What does it mean to have hope? I’ve often found myself asking this question–probably because it’s a word that’s used so often in conversation and everyday life. To most people, hope is simply a feeling of anticipation or longing for some good, like a kid hoping for a particular gift on Christmas. That’s how we use the word most often. And yet there are also times when hope seems to mean a lot more, particularly when it’s difficult to be hopeful because of the suffering we endure and the temptation to despair that arises in suffering. This is the kind of hope that matters to us as Christians, and while it is much more difficult to attain and sustain, only this kind of hope has the power to transform and embolden our oftentimes battered souls.
Hope is not only a virtue, it’s a theological virtue, and as such, a virtue necessary to attain salvation. St. Thomas Aquinas offers insight into this theological virtue in the Second Part of his Summa, stating that “hope makes us tend to God, as to a good to be obtained finally, and as to a helper strong to assist.” Hope is a virtue directly related to the end of man because the “proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness.” Therefore, to be hopeful as Christians means to confidently expect eternal happiness when we reach the end of our pilgrimage. While faith is necessary to attain salvation by putting us into relation with God as the First Truth, hope is also necessary to attain salvation by putting us into relation with God as the final end. Hope is what gives us the courage to travel along the difficult road, because of what it promises, and the trust to devote ourselves to attaining this end despite the suffering we must endure.
This is the hard part – this trusting that our end will be eternal happiness if we devote ourselves to our path, even when the path is so full of hardship. I think one of the reasons this can be so difficult is because in the midst of suffering, this end seems so much further away and we see it much less clearly. Or because we discover that the other things we desire along the way, even when good, don’t always match up with the path God has laid out for us. In these times of trial, it’s especially necessary that we pray for hope and be bold in our prayer, asking God to give us some foretaste of the final end so that we can recommit to our path with hopefulness.
God will answer this prayer, for He wants us to be hopeful and to have glimpses in this life of what He promises in the next. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that “in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end…above all when hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end.” Without any anticipatory knowledge of what the end is promised to be, the pilgrim cannot travel with the same hopeful assurance of a will directed towards its promised end. Even Christ’s disciples needed this anticipatory knowledge of beatitude in order to remain hopeful before Christ suffered His Passion and Death and was Resurrected. At the Transfiguration, Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a mountain apart, and there was transfigured before them, miraculously revealing His divine glory, even before His body had been glorified through the Resurrection. This vision was a foretaste of beatitude and eternal bliss in Heaven and it served to embolden the disciples so that they could remain hopeful through Christ’s Passion and Death and after His Ascension, when they themselves would be persecuted and martyred in His name.
The Mount Tabor vision should serve to embolden us, as well, as it is a prefigurement of that eternal bliss that is the final end for all Christians. Our whole earthly life is an ascent, a pilgrimage towards beatitude; but it is a difficult one that will undoubtedly require the endurance of great suffering. How merciful, then, is the Father who instills in our hearts such tremendous hope to guide us through our suffering? In this way, even suffering becomes joyful because our hope allows us to trust that it will bring us to eternal bliss. Be emboldened by Christ’s Transfiguration and what it promises and pray for an increase in the virtue of hope. It is only by acquiring this virtue that the Christian is able to make the greatest offering of himself to God by dying in a state of total trust in what death will achieve, just as Christ did when He proclaimed at His death, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23: 46).