Nineteenth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
The First Commandment bids us that we hope as well as believe in God. Our trust and confidence in His mercy to give us eternal life and the means to obtain it: this is our hope, founded on our belief that God is what He reveals Himself to us, able and willing to do by us as we would have Him do. Hope is the flower of our faith; faith is the substance of the things we hope for.
To desire and to hope are not one and the same thing. We may long for what is impossible of obtaining, while hope always supposes this possibility, better, a probability, nay, even a moral certitude. This expectation remains hope until it comes to the fruition of the things hoped for.
The desire of general happiness is anchored in the human heart, deep down in the very essence of our being. We all desire to be happy, We may be free in many things; in this we are not free. We must have happiness, greater than the present, happiness of one kind or another, real or apparent. We may have different notions of this happiness; we desire it according to our notions. Life itself is one, long, painful, unsatisfied desire.
When that desire is centered in God and the soul's salvation, it immediately becomes hope, for then we have real beatitude before us, and all may obtain it. It can be true hope only when founded on faith.
Not only is hope easy, natural, necessary, but it is essential to life. It is the mainspring of all activity. It keeps all things moving, and without it life would not be worth living. If men did not think they could get what they are striving after, they would sit down, fold their arms, let the world move, but they wouldn't.
Especially is Christian hope absolutely necessary for the leading of a Christian life, and no man would take upon himself that burden, if he did not confidently expect a crown of glory beyond, sufficient to repay him for all the things endured here below for conscience's sake. Hope is a star that beckons us on to renewed effort, a vision of the goal that animates and invigorates us; it is also a soothing balm to the wounds we receive in the struggle.
To be without this hope is the lowest level to which man may descend. St. Paul uses the term "men without hope" as the most stinging reproach he could inflict upon the dissolute pagans.
To have abandoned hope is a terrible misfortune: despair. This must not be confounded with an involuntary perturbation, a mere instinctive dread, a phantasmagoric illusion that involves no part of the will. It is not even an excessive fear that goes by the name of pusillanimity. It is a cool judgment like that of Cain: "My sin is too great that I should expect forgiveness."
He who despairs, loses sight of God's mercy and sees only His stern, rigorous justice. After hatred of God, this is perhaps the greatest injury man can do to his Master, who is Love. There has always been more of mercy than of justice in His dealings with men. We might say of Him that He is all mercy in this world, to be all justice in the next. Therefore while there is life, there is hope.
The next abomination is to hope, but to place our supreme happiness in that which should not be the object of our hope. Men live for pleasures, riches, and honors, as though these things were worthy of our highest aspirations, as though they could satisfy the unappeasable appetite of man for happiness. Greater folly than this can no man be guilty of. He takes the dross for the pure gold, the phantom for the reality. Few men theoretically belong to this class; practically it has the vast majority.
The presumptuous are those who hope to obtain the prize and do nothing to deserve it. He who would hope to fly without wings, to walk without feet, to live without air or food would be less a fool than he who hopes to save his soul without fulfilling the conditions laid down by Him who made us. There is no wages without service, no reward without merit, no crown without a cross.
This fellow's mistake is to bank too much on God's mercy, leaving His justice out of the bargain altogether. Yet God is one as well as the other, and both equally. The offense to God consists in making Him a being without any backbone, so to speak, a soft, incapable judge, whose pity degenerates into weakness. And certainly it is a serious offense.
No, hope should be sensible and reasonable. It must keep the middle between two extremes. The measure of our hope should reasonably be the measure of our efforts, for he who wishes the end wishes the means. Of course, God will make due allowances for our frailties, but that is His business, not ours; and we have no right to say just how far that mercy will go. Even though we lead the lives of saints, we shall stand in need of much mercy. Prudence tells us to do all things as though it all depended upon us alone; then God will make up for the deficiencies.