Presumably we all know the basic definition: “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.”
More surprising is the paragraph that follows that one in the catechism: “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 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.”
So Christian hope is tied up with our desire for happiness and the earthly hopes that motivate our daily actions … and it preserves us from selfishness? Sounds odd, but the point may be this: when you have no eternal goal and heed no high calling, you serve only yourself. Without hope, you become selfish and self-centered. The people and things around you are no comfort; what joy is there in them if all will decay and die? Yet selfishness is unsatisfying; self-centeredness quickly becomes self-loathing. Then total despair. Or in Dorothy Sayers’ more eloquent phrasing:
In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair, the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.
Haunting, isn’t it? Sayers, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy (among others) considered despair the defining sin of the modern age. Especially given today’s economic, political, cultural, and international problems, despair is a real danger, even for committed Christians. Will we have jobs? Can we provide for our families? Will we be able to practice our faith freely? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East, freedom in China, or prosperity in Africa? Is Europe headed for collapse? Will there ever be an end to abortion? Even within the Church — Are there enough priests for future generations to receive the sacraments? Why do so many Catholics still drift away? When will the sexual abuse crisis stop?
I have no answers. But without grounding ourselves in hope, we will neither attain Heaven nor accomplish much on earth. Too much trust in our efforts will mean another dystopian disaster; too little trust, continuing decay. Even if we know in advance that some effort will fail, we are bound to try anyway. These words are cold consolation for me. But once, after praying over all of this, I opened my Magnificat to the day’s Mass readings, and came across something stronger:
In the second year of King Darius, on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: Tell this to the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and to the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak, and to the remnant of the people:
Who is left among you / that saw this house in its former glory? / And how do you see it now? / Does it not seem like nothing in your eyes? / But now take courage, Zerubbabel, says the LORD, / and take courage, Joshua, high priest, son of Jehozadak, / And take courage, all you people of the land, / says the LORD, and work! / For I am with you, says the LORD of hosts. / This is the pact that I made with you / when you came out of Egypt, / And my spirit continues in your midst; / do not fear! / For thus says the LORD of hosts: / One moment yet, a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, / the sea and the dry land. / I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will come in, / And I will fill this house with glory, / says the LORD of hosts. / Mine is the silver and mine the gold, / says the LORD of hosts. / Greater will be the future glory of this house / than the former, says the LORD of hosts; / And in this place I will give you peace, / says the LORD of hosts.