In my last essay (Faithful, 12/09/19), I spoke about the importance of faith. Nothing is possible without it. Since it is the foundation of the spiritual edifice, there can be no discussion without it. It is the first of the Theological Virtues given to us at Baptism.
We see the importance of faith as we do the importance of the third Theological Virtue: Love. Of course, this virtue has nothing to do with romance or Eros. It is Christian Love, or in Latin: Caritas — the total giving to the Other who is God wishing nothing in return but God’s Presence Alone.
But so little is written about the middle Theological Virtue: Hope. Why?
I believe the answer to this question lies in how basic this virtue is. How can one have faith if one has no hope? How can one love if one is in despair? Hope is the foundation necessary so that the other virtues have meaning and purpose. Without the direction that meaning and purpose gives, there is no point in doing anything; it is all useless and futile.
The great poet Dante put the centrality of hope in a terrifying way. When Virgil begins to escort Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, they stop before the gates of Hell. Over the gate, on the arch, are the chilling words: “Abandon Hope All You Who Enter Here”. Hell is a place where there is no hope; it is all over. There is nothing left but continual pain, regret and the absence of God.
When someone loses all hope and enters the area we call despair, we are in the region of the damned.
One of my favorite writers is the French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos. In his masterwork entitled “Diary of a Country Priest”, he has a brief but chilling description of Hell: those in Hell would warm themselves at the embers that we call despair. Wow! That is truly a frightening sentence.
Hope is the kind of virtue that is often in the background of our lives. It is presupposed in the daily concerns and decisions that we make and are part and parcel of what are the ordinary things of life. When someone loses hope, he or she enters on painful and very dangerous terrain. The climbing rates of suicide speak volumes about the importance of hope in a person’s life.
The three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love are further intertwined in that a loss of Faith in God and a failure to Love in a Christian way undermine the foundations of Hope. Living in a godless universe and living without Love will deliver a person eventually to the gates of Hell where there is no Hope.
This is where it is important to state that we have the freedom to decide to live in Faith, Hope and Love. These virtues are gifts given to us in Baptism, but they must be freely accepted and used by us for them to take effect.
In trying to explain the importance of cooperation with the grace given in the virtues, especially to children, I have used the example of the muscles that God has given us. If we never exercise and use our muscles, they remain weak and non-compliant with the needs of the body. In fact, the non-use of the muscles also affects the joints of the body as well.
If a person exercises each day, he or she will develop their muscles to such an extent that they look differently: he or she is stronger! We have all seen people who are in great shape. Their muscles are visible through the layers of skin! They are strong and supple and, well, healthy. But a person who does not develop their muscular structure, say by being a couch potato, can do very little because their muscles are flaccid and weak.
So it is with the graces of the virtues, particularly the theological virtues. Many people have been given them through Baptism and the mercy of God, but they remain unused and weakened.
Many people lose the strength and the resiliency of Hope because we seldom flex and build-up the virtue through daily use. What a tragedy it is! It is like starving to death while you have food in abundance in your refrigerator! What good does it do to have a four-course meal awaiting us if we never eat it?