The virtue of hope
Our goal must be to possess God in Heaven
The following are excerpts of Chapter 2 from the book entitled "The 12 steps to Holiness and Salvation" from the Works of St. Alphonsus Liguori, which were adapted from the German of Rev. Paul Leick by Rev. Cornelius J. Warren, C.SS.R. The book can be obtained from Tan Book and Publishers, Inc., P.O. Box 424, Rockford, IL 61105 U.S.A.
Hope is a supernatural virtue by which we confidently expect, in virtue of Godís promise, the endless happiness of Heaven and the means necessary for its attainment. To be convinced of the inestimable value of this virtue, and to have a constant incentive for its practice, it will be profitable to consider the objects of our hope, its motives, its qualities, and its effects.
The possession of God in Heaven
The first and foremost object of our hope, the object by excellence, is the possession of God in Heaven. We are not to suppose that the hope of possessing God in Heaven in any way interferes with the virtue of love. They are not opposed; in fact, the hope of eternal happiness is inseparably united with love, for only in Heaven will the completion and perfection of love be found.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, with the idea of friendship is intimately united the mutual sharing of goods, for as friendship is nothing else but a mutual attraction it follows that friends must do as much good to one another as is in their power. Without this mutual sharing of goods, says the Angelic Doctor, there can be no genuine friendship. Our Lord called His disciples His friends because He communicated His mysteries to them: "I have called you friends because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you." (John 15:15).
According to the teaching of St. Thomas, love does not exclude the hope of the reward which God has prepared for us in Heaven; that very reward is the principal object of our love, for it is nothing but God Himself, the vision of whom is the eternal happiness of the elect. "Friendship," says the Angelic Doctor, "requires that a friend be in possession of his friend." This is that mutual communication or surrender of which the spouse in the Canticle speaks when he says: "My beloved is mine and I am his." (Cant. 2:16). In Heaven the soul gives itself entirely to God and God gives Himself entirely to the soul, as far as its capacity and merits will allow.
As long, therefore, as our soul is not perfectly united with God in Heaven, it will never enjoy true peace. Those who love Our Lord sincerely find peace of heart, it is true, in conformity to the will of God; but perfect peace and perfect rest they shall never have here below. This we shall acquire only with the attainment of our last end, the vision of God face to face and His ineffable love. As long as the soul is separated from her last end she shall continue to sigh with the prophet: "Behold in peace is my bitterness most bitter." (Is. 38: 17).
"The good that I hope for," says St. Francis of Assisi, "is so great that every suffering becomes for me a pleasure." All these expressions of ardent longing are so many acts of perfect love. St. Thomas teaches that the highest degree of love that a soul on earth can attain is an ardent desire for Heaven, to be there united to God and to possess Him forever. The greatest suffering that the souls in Purgatory endure proceeds from this longing for the possession of God, and this pain is felt especially by those who in life had but a feeble desire for Heaven. Saint Robert Bellarmine thinks that in Purgatory there is a place where souls endure no pains of sense, but are tortured solely by the loss of the presence of God.
There are three things necessary for the attainment of eternal life: the pardon of our sins, the victory over temptations, and the crown of all graces, a holy death. These three things are accordingly the objects of our hope. .
The pardon of our sins
"Thou hast sinned, O Christian," says St. John Chrysostom, "but dost thou desire forgiveness? Fear not, for Godís desire to grant it is greater than your desire to receive it." If God sees an unfortunate wretch in sin, He waits for a favorable opportunity to show him mercy. At times He reveals to him the punishment he has deserved, to urge him to enter into himself. "Thou hast given a warning to them that fear thee: that they may flee from before the bow." (Ps. 59:6). At times He knocks on the door of the sinnerís heart, hoping that He may open it: "Behold I stand before the gate and knock."í (Apoc. 3:20). Sometimes He goes after the sinner and calls to him like a compassionate father: Why will you be lost? "Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezech. 18:31).
It is doubtless true that we shall have a strict account to render of all the sins we have committed, but who will be our judge? St. John tells us: "Neither doth the Father judge any man, but hath given all judgment to the Son." (John 5:22). It is to our Redeemer, then, that the judgment has been entrusted, and St. Paul encourages us with the words: "Who is he that shall condemn? Christ Jesus that died, yea that is risen also again, who also maketh interecession for us." (Rom. 8:34). We shall be judged by a loving Redeemer who, to save us from eternal death, delivered Himself to death, and not content with that, now acts as our advocate with the Father in Heaven.
