What do we usually mean when we use the word “hope”? Perhaps when theologians say that they’re hoping for something, they mean that they are confident that God will get them that thing, but this is not how the rest of us use that word. Usually, to hope for something means to want it, and not only to want it, but to be emotionally invested in this desire. Let us explore the full meaning of this. Here I will be using a slightly different meaning of hope from that in my previous post, this one having no necessary tie to actions. Even so, we will see that hope can be one of our most painful duties.
For example, it makes sense of me to say that I hope I pass my third year review: I will be happy if I do, unhappy if I don’t, and nervous until I learn which it is to be. On the other hand, I do not really hope that all the members of Congress are going to start reading the Orthosphere today and immediately convert to traditionalism. Sure, it would be great if it happens, but I’m not holding out any hope for it. When it doesn’t happen, I’ll go to bed tonight without being disappointed over it. Stated this way, it may seem that the difference between the two cases is that one is plausible and the other isn’t. In fact, that is not the key difference. The key difference is emotional investment. It would not be contradictory to say that I know that Congress will almost certainly not convert today, but I am emotionally investing in the hope anyway, so that I shall almost certainly go to be devastated with disappointment.
Consider the case of a good and holy parish priest. His one great desire is that all of his parishioners should be saved and enjoy an eternity with God. Then one day God curses him with a private revelation: “Good servant, know this. Every child you baptized over the last year is reprobate. They were all destined from the beginning of time to eternal damnation.” What is the priest’s duty to these children? He is still their spiritual father