He Made the First Move | Hope as the Virtue for the Modern Age (and the End of a Pontificate)

Surely then you may lift up your face in innocence;
You may stand firm and unafraid.
For then you shall forget your misery,
Like water that has ebbed away you shall regard it.
Then your life shall be brighter than the noonday;
Its gloom shall become like the morning,
And you shall be secure, because there is hope;
You shall look round you and lie down in safety.
– Job 11.15-18

In times when do-good social justice efforts are the way we define charity, and the words ‘I believe’ are heard less and less frequently in the context of faith, it becomes necessary to reclaim and cling to the virtue-trilogy of faith, hope, and charity. One way to begin to do this is to reflect on hope as the virtue for the modern age.

There is an unquenchable searching in the human heart which divulges a desire for the infinite. This ‘infinite,’ is infinitely defined. What remains constant, however, is the transcendent searching. Spurred by a desire for the natural goods we enjoy in this life, this search, once purified, aspires towards the supernatural joys of eternity.

Hope fuels this search. Hope stands in contrast to modern disbelief and despair: both the despair of general human experience, known most profoundly in human suffering, and that far more dangerous, and sometimes related despair of the supernatural order which is a refusal to believe in the goodness and mercy of God. Hope is a vertical virtue, in that while often horizontally extended to things and beings of the natural realm, its nature is to transcend this realm into the supernatural one. Admittedly, this is a reductionist summary of some profoundly nuanced truths, but perhaps sufficient for the purposes of present reflections.

We are often told, and rightly, that we are to entrust ourselves to God, to entrust our lives, our hopes, our desires, our doubts and disbelief, our weakness and helplessness. But how would we know to do this if He had not first shown the way? God’s coming into the world, His Incarnational existence, confirms in us that capacity for supernatural hope, and offers us an invitation and the chance for a relational response. Should we accept, what emerges is a desire that is no longer random and unfounded, but one that is directed, that has a purpose and a goal; in its telos it yearns for friendship and for union with Him. This happens at the point when we choose to begin to see our lives through an incarnational lens– that of the human and divine life of Christ.

If confidence is the way to the heart of God, and confidence is the virtue of the childlike, it only makes sense that God would show confidence in humanity first by giving us His Son, as a child. There is a profound opportunity here to understand hope both as virtue, and in its Christological incarnational expression as the Hope of God. Underlying the ‘Come to me…’ desire expressed by Christ, one can argue is a fundamental hope that we would see the hope God first has for us. It is a relational response that is asked of us: our love for His love.

All too often, in the course of human lives so burdened by doubt and disbelief, and modernly by an almost pathological sense of entitlement, or contrarily, of unworthiness, we make our faith dependent on desire and so mask its essential characteristic: that of choice. Choosing to believe is an altogether different and radical proposal for the modern age; it sets desire in its proper place: at the service of the dignity of man, who, confronted with his ‘creatureliness’ realizes he is free, but also dependent on God for his very being. We have conveniently lost this ‘hierarchy of being’ in modernity, and so desire has become paramount, and often stands in the way of the ‘personal’ choice to believe.

Our desires inform and direct our choices on a daily basis: on the temporal plane, we choose our food, our clothing our homes. On the spiritual plane, we have the capacity to choose for or against virtue. Necessarily, desiring the good, and believing it is good, and choosing it, is not always easy. In fact, it can be brutally difficult. Sometimes desire itself needs to be purified; like gold, burned to be recast in new form.

The purification of desire involves a difficult sacrifice: not the sacrifice of what we want and choose to give, in some sanctimonious attempt at growth in virtue, but of what we resist or refuse to give. This is ‘perfect’ sacrifice, for it involves a putting aside of self, in favor of a greater good, a purified love, a greater hope.

The culture we live in rejects sacrifice, and so sacrifices neither its desires nor much else. Fundamentally, we like to get what we want, when we want it and how we want it. What we fail to realize is that in this personalized mode of existence, designed and customized to our own liking, we crush our freedom, and with it our capacity to hope for redemption when even our perfectly customized existence fails to satisfy. The unquenchable desire for the infinite remains, masked under a veil of self-imposed limitation, or crushed entirely, only to manifest itself when this pilgrim journey crosses the threshold of suffering.

Then, desired or not, the sacrifice inherent in suffering must be the friend of that more permanent virtue–the friend of a vertical hope–the purified hope that sees even in brutal pain the infusion of divine love.

Amid the Jobian ruins of modernity hope emerges triumphant, because God made the first move—one independent from us: He entrusted humanity with Himself. Fundamentally, this descent is a reversal of expectations, and it seemingly ends badly. The Crucifixion stands perpetually as a reminder of Godly confidence in humanity meeting human desire gone terribly wrong.

But the story does not end there, for in the paradox of Calvary is the birth of redeemed suffering. The prison of the grave would be opened on a morning in the garden where the stone was found moved. And, as if this were not sufficient, forty days later He took his resurrected body, and ascended where we are meant to go, reuniting our humanity with His divinity once more.

His descent necessarily ends in an ascent.

Often this mystery fails to pass the test of a modernly defiant skepticism, but the test it does surpass is the test of hope. It is for us to choose to believe in spite of seemingly conflicting desires, and if we do, ours is a hope-filled, vertically-bound trajectory. This is why we can say that hope is the necessary virtue for the modern age: because modernity prefers the earthly prison of disbelief to that emancipating spiritual expanse of the free—the joyful ‘prison’ of hopeful expectation.

Return to a fortress,
O prisoners of hope;
This very day, I announce
I am restoring double to you.
-Zechariah 9.12

His love, for our love. As in a modern love story, He had to make the first move.

Returning to that fortress we find that its walls are the arms of Christ, and today the Holy Father took a further step into its hallowed halls.

‘Surely then you may lift up your face in innocence;
You may stand firm and unafraid…
And you shall be secure, because there is hope;
You shall look round you and lie down in safety.’

Hope again triumphs. Thank you, Dear Benedict XVI; may God reward you, His servant. Deo Gratias.
You can reach Maria Grizzetti at incarnationandmodernity@gmail.com