; it is not, then, a mere reasoned calculation of our chances. Nor is it merely the bubbling up of a sanguine temperament; if it is demanded of us, it lies not in the temperament but in the will . . . Hoping for what? For deliverance from persecution, for immunity from plague, pestilence, and famine . . . ? No, for the grace of persevering in his Christian profession, and for the consequent achievement of a happy immortality. Strictly speaking, then, the highest exercise of hope, supernaturally speaking, is to hope for perseverance and for Heaven when it looks, when it feels, as if you were going to lose both one and the other.

When hope underlies everything we do, it helps move us in the right direction, always focused on our final goal of heaven. Hope is not a guarantee that God will shield us from suffering and sorrow. Rather, hope is God’s promise that He will be there to enable us to meet the challenges of the Gospel, to overcome difficulties, to “be not afraid,” even in times of great sorrow and difficulty.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II addresses this very issue:

The Gospel is certainly demanding. We know that Christ never permitted His disciples and those who listened to Him to entertain any illusions about this. On the contrary, He spared no effort in preparing them for every type of internal or external difficulty, always aware of the fact that they might well decide to abandon Him. Therefore, if He says, “Be not afraid!” He certainly does not say it in order to nullify in some way that which He has required. Rather, by these words He confirms the entire truth of the Gospel and all the demands it contains. At the same time, however, He reveals that His demands never exceed man’s abilities. If man accepts these demands with an attitude of faith, he will also find in the grace that God never fails to give him, the necessary strength to meet those demands.

We can identify some specific ways in which hope gives us precisely the strength we need to meet the demands of the Gospel.
Love
Consider the relationship between hope and love that Cardinal Ratzinger elucidates in Salt of the Earth:

To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover. That’s not easy, but the basic Yes, the conviction that God has created men, that he stands behind them, that they aren’t simply negative, gives love a reference point that enables it to ground hope on the basis of faith.

That’s a quote worth posting on the fridge!

This idea of becoming a lover in a spiritual sense, points to a deeper meaning in biblical passages that are generally considered only in a romantic sense. For example, First Corinthians 13 is a beloved passage frequently heard at weddings: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful . . .” (RSV-CE). Though this is beautifully applicable to romantic love, it also applies to our understanding of how God wants us to love others—by imitating His own great Love.

Littleness

Our Lord says a very striking thing in the Gospel of Matthew. When He is asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, He responds, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3, RSV-CE)

How does this relate to hope? The virtue of hope calls for us to persevere in our tasks with faithfulness, but to entrust the rest to God. He is the one responsible for the “big picture” and expects us to cooperate in our own small way, with love and humility. It’s quite liberating to realize that God doesn’t want us to take ourselves too seriously! In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI reminds us, “we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord” (para. 35).

The Holy Father, in his great work Jesus of Nazareth, equates “littleness” with “purity of heart” (see pp. 342-343). The CCC (2517-2533) expounds on this, but in a nutshell, says, “‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith” (2518).

Littleness also implies a certain patience with ourselves, as St. Francis de Sales said: “Those who aspire to the pure love of God have not so much need of patience with others as with themselves.”

Joy

Hope offers a certain freedom from the material goods and cares of this world because it puts these things in their proper perspective. This freedom makes it easier to humbly rejoice in the good that God gives us.

Our beloved Holy Father has written so beautifully on this theme in Salt of the Earth that there’s not much I can add to it. So let me share his words with you:

Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don’t have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice

I can understand that. There is a moral attitude at work here. But this attitude is nonetheless wrong. The loss of joy does not make the world better—and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good. Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on. In this connection, it always strikes me that in the poor neighborhoods of, say, South America, one sees many more laughing happy people than among us. Obviously, despite all their misery, they still have the perception of the good to which they cling and in which they can find encouragement and strength

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news [emphasis added, p. 36].

Willingness to Suffer

While “willingness to suffer” might seem like a poor fit in a discussion of how we live hope, the theme of suffering is a substantial part of  Spe Salvi, the Holy Father’s encyclical on hope.

But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career, and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope [para. 39].

We will never have a perfect life in this world, as much as we are tempted to wish for perfect safety and happiness on this earth—especially for our children. Instead, we have to trust. And we do trust. We value the goodness of this world and the goodness of existence enough to bring children—perhaps many children—into a world fraught with risk and danger.

In Spe Salvi, the Holy Father goes on to say:

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it, and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love [para. 37].

Share the Hope that Is in You

Saint Peter shares with us the need to persevere in hope and confidence: “Have no fear . . . but in your hearts reference Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:14-15, RSV-CE) . And we certainly cannot overestimate the value of living in hope. The CCC (quoting Vatican II) asserts: “One is entitled to think that the future of humanity is in the hands of those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism” (1917).

We offer this hope to our children, first through the simple gifts of love, patience, and even joy. Perhaps they may not seem like much, but when these are missing, the consequences can be dire indeed. Cardinal Ratzinger, in Seek That Which Is Above, tells a story about a generation of young people who grew up during wartime and did not understand hope. He reminds us of this important truth: “The person who has never experienced goodness and kindness simply does not know what such things are” (pp. 9-10).

Make Hope a Reality

It’s all very well to consider hope as an abstract concept, but how do we translate it into reality? The answer is, of course, a little at a time and with patience. Here are some specific and practical ideas which are likely to help.

Pray. The CCC specifically recommends the Our Father: “Hope is expressed and nourished in prayer, especially in the Our Father, the summary of everything that hope leads us to desire” (1819

Give. Clear out your clutter by giving your excess belongings to those in need. Dig deep! It’s incredibly freeing to reduce the number of things you own. (For some inspiration, read Matt. 6:28, Luke 6:38.)

Help others. When we focus too much on ourselves and get carried away with worrying about what other people think of us, perhaps the easiest solution is to turn our gaze outward—to look at those around us, to see their needs. Then we can proactively seek ways to help them, to relieve their suffering.

Turn off the news. The news industry is a profitable business built on finding things (mostly bad news) that will keep us watching and reading (and this can be very addictive for some of us!). While we do need to know what is going on in the world, and recognize and fight evil when we encounter it, we need to shut off the information flow if it has become a source of despair and distraction in our lives.

Make a list of things you are grateful for. Oftentimes when our lives are easy and comfortable, we take things for granted, take ourselves too seriously, and start to get overwhelmed by the little things. Deliberate gratitude (accompanied by the cultivation of an atmosphere of appreciation in our homes) can be a powerful antidote!

Embrace “littleness.” The old Latin saying Age Quod Agis (Do What You Are Doing) is a helpful reminder to live in the present and concentrate on the task at hand. Though we are asked to cooperate in God’s plan and work diligently, He is the mastermind of the bigger picture. Embrace the wonder and joy of your children—enter into their “little life.” Take the time to share their beautiful interests and delights. Read fairy tales! Take walks. Talk about their hopes and dreams. Lead them in prayer.

Be inspired by great witnesses to hope.Take the time to reflect upon and study the virtue of hope (and related concepts like littleness and trust). I’d suggest excellent books like Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell, Gertrud Von Le Fort’s The Song at the Scaffold, and Hilda Van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman. There are many great movies that are equally as uplifting, like Babette’s Feast, Bella, Lilies of the Field, The Maldonado Miracle, and The Scarlet and the Black.

May we all strive to cooperate with God’s grace in order to bring more of such hope into the world.

 

 

 

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