Season of Hope

The desire for God, we are told, is a drive both deep and indestructible. Certainly, there can be no other longing as profound or pervasive. On the strength of its universality, we understand ourselves as creatures ineluctably religious. Steeped in “repining restlessness,” to recall a lovely line from George Herbert, only God can assuage the soul’s agitation.

Wasn’t that Augustine’s whole point in writing his Confessions? To show that the heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee? Isn’t that why the ceiling of the Roman Pantheon remains open? How else were pagans to ensure that the upward surge of the spirit would be given unimpeded access to the gods? Just as tropism exists among plants, turning them towards light, so in the spiritual realm there is theo-tropism, where the divine light draws the soul to God.

What then do we call God’s answering response but the definitive disclosure of divine love, soliciting our freedom for a life of unending communion with him and his angels and his saints. To negotiate our way from one to the other, however, we need hope, a supernatural virtue on whose exercise everything depends.

Josef Pieper is wonderfully lucid on the subject, describing hope as “the confidently patient expectation of eternal beatitude in a contemplative and comprehensive sharing of the triune life of God.” What is striking about that sentence, it seems to me, is the level of certitude on which hope’s claim is cast. Indeed, so strong and secure is the structure of hope that we may say, as Paul emphatically does in his letter to the Romans (8:24), we shall be saved by it.

If there is a threat to the edifice of hope, it is our refusal to be enfolded by it. Not even the devils, for all their fury and hatred to undo the work of God, may breach the fortress without our consent. And because hope expects nothing less than God Himself, we turn in childlike trust to the One who offers the hand that draws us safely home to him.

The Visitation by Jacopo Carucci (aka Pontormo), c. 1515 [Church of Saint Michael and Saint Francis, Carmignano]
The Visitation by Jacopo Carucci (aka Pontormo), c. 1515 [Church of Saint Michael and Saint Francis, Carmignano]

“What strange arithmetic,” exclaims Charles Péguy in his The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, as he watches his “little girl Hope” awaken the heart of God to go in search of a single lost sheep that has wandered off from the ninety-nine who are doing just fine. How odd of God to have so little business sense in exercising a stewardship so reckless of risk.

“And yet this,” Péguy tells us, “is how the books are kept with God.” He takes an intense interest in the least promising of his sheep. How impenetrable a mystery we are faced with here. Who can parse it? That the loss of one lousy sheep should cause God excruciating distress.

“It’s unfair,” says Péguy. “What is this invention, this new invention,” in which the weight of the lost exceeds all those who never needed to be found? Yet that is how God keeps the books, in order that “not one of these little ones be lost.” (Mt 18:14)

I love how Emily Dickinson puts it. “Hope is the thing with feathers. / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.” And why will it not stop? Because prayer is its voice, the very language in which the song is sung.

Begging God for all that we do not yet have. Reminding him of the promises he made to us in the Our Father, petitions so cunningly coined to allow mercy to overmaster justice.

The Father knows all this, of course, and appears delighted to see the lengths to which the Son is willing to go in extending credit. “When he says those three or four words to me,” says God, sounding like the great peasant of France whose voice Péguy longs for us to hear, “making those three or four words move ahead of him.”

After that he can go on, he can tell me what he pleases.
Because, you understand, I am disarmed.
And my Son knew it well.

It is because of those “three or four words,” that the Father permits himself to be vanquished. How exquisite the irony that this unconquerable God should take pleasure in seeing his Son confound his justice with wave upon wave of mercy: “Those three or four words which move forward like a beautiful cutwater fronting a lowly ship. / Cutting the flood of my anger.”

But unless we pray, nothing happens. We need the “little implement,” as Miss Dickinson calls it, “Through which men reach / Where presence is denied them / They fling their speech / By means of it in God’s ear.” And why would he not listen to the importunities of those he loves? Isn’t that how he looks upon the nakedness of human need?

It is the beggar, Luigi Giussani tells us, who is the true protagonist of history. With arms outstretched, he turns trustingly to God.

We mustn’t, therefore, hang fire waiting on the summons. We really are loved by God. He will settle for nothing less than our hearts. Not only must we believe it, we must behave as though it were true.

Who more than Mary is positioned to mediate hope, to impart that holy desire without which we shall never be happy? From its perfect perch in her soul, hope radiates out to all who stand in need of it. “With her ‘yes,’” Pope Benedict reminds us in his moving conclusion to the encyclical letter Spe Salvi, “she opened the door of our world to God himself.” And:

When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see you cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history.

What a perfect thought to accompany us in the holy season of Advent.

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.