Catholic News Service
Faith, hope and love. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, declares that these three things are the bottom line in the Christian life. They are called the theological virtues, the qualities that make us most like God.
We hear plenty about faith and love. But when is the last time you heard a rousing homily on hope? If hope is included in this short list, it must be important. But why? And what is it precisely?
To accomplish great things in life, you need a future goal that is big enough to keep you motivated. The promise of a diploma keeps college students up late writing papers when they’d rather be partying. The dream of Olympic glory gets the runner out of bed to put in miles while others are comfortably snoozing.
In the spiritual life, you’ll never do great things for God unless you have your eye on the long-term goal: to experience indescribable joy in his presence forever. The ecstasy of gazing upon him, whose beauty eternally awes the hosts of heaven, the exhilarating company of friends, family and fascinating people from all ages — purified, glorified, finished masterpieces of divine love — this is what “the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6) will usher in for those who are ready.
The virtue of hope is the eager, energizing expectation of this glorious inheritance, and it’s also the confidence that he who began the work of salvation in us will bring it to completion.
Some think Catholics live in fearful insecurity, perpetually worrying that they may not make the grade. These Christians, on the other hand, believe that once people accept Jesus as lord and savior, they are saved. Period. God is faithful, they reason, and he never reneges on his promises. Once saved, you are always saved.
This is partially true. God’s promise is sure. He gives us grace to accept Christ and salvation. But his grace never comes in a way that short-circuits our freedom. In other words, God is a lover; he does not force his will on us. He never overpowers us and carries us away against our will.
The possibility always remains that we will use our freedom to walk away, as did the prodigal son. Fortunately the prodigal son came to his senses and returned. But note that the father did not send out a posse. The wayward son returned of his own accord. The story could have ended otherwise.
So is there a Catholic version of “blessed assurance”? Yes. We call it hope. We have confidence that God will give us the grace to persevere and, even better, to grow stronger in his love right up to the “day of Christ Jesus.”
But hope is, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, a virtue not principally of the mind that believes in God’s faithfulness, but of the will that longs for heaven with a desire that propels it forward to ever greater spiritual growth.
One opposite of hope is despair, which is the failure to believe that God’s mercies are never exhausted. But hope has other opposites as well, such as sloth, or spiritual laziness. When faced with the prospect of life forever with God, sloth yawns and says, “Boring.” Sound familiar?
Or how about presumption? Hope is humble confidence that God won’t give up on me. Presumption is the arrogant and lazy expectation that God owes me mercy, regardless of how neglectful I am of the means of seeking grace via sacraments or obligations of our faith, such as Mass, prayer and confession.
Hope is a spiritual muscle. But like all muscles, it must be exercised. Unused muscles atrophy. The “use it or lose it” sentiment applies.
How can we exercise our desire for the glory of heaven? By stimulating our souls with the scriptural images that suggest what words can’t fully describe.
The Bible does not depict heaven as an endless church service with yawning angels strumming harps. Instead you find a joyous wedding feast, zealous singing as on a day of festival, rich, savory food and pure, choice wines, a city glittering with gold, pearls and every sort of gem, a river bright as crystal with trees on each bank laden with luscious fruit.
Of course it is love that fuels the merriment of a wedding feast. And all human love, friendship and intimacy is only a pale reflection of the fulfillment that we will experience when we see the luminous beauty of the face of God and, in its light, the fascinating and unique beauty of each one of the redeemed.
St. Paul says in Phillipians 4:8 that “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious … think about these things.”
To consciously turn our gaze from our daily worries to the glory of heaven is the spiritual exercise that builds the virtue of hope. And it is this hope that will be the anchor preventing us from being swept away by the inevitable storms of earthly life.