The Feast of the Ascension is the pledge of our own. Filled with an immense hope, the Church looks up towards her leader, who precedes her into the heavenly home and takes her with Him in His own person: “for the Son of God, after incorporating in Himself those whom the devil’s jealousy had banished from the early paradise, ascends again to His Father and takes them with Him” (St. Leo, at Matins). The whole life of the Church is placed between Our Lord’s Ascension and His return on the last day. Confident that she does not wait in vain, she preaches His Gospel and spreads His grace everywhere until the day when He returns in all His Father’s glory for those whom He came down to earth to snatch from Satan’s power.St. Andrew Daily Missal
Hope is one of those liquid words that can mean next to nothing or can mean so much that it speaks of human triumph over our fallen and wounded nature. It can range from a refusal to face painful reality to a sort of bravado in the face of such reality. But it pervades all of human endeavor, and even in its most natural aspects can be expressed in perseverance, resistance to despair, even heroism. No wonder that in the myth of Pandora, hope remained when all else had flown away when the first woman let escape all the other blessings. It seems the very mark of humanness that all of us reach for hope as long as life exists. In 1799, a 22-year old Scotsman, Thomas Campbell, made himself famous with his first published poem, “The Blessings of Hope,” which very movingly spoke of hope as giving meaning for us at times of worst loss; of hope, in fact, lighting its torch from the funeral pyre of all Nature itself. Hope gives vision of heaven – that is, of Christ’s own kingdom.
Hope is Grounded and Rooted in Faith
But none of that is sufficient for considering here, when we try to understand better the virtue of hope that we learned early is an absolute trust in God’s promises for our eternal welfare. Unless hope is a supernatural child of faith, then it is some sort of natural child as Ishmael was of Abraham, and we would have no reason to trust its fidelity to us. If hope is to be certain confidence in the possibility of our eternal fulfillment, it must be more than something clutched to Eve’s breast as she was driven to exile from Eden. It must be more than the indomitability shown by us in refusing to believe the grave is our final goal. The most sublime of human desires can betray us, as we well know from human experience. No other than the fair child of supernatural faith has strength to hold open the door of Christ’s kingdom for us. That child, of course, is Hope, and it is incarnated in us in the love enkindled in us by the Holy Spirit, as the ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit fervently petitions. Recreated in the faith Christ calls us to, we are baptized in the Hope such faith washes us with. So a brief look at this is in order as we consider how we may live the life of this Hope that is the child of faith – faith in God’s creative goodness and the inexhaustible well of His generosity towards us.
The Last Words of Thomas Aquinas Explain the Virtue of Hope
The Angelic Doctor was en route in obedience to the Pope to the Council of Lyons when he was stricken ill. So much for the hopes of even the Pope, who wished Thomas to help the Council overcome the breach of Christendom between East and West. The friar of great mind and body was taken first to the castle of his sister, and then moved to a neighboring Cistercian monastery, where he died just short of the age of 50. He left his final work unfinished, and when he laid his pen down in obedience to the Pope’s cause, he was at mid-point – at the subject of Hope in a study of the theological virtues. Compared to his great summas, Thomas’s Compendium of Theology was a short and concise work to help those very much like us see a bit of what his great mind presented as – in the words of the Compendium’s translator, Fr. Cyril Vollert, S.J. – “he gradually unfolds before our eyes the eternal designs of God who loves us in Christ and who has predestined us to be made conformable to the image of His Son.” In dedicating this work destined to be his last to his “friend and companion Brother Reginald,” I like to think Thomas was writing it for those like us who find his more scholastic treatises tough going. I imagine Brother Reginald may have more than once sighed as he took up the master work of his great mentor, and wishfully hoped someday he might grasp just a bit of the meaning of such heavenly things as Thomas did. When Thomas himself returned from a mystical visit to the entrance garden of Christ’s kingdom, he is said to have lamented that he had written so poorly of the ultimate truths. His Compendium aimed at the most simple-minded of us must have been a result of his determination to write better.
Let me quote the very last words Thomas put down before called away – thinking to go to Lyon but called much further than that by one much higher than even the Pope. Those final sentences opened a chapter on “Possibility of Reaching the Kingdom.” It followed immediately upon the great theologian’s identifying that kingdom as perfect happiness, containing all good in changeless abundance, and therefore something naturally desired by everyone. Then Thomas continues:
“We must go on to show that man can reach that kingdom. Otherwise it would be hoped for and prayed for in vain. In the first place, the divine promise makes this possibility clear. Our Lord says, in Luke 12:32: ‘Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom.’ God’s good pleasure is efficacious in carrying out all that He plans, according to Isaiah 46:10: ‘My counsel shall stand, and all My will shall be done.’ For as we read in Romans 9:19: ‘Who resisteth His will?’ Secondly, an evident example shows that attainment of the kingdom is possible.”Thomas Aquinas’s Compendium of Theology
Thomas wrote no more beyond that, and he was silent on this earth from that point and forever. And he left us with a puzzle: what might be that evident example that he would persuade us with to embrace the virtue of Hope! Do we dare try to presume finding what Thomas did not live to tell us? Well, I will dare to do that, promising to give you my answer and hoping that will both keep you reading, at least out of curiosity, and that though what I attempt is of course far from the level of angelic thought attributed to Thomas, it may be anyway some help to us. You will have to wait and judge.
