Disciplines of Hope: Foundations for troubled times

Sherry Weddell

Over the past two months, I have had numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances around North America about the war in Iraq and our responsibility as Catholic Christians. Catholic public forums such as magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs have been filled with heated debate over the exact content of the historic “Just War Theory” and the moral responsibility of Christians in the current situation. A number of my friends believed that regime change through military means was a clear moral duty. Others were just as certain that it was unjustified aggression. Some were deeply conflicted and unable to come to any firm conclusion.

For lay Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching that we have been anointed by Christ to be secular apostles—to evangelize and renew the temporal order—it has been especially difficult. As laity, we can and should receive guidance in principles from the Holy Father and our bishops, but no one can take from us our ultimate responsibility for governance in this area. The complex and ambiguous arenas of war and peace, diplomacy and government, terrorism and security are ultimately a lay responsibility.

In Colorado Springs, where thousands of local parishioners, family members, and friends were sent to Iraq (some of whom have died), the war is directly and personally challenging to the whole community. But all American lay men and women bear some responsibility for governance—whether they vote or hold public office, whether they are soldiers or diplomats, or whether they help shape public opinion as scholars, teachers, or journalists.

I do not intend to add to the national debate with this article, but I do want to focus upon a spiritual reality that many of us, caught up in the tension of the moment, seem to have forgotten. While grappling with such grave choices and their inevitable and often unforeseeable consequences, we must not lose sight of our hope of eternal life and ultimate happiness in Christ. In the midst of our cares, the Church insists that “through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ…the lay faithful…express patiently and courageously in the contradictions of the present age their hope of future glory even through the framework of their secular life” (Christifideles Laici, 14).

Hope is part of the trinity of theological virtues praised by St. Paul (1 Cor 13:13). These mysterious graces enable us to successfully complete our journey through time to beatitude. In general, “a virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself....The virtuous person…pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803). Simply put, virtues are habits of goodness.

Christian tradition has long distinguished between the “cardinal” or human virtues, such as prudence and justice, and the “theological” or supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. Human virtues are habits of goodness that we can develop by deliberate acts, discipline, and perseverance. For example, the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance help us navigate the complexities of temporal life with wisdom, generosity, courage, and grace. The supernatural virtues—faith, hope, and love—enable our nature to “entirely surpass what we can be of ourselves” and thereby participate in God’s own life (CCC, 1803). Infused by God into the soul, they aim directly at supernatural happiness in God. Nevertheless, they do not grow in a vacuum but rather build upon the foundation of human virtues, which are purified and elevated by grace.

The supernatural virtue of hope speaks most directly to our need as men and women “on the way”. Hope empowers our desire for God’s kingdom and eternal life as our happiness, to root our longing in Christ’s promises, and to depend upon the grace of the Holy Spirit. In Christian understanding, a denial of hope is a denial of the truth and the power of the redemption. Our faith proclaims that the power of the redemption prevails over any human tyranny, sin, or suffering. The complete self-offering of Christ has untied the knot of sin and its consequences for all human beings and for our whole world. Deep involvement in human community and work is the way to holiness for secular apostles—we cannot take the path of withdrawing from the world. But immersed in the particular pain and darkness of our own life and time, it is very easy to lose track of our eternal hope.

How then can we, as lay Christians, nourish and sustain our confidence in the ultimate triumph of Christ and his redemption in our lives and our world? We take the time to cultivate the disciplines of hope. We can lay the foundation for growth in supernatural hope by the disciplined development of two human virtues: magnanimity and humility. Josef Pieper writes that “magnanimity and humility are the most essential prerequisites for the preservation and unfolding of supernatural hope—insofar as it depends on man. Together they represent the most complete preparedness of the natural man.…The culpable loss of supernatural hope has its roots in two principal sources: lack of magnanimity and lack of humility” (Faith, Hope, and Love, p. 102–03).

Magnanimity is the aspiration of the spirit to great things. St. Thomas Aquinas called it the “jewel of all the virtues” because the magnanimous person has the courage to seek out what is great and become worthy of it. Magnanimity is rooted in assurance of the highest possibilities of our God-given human nature.

When I first encountered the idea that “aspiring to greatness” was a Christian virtue, I had difficulty taking it in. Aren’t Christians supposed to be humble and to avoid trying to be something special, to minimize and even belittle our abilities and achievements, to avoid ambition, and to prefer anonymity? Even the idea of having charisms distresses some Catholics. Believing that God might do something really important and supernatural through them somehow seems to lack humility. One 84-year-old Scot told me in his lilting brogue, “I couldn’t have charisms; it wouldn’t be humble!”

To allay such fears, we can recognize that humility is magnanimity’s necessary partner, the attitude before God that recognizes and fully accepts our creaturehood and the immeasurable distance between the Creator and his creation. But neither does humility stand alone: without magnanimity, we don’t see the whole of our dignity as human beings. Magnanimity and humility together enable us to keep our balance, to arrive at our proper worth before God, to persist in living our secular mission, and to persevere in seeking our eternal destiny despite apparent frustration and failure.

I would like to share with you five spiritual disciplines that I have found most helpful in nurturing hope.

1. Root yourself in the Church’s teaching about the transforming power of the virtues through study and prayer.

In addition to Sacred Scripture, the Catechism, or the writings of Pope John Paul II, great contemporary Christian authors have written about the virtues. In this area, an indispensable guide is Josef Pieper, a wonderful lay Thomist philosopher. Several years ago, I hosted a dozen adults in studying Pieper’s remarkable book, Faith, Hope, and Love. I was astonished to see introverted computer geeks moved to tears by the Church’s teaching on the virtues. Also, Pieper’s classic work, The Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), is the perfect companion book.