St. Chrysostom says that every single wound of Jesus Christ is a mouth that eloquently pleads with God for the forgiveness of our sins. In the revelations of St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi we read that one day God spoke to her in the following words: "Through the revenge I took on the body of My Son, My justice has been changed into clemency. His blood cries not for vengeance, as did the blood of Abel; it asks for mercy, and My justice cannot resist its pleading. The blood of Jesus binds the hands of Justice so that they cannot be raised, as once they were, to punish."
Victory over temptation
Besides the pardon of our sins, we must confidently hope for the victory over our temptations. In order to persevere in well-doing, our confidence must not rest on our good resolutions. When we build on the foundation of our own strength our edifice is sure to fall. To maintain ourselves in the grace of God it is necessary, therefore, to place our hope in the merits of Jesus Christ. With His assistance we shall persevere till death, even though we be assailed by all the powers of earth and Hell.
There may be times when temptations are so violent that sin seems unavoidable. We must be on our guard at such times not to lose courage and give up the struggle. Our only resource is to hasten to Jesus Crucified. He and He alone can sustain us. The Lord permits that from time to time even the saints have such storms to endure. St. Paul says of himself: "We were pressed out of measure above our strength, so that we were weary even of life." (2 Cor. 1:8).
Although, as we have already seen, the power to avoid sin is not from ourselves but from the grace of God, we must at the same time be careful not to render ourselves weaker than we already are. There are certain faults that we consider of no account, and yet they may be the reason why God withdraws His supernatural light, and thus the power of the devil is increased.
Such faults are the desire to be regarded as learned and distinguished by the world; vanity in dress; the seeking for superfluous comforts and luxuries; the habit of showing oneself offended by every unkind word or want of attention; the inordinate desire to please others; the omission of exercises of piety from human respect; disobedience in little things; little aversions that are fostered in the heart; little lies and jokes at the expense of charity; loss of time through idle conversations or a greediness for news; in a word, every attachment for earthly things, and every gratification of self-love may give the enemy an opportunity of accomplishing our destruction. At all events, faults of this kind committed with deliberation deprive us of that assistance of our Lord which would protect us from falling into sin.
A happy death
We hope, finally, for the grace of a happy death. The hour of death is for us the time of greatest anxiety. Jesus Christ alone can give us the strength to suffer, with patience and profit, the trials of this last decisive moment. At the approach of death we have more than ever to fear from the assaults of Hell. The nearer we approach our goal, the more will Hell strive to prevent our reaching it.
St. Eleazar, who had lived a life of great purity, was violently tempted in the hour of death, but he did not lose courage for a moment. To those standing around him he said: "The efforts of Hell at this moment are very great, but by the merits of His suffering, our Saviour takes from them all their power." St. Francis desired that at the hour of his death the Passion of Christ be read to him, and St. Charles Borromeo had pictures representing the suffering Saviour placed on his bed; while gazing at these he gave up his soul to God. Our Lord Jesus wished to suffer death, as St. Paul says, "that through death he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil; and might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude." (Heb. 2:14-15).
Motives for our hope
As to the motives on which our hope should rest, the first we find in the promises made by God. On nearly every page of Holy Scripture we find reasons for hoping in the Lord. We read there that God promises eternal salvation and the means to attain it to those who believe and pray: "All things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive; and they shall come unto you." (Mark 11:24). "Every one that asketh receiveth." (Matt. 7:8).
The second motive of our hope is the sincere desire of Our Lord to make us happy. God loves all His creatures. "Thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which thou hast made." (Wis. 11:25). But every love, says St. Augustine, possesses an active force and cannot remain idle. Consequently, love contains in its very essence the idea of benevolence, and one who loves cannot but do good to the object of his love if it is at all possible for him. "Love," says Aristotle, "endeavors to accomplish what it considers good for the object loved." If, therefore, God loves all men, He must also desire that all men attain eternal happiness, for this is the highest and only good of man since it is the end for which man was created. "You have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end life everlasting." (Rom. 6:22).