Aquinas and the Our Father as Pattern of Hope
The totality of Part II of the Compendium – that on the necessity and meaning of the virtue of hope – amounts to a brilliant analysis of Our Lord’s Prayer. As a prelude Thomas points out that we should not confuse prayer to God with that directed to other persons in earlier usage of the word prayer – used for example in petitions made to superiors such as monarchs or ministers or even judges. For one thing, all our needs are known to God before we could even speak them, nor can what we do or say serve to alter what God wills toward us. So, Thomas explains for us:
“Prayer, then, for obtaining something from God is necessary for man on account of the very one who prays, that he may reflect on his shortcomings and may turn his mind to desiring fervently and piously what he hopes to gain by his petition. In this way he is rendered fit to receive the favor.”Thomas Aquinas’s Compendium of Theology
Even more sublimely, Thomas goes on to explain that unlike a petition to a human superior which presupposes in its very making a certain intimacy, prayer to God raises up our soul to God, conversing with Him in spiritual affection, and adoring Him in spirit and truth. That filial trust we call Hope hovers in the very breath with which we pray, something Thomas illustrates with the petitions of the Our Father. This prayer we would not dare say except its being given us by Christ Himself opens with the very basis for our Hope – recognition that, in the words of Thomas, “through Him who is the Only-begotten Son of God by nature, we are made adopted sons.” He goes on to explain that in proclaiming that God is Our Father we “express our conviction that the divine will is ready to help us.” Can that be doubted of a perfect Father who is the very sum of goodness, an inexhaustible and never-spent goodness which chose to make our race heirs of His majesty? Do God’s children ask anything in vain?
When we add “who art in heaven” we speak of that power which is part of that magnificence of the divine heaven-dweller. Our welfare is in His hands, not in the workings of His creation, as the pagans believed both then and still do now. A father cares for his children in the face of all disasters; a divine Majesty who is our Father promises to bring us out of the very collapse of the universe, rescuing us bodies and souls on the basis of our faith and in fulfillment of our hope. Was that not the lesson taught by the Christ, wakened by the frightened Apostles on the storm-ravaged lake. “Oh, ye of little faith.” No wonder He praised the faith of the Centurion, who was confident that Jesus had power to heal his servant. The Son of God had found no faith in Israel to match it, and He rewarded it by doing what the Centurion so daringly and confidently asked. Nor is that Power we put our trust in distant from us, waiting for us to find it on some mountain height. The Centurion found it on a dusty country road. It is intimately with us in every moment of our lives so close that it numbers the hairs of our head, and notices us even more exactly than it counts that fall of sparrows. And for those who try by faith and love to draw nigh to God, God responds by drawing nigh to them. Thomas cites words of St. James and of the Psalmist to convince his readers of that, and points out that this intimacy between Our Father and us can be more than mere closeness – it can become the very indwelling of God amongst us by grace.
Next, Christ instructs us to declare God’s Name as holiness – namely, that is be recognized more and more by His human creatures as the Supreme Good. Thomas borrows from St. Augustine to explain that we do not pray that God’s name becomes holy – it already and always is that. We pray that it becomes recognized as such by all men. This is particularly significant for us today. How many accept the politically correct notion that we may properly proclaim in private that all men come to acknowledge God as the supreme Holy One, but must keep such acknowledgment from being public. What of a generation of humans educated in all things publicly except for the holiness of that Name of the only God? Does not public silence about this contradict what we pray in private, or behind the closed door of our churches? Can the cause of our Hope be kept private without the result of public hopelessness? Those studying the cause of so much suicide – including the among the young should consider this.
Having proclaimed the recognition of our condition as God’s adopted children, heirs to His kingdom by virtue of His power to make all things His without prejudice to human freedom we next ask that this promised bequest become fulfilled for us, and in our lives being lived here on earth. We speak to God of our desire for the happiness not given by things of earth, certainly not by our bodily appetites, but not even by our mind’s desire for knowledge. We pray for the beatitude that is the condition of God’s kingdom. We pray for such vision of God as is possible for His saints. If the full feast of that kingdom must wait until our incorruptible state of the future life, we pray that there be a taste of it here – an appetizer course we might we might say – in the beatitude that saints among us reveal.