Those of you who have attended a Called & Gifted Workshop may have already heard me talk about C. S. Lewis’s magnificent text, The Weight of Glory. Preached as a sermon at Oxford in June 1941 in the midst of World War II’s tragedy, The Weight of Glory contains some of the most moving meditations on Christian hope ever penned. Over the years, I have read it so often that I have almost memorized it. Lewis’ words have been a continually bracing and encouraging reminder of the eternal issues at stake in my daily decisions.

2. At the end of each day, release the fruit of your work to God and turn your attention back to the present moment.

In my early days of teaching, I would find myself reliving a workshop for days trying to determine if I had been a “success” or a “failure”. Today, whether the event seemed to go well or poorly, my discipline at the end is the same: after the last person has left, I prayerfully release the whole event and all that transpired into the hands of God, asking that He make it fruitful for his purposes. I then resolutely turn my attention to the next thing in front of me. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that God’s “ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.”

If a presentation was unusually energizing or especially difficult for me, I may have to release it several times. But, with time, this discipline has become easier and helps keep me grounded in the present moment where, as Lewis notes, “all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell.” Besides short-circuiting endless navel-gazing and my need to control, letting go is an act of intentional faith and humility: it reminds me that all eternal fruitfulness comes from God.

3. Immerse yourself in natural beauty regularly.

For many of us, natural beauty is a school of hope. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins observes in “God’s Grandeur” that “…nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Long walks through gardens or fields at dawn are an essential source of personal and spiritual nourishment for me. The freshness of a wildflower field or the dazzling gold of autumn aspen can awaken not only gratitude for what surrounds us but hope for the eternal and even greater beauty for which God has created us. Lewis remarks:

“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in” (The Weight of Glory).

4. Create something.

Whether it’s baking a loaf of bread, tending a garden, or bringing a new life into the world, striving to make something new and beautiful places us squarely in the divine mysteries of creation and redemption. Much discouragement stems from the apparent insolubility of so many secular dilemmas with which we wrestle. Part of the artist’s vocation is to remind us that many of these unsolvable problems can still serve as a medium for some new creation—something to serve as an instrument through which the Holy Spirit transforms our earthly situation in totally unanticipated ways.

One of the most fascinating characteristics of the saints is their originality. They routinely see and respond to realities seemingly invisible to the conventional minds of their time and place. When we seek to create something new, we are developing habits of mind that nurture magnanimity and prepare us to cooperate with supernatural grace. As A. D. Lindsay wrote in his essay “The Two Moralities”:

“The difference between ordinary people and saints is not that saints fulfill the plain duties that ordinary men neglect. The things saints do have not usually occurred to ordinary people at all…Gracious conduct is somehow like the work of an artist. It needs imagination and spontaneity. It is not a choice between presented alternatives but the creation of something new.”

5. Seek out, rejoice in, and share with others the veiled or obscured signs of God’s grace at work.

God’s grace is at work in ways that often remain obscure or unrecognizable. Grace-filled events are not often covered by CNN. Only prayerful minds and hearts filled with hope can identify such signs and recognize their significance. In the course of doing gifts interviews, we routinely hear amazing stories of God’s grace at work in the lives of lay Catholics. These same people, however, have often never told their experience to anyone before. But humility notwithstanding, we have a prophetic responsibility for spreading the word about the wonderful work of God that is occurring in our generation.

Nurturing a capacity for hope can be a real battle. Some of us struggle with deeply ingrained habits of mind so adverse to hope that we come to expect and will “discern” inevitable defeat in the midst of any victory. Sorrow and suffering have distorted our perception of reality. We may recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday—“we believe in the resurrection of the dead”—but our hearts remain firmly convinced that futility, not resurrection, is the real end for which we are destined.

I know from personal experience that the healing of such habits of despair and the wounds that fuel them can be a long and difficult process. Your way may be very different from mine. The disciplines of hope that are most healing for you may be different from the ones that have brought peace and restoration to my life. But none of us will experience the healing for which we long without actively embracing ways of grace that nourish our confidence in Christ and the power of his redemption.

A friend of mine is fond of quoting Ignatius of Loyola’s typical response to difficult circumstances: “Courage and energy!” Disciplines of hope restore our courage and renew our energy. They bring back our balance and refresh our hope in God’s mercy and omnipotence. They help us put events in perspective and clear our mind of crippling anxiety. They help us grow in magnanimity, humility, and hope. They equip us for the most critical work of secular apostles: judging complex real life situations and discerning where the good is to be found in the midst of darkness and confusion.

Hope resolutely holds that in Christ, our identity lies not in our sin or woundedness, and that our destiny is not determined by our past. Without hope, we will never acquire the eyes of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, eyes able to see Christ and his works of grace in the people and events of this world even when hidden behind a “distressing disguise”. Without hope, we will find it impossible to accept the supernatural confidence of Venerable John Henry Newman when he asserts that “God knows what is my greatest happiness and he means to give it to me.” Without hope, we will turn away in disbelief when our Lord assures us that the purpose of our earthly discipleship is that “your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Secular apostles are called to have the Easter song of hope filling our hearts even as we are immersed in the reality of a very broken world: “Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!”(from the “Exultet”, Easter Vigil).