As a third and powerful motive for hope in God, we have the merits of Jesus Christ. Long before our Saviour had appeared on earth, the royal Psalmist David placed all his hope in Him: "Into thy hands I commend my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth." (Ps. 30:6). How much more, therefore, ought we to place our confidence in Jesus now that He has come and accomplished the work of our redemption. Full of trust and assurance, we ought to repeat with the royal Psalmist: "íInto Thy hands O Lord, I commend my spirit: Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth." Thou art faithful to Thy promises.
Do not forget, says the Venerable John of Avila, that between the Eternal Father and ourselves there is a Mediator, Jesus Christ, to whom we are united by bonds of love so strong that nothing can ever break them unless we ourselves break them by mortal sin. The blood of Jesus Christ cries for mercy in our behalf, and that cry is so loud that the clamor of our sins cannot be heard. No one is lost, therefore, because satisfaction has not been made for him, but because by the neglect of the Sacraments he fails to share in the satisfaction which Jesus Christ has made. (Because of the neglect of confessing our sins to a Catholic priest in the confessional box.)
The intercession of Mary
A fourth motive for unbounded confidence is the powerful intercession of Mary our Mother. St. Bernard says that we have access to the Eternal Father through His Divine Son, who is a Mediator of justice. But we have access to the Son through His holy Mother, who is the mediatrix of grace and who, by her intercession, has obtained for us what Jesus Christ has merited by His death. "Through thee who hast found grace, may we have access to the Son, O Mother of our Salvation, in order that through thee He may receive us who through thee was given to us." All goods and graces, therefore, that we receive from God come to us through the intercession of Mary. And why is this? St. Bernard replies: "Because God has wished it so."
A further reason of this privilege of Mary, St. Augustine gives us when he says: "Mary can rightly be called our Mother because by her love she contributed towards giving us the life of grace and making us members of the mystic body of Christ." As Mary, therefore, by her love contributed towards the spiritual regeneration of the faithful, God has willed that through her intercession all men shall obtain the life of grace here and the life of glory hereafter. On this account the Church desires us to invoke her as "our life, our sweetness and our hope."
Accordingly, St. Bernard exhorts us to have constant recourse to this divine Mother because her petitions are certainly answered. "Hasten to Mary," he writes, "for I say it without hesitation, the Son will certainly hear the Mother. She is the ladder of safety for poor sinners. She is my greatest assurance; she is the only ground of my hope." He calls Mary a ladder for sinners, for as you cannot mount to the third round before putting the foot on the second, nor to the second before reaching the first, so you can reach God only through Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ only through Mary. The saint calls Mary his greatest assurance and the only ground of his hope, for it is his firm conviction that God desires all graces that He bestows on us to come through the hands of Mary.
The Lord is able and willing to grant us eternal happiness, and what is more He has promised it to all who keep His Commandments; for this end He pledges Himself to grant to all who seek them the graces necessary to fulfill His commands. It is nevertheless true that even Christian hope is not altogether free from a certain fear; but as St. Thomas says: "We have nothing to fear on the part of God, but only from ourselves." It is quite possible that we may fail to cooperate with Godís grace and even place obstacles in its way.
Our cooperation is necessary for the attainment of eternal happiness ó and this cooperation is uncertain. God desires, therefore, that on the one hand we foster a certain anxiety in order that we may not, by trusting to our own strength, be put to confusion; but on the other hand He wishes us to be absolutely certain that it is His will to make us eternally happy and that He will give us all the graces we need if we but ask Him. We should therefore trust with unwavering confidence in His goodness. St. Thomas says: "We must confidently expect eternal happiness from the power and mercy of God, believing firmly that God can make us happy and that He wishes to do so."
Secondly, our hope must be founded on God alone. The Lord forbids us to place our trust in creatures: "Put not your trust in princes." (Ps. 145:2). "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man." (Jer. 17:5). God desires us not to build on creatures because He does not want us to be attached to them with inordinate love. St. Vincent de Paul advises us not to count much on the protection of men, for if we do the Lord will withdraw from us; on the other hand, the more we grow in the love of God the more we will trust in Him. "I have run the way of thy Commandments when thou didst enlarge my heart" (Ps. 118:32), by confidence.