It was immediately after speaking of the perfect peace that reigns for those saints achieving finally to Christ’s kingdom – a peace that the good on earth may only desire without attaining it perfectly – that Thomas wrote those final words about the possibility of our reaching that kingdom with its undisturbable eternal peace. Such attainment is the burden of the remaining part of Our Lord’s prayer, that we be sustained in necessary living out our lives on earth, and that we may learn to forgive that we might be forgiven, and that we might be delivered from the evil that is always present waiting to devour us so that we may never attain that eternal peace that is the wealth of our bequest as heirs of Christ’s kingdom. If perfect peace is not for us in this world, freedom from fear that it can never be obtained is possible here by cultivating the virtue, that is, the habit, of Hope. “Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom.”
Upheavals and Failures in the Church Refreshes Hope
We are tempted to fear for the Church in this time of so much failure of goodness even in the living out of the sublime priestly vocation. [Ed. Note: This was written when the abuse scandals in the Church had just been discovered.] We turn to where we should see many saints, and we see few. We look to where there should be safety for us as sheep, provided by those whose exemplar is the good Shepherd Himself – and instead of safety we find danger, even the seeming defeat of goodness. But know this is nothing new, at least in essence and substance. The ravishment of truth and goodness in the Church is an ancient embarrassment. Christ looking from the Cross could find only His Mother, the Apostle John, and one or two holy women. Most of His disciples were in hiding. But there was one other He saw and spoke with, and I will discuss that in a moment.
The early Church had to blush at the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, the stubbornness of the Judaizers who were a temptation even to Peter, the foolish false pieties of gnostic and charismatics, and the vainglory of proud royalty such as Julian the Apostate, who assailed the infant Church. And that was before the breaking of the storm that blew out of Antioch by way of Alexandria, and threatened to sink the barque of Peter.
In the tempest of Arianism, a certain holy widow grew frightened to the point of near despondency. She made her emotions known to her master, St. John Chrysostom. He understood the dire feelings of St. Olympias. He was beset not only by Arians, but by powerful persons offended by his frequent calls for upright living by Christians in an atmosphere of licentiousness and hedonism – an atmosphere much like that of our time, so given as it is to the pursuit of pleasure and what is thought of as “getting a life.”
It was probably from exile – a terrible eventually fatal ordeal enforced by cruel and violent men on a frail old man, that St. John Chrysostom wrote the following:
“Whenever you [meaning the holy widow Olympias] hear that one of the Churches has been submerged, another tossed to dire distress, this one drowned by the angry flood, that one mortally wounded, injured in some way; that a certain Church has received a wolf instead of a shepherd, a second a pirate instead of a helmsman, a third an executioner instead of a physician, be saddened by all means, for one ought not to endure such things without pain. But since grieve you must, at the same time set a limit to your sorrow. If you like, I will sketch the present position for you to depict the tragedy in even clearer lines.
“We see the ocean upheaved from its very bed, we see the dead bodies of sailors floating on the surface, others overwhelmed by the waves, ships’ decks split asunder, sails rent, masts broken in pieces, the oars slipped out of the hands of the rowers, the helmsman sitting idle on the decks opposite their tillers, hands folded on their knees….
“I am conscious of these disasters, yet for all that I do not relinquish a most firm hope. I keep my mind fixed on the Pilot of all things; he does not ride the storms by steersmanship but by a mere nod He breaks the surging of the sea, and if not immediately, if not at once, that precisely is His way. He does not cut calamities short at the outset, but averts them only as they approach their climax, when almost all have abandoned hope. Only then does He show forth wonders and miracles and display the power which is His alone, while He schools the suffering in patience….”St. John Chrysostom, Letters to Olympias
Hope is Always Tested
These words of Chrysostom are among ample evidence that there has never been a Christian age that has not tempted believers against Hope, often doing so after a determined assault against faith. The post-Vatican II times have seen an assault against faith, and seen it reach a climax and then subside, thank goodness far sooner than did the Arian assault, and of course sooner than did the Lutheran assault against doctrine, which still goes on. But now a worse assault is mounted, against the Hope that holiness provides, so that when holiness seems to fail so does our reliance on it. If the Church is not Holy, where can we turn to find the consolation offered by the beatitude, by the blessing for us at the hands of saints?
Now we know that in every trial of the Church saints have responded in a way that refreshes Hope, rescues it from a natural human tiredness in seeking consolation from spiritual success. We should know scandal always gets great attention, usually beyond what it deserves. Goodness seldom gets such attention. Shakespeare has Antony put that well – “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” We believers should not let that discourage us; our faith tells us bones along with bodies are marked for resurrection.