But someone may say: If God alone is our hope, how can the Church address Mary as "Our hope"? Let us listen to what St. Thomas says on this point. We can place our hope in anyone, says the saint, in a twofold manner; we can regard one as the principal and ultimate cause of our hope, or as the secondary and mediate cause. For example, one may hope for a favor from a king and from his minister or favorite. The king would be the principal or ultimate cause from which he hopes, the minister or favorite the mediate or intercessory. If the latter grants the favor, it comes nevertheless from the former, but through the intercession of the latter.
Now as the King of Heaven is Infinite Goodness itself, He desires to enrich us with His graces; but as great confidence on our part is necessary to obtain them, He has, in order to increase our confidence, given us His own Mother as our Mother and mediatrix to assist us. Therefore He wishes us to place our hope of salvation and of all goods and graces in her.
According to the words of the prophet, they who put their trust in creatures are cursed. This passage refers to those who disregard their God and place their hope in the friendship and favor of man. But those who hope in Mary, the Mother of God, who has the power to obtain for them grace and eternal life, will be blessed by God. They give great joy to His loving heart, for He desires to see honored and loved that exalted creature who on earth loved and honored Him more than all men and angels together.
We are right therefore in calling the Blessed Virgin our hope, for by means of her intercession we hope to obtain what we never could obtain by our feeble prayers alone. We beg her for her intercession, says Suarez, in order that the dignity of the intercession may supply what is wanting in us. By invoking Mary with confidence, we manifest no distrust in the mercy of God, but simply fear on account of our own unworthiness. Holy Church is justified therefore in calling Mary "The Mother of holy hope," and by this she wishes to say that Mary awakens in us the hope of the inestimable goods of eternity.
We must cooperate
Thirdly, our hope must be an active hope. In order that our hope may not be in vain it must labor; that is to say, to unbounded confidence in God we must unite the use of the means of salvation and sanctification which the Divine Majesty has given us: otherwise we should belong to those idle souls who tempt the Lord. We must act as if the obtaining of our salvation depended entirely on ourselves, and yet we must place all our confidence in God and be thoroughly convinced that of ourselves we are utterly unable to attain what we desire.
God accomplishes everything by means of His grace, but He nevertheless desires our cooperation. If this cooperation, insignificant though it is, be wanting, God withdraws from us and treats us as indolent servants deserving of naught but to be cast out into exterior darkness. "Wherefore, brethren, labor the more, that by good works, you may make sure your calling and election." (2 Peter 1:10).
But what have we to do? Above all things we must pray. And how long must we pray? Until, says St. John Chrysostom, we hear the favorable sentence that assures us of eternal salvation. And he adds: He who says: "I will not stop praying until I am eternally happy," will certainly be eternally happy. "Know you not," says the Apostle, "that they that run in the race all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain." (I Cor. 9:24). In order to be eternally happy it is not enough, therefore, merely to pray; we must continue to pray until we are in possession of the crown that God has promised us.
If we desire to be happy for all eternity we must imitate David the prophet, who kept his eyes always directed to the Lord in order to implore His help and not be overcome by his enemies: "My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the snare." (Ps. 24:15). The devil is never tired of laying snares for our destruction: "Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour." (l Peter 5:8). Therefore we must keep our weapons ever in our hands to defend ourselves against such an enemy. We must say with the royal Psalmist: "I will pursue my enemies... until they are consumed." (Ps. 17:38).
By means of the assistance we receive through prayer we must endeavor to keep the Commandments of God and do violence to ourselves so as not to yield to the temptations of Hell: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away." (Matt. 11:12). We must do violence to ourselves in temptations by conquering ourselves and mortifying our senses so as not to be overcome by the enemy of our souls.
And when we have been guilty of a fault, says St. Ambrose, let us do violence to the Lord by prayers and tears in order to obtain His forgiveness. To inspire us with courage the saint continues: "O blessed violence that God does not punish with His wrath but receives with mercy and reward! The greater this violence the more pleasing it is to Jesus Christ." He concludes with the following words: "We must rule over ourselves by subduing our evil passions in order to win Heaven which Jesus Christ has merited for us."
St. Alphonsus Liguori