Calvary Sprang the Hope of Dismas
There was a sudden, dramatic, outbreak of beatitude at a most unlikely spot and at a time and circumstance that surely was dark with hopelessness from a purely human view. Was that the “evident example” of the possibility of obtaining the kingdom of God that Thomas proposed to present, but was prevented by duty and then death from writing down for Brother Reginald’s benefit, and for all of us readers so in need of guidance in this matter? I can only say it might have been; if I am presumptuous in that, I leave it to you to judge, as I told you earlier.
I am thinking of the moment on Calvary when looking down from where He had been raised Christ could see so few of His followers among the crowd. But to His left and right two men – put equal to His position on crosses, so they could speak to Him on even level – began to make their disbelief in Him known in angry and bitter words. Then one seemed to have what we sometimes call a “change of heart.”
It had happened before to some who came in contact with the One who dared to call Himself “Son of Man” and “Son of God.” A despised publican heard Jesus speak a few words, and went following after Him all the way to death. A Samaritan woman heard Jesus tell her a few things about herself, and began to shout out to the whole town that He might be the One the Scriptures said would be sent them by God. Another woman possessed of seven demons, one of them surely hopelessness, looked into His eyes and felt a flood of love relieve her of their diabolical violation. And now a criminal and disbeliever looks and listens to the Crucified One, and suddenly has a change of heart about Him. First, he recognizes His innocence, and then he comes full into the truth about Him – “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” No ifs or buts here. The One on the Cross is royalty, the true fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to send Israel a Messias. This king would seem ordinary, even afflicted, but would be of David’s power and glory. Dismas may not have thought of such religious things for a long time, but seeing Jesus brought all the rabbis and priests had tried to teach him back to his mind. There was a moment left for Dismas to snatch triumph from the defeat life seemed to have dealt him. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How fortunate for a thief to get a personal divine guarantee that one last instance of genuine faith and hope had opened the gates of the kingdom of heaven to him. Surely no greater evidence of the possibility of salvation exists than this last-minute rescue from the capital punishment of hell, this slipping through the gates of heaven even as they seemed to be shutting against one most unlikely of all men to find a way into that kingdom.
Thus, Dismas surely stands for all of us, sinners that we are, and illustrates the power of Hope based on faith, no matter how briefly possessed, or how lately blurted out. If this was not what Thomas would have offered us had he lived to do so, I don’t think he will mind that I suggest it might have been so. And I dare to say for myself an adaptation of the prayer of Dismas – and for you, if you like – the greatest prayer of Hope second only to the Our Father ever uttered: “Remember us in your kingdom, where we have the certain Hope of joining you and becoming part of the vast crowd of saints who constantly adore you, if only we take advantage of the perseverance faith recommends and Hope delivers.’
In The Vision of Piers Ploughman, Piers sees Christ jousting with death on Calvary, wearing the Ploughman’s lowly colors, displaying the insignia of Piers, who represents mankind. The outcome is in doubt until Sunday morning and the Resurrection. It is in the midst of that a lesson that Dismas grasped the virtue of Hope; surely that is a lesson for our acceptance of the Power of the Redemption Christ worked on that infamous hill of execution. I can think of no more convincing one.
Hope Needs Faith, But Faith is Doubted Today
But this evidence is based on faith – including acceptance of the Gospel accounts as both genuine and historical. A near generation of Catholics were fed doubt about both those qualities of the Gospels. Further, they were exposed to another doubt regarding faith – namely the Eucharist, the demand of Christ that it amounted to necessary Food for those seeking admission to His kingdom, and that it becomes such Food by means of priestly words of Consecration.
The Faith in those things taught earlier generations – including mine – was denied many by unsound theologizing in post-Vatican II Catholic schools. It is disturbing to wonder if Hope will be easy to come by for Catholics so miseducated – one might say educationally abused – when they move swifter and swifter to the time of seeking entrance to Christ’s kingdom, approaching the entrance gates of that kingdom where the inheritance of eternal happiness awaits. All that affects faith likewise affects Hope. That which weakens faith makes Hope more difficult. All that dims faith makes Hope less discernible – and let’s face it – much of the new theology of recent times dims faith when it does not obscure it altogether.
We are much concerned about sexual abuse of the young and by those whose duty was to protect them. But perhaps of even greater concern should be the abuse of the faith of the young by those whose duty was to strengthen that faith, and explain it in conformity with the Church’s understanding.
If we are to invite all peoples, particularly the present young generation, to cross the threshold of hope – as Pope St. John Paul II put it – we must first help them into the bright anteroom of faith. The first step in that enterprise is to encourage our children and grandchildren to put their reliance and allegiance first of all in the Church itself, giving first fealty above all others to the Pope, and from that learn the sweetness that Hope provides.
This address was given by at the Denver Regional Forum, 2002.
This article, Hope is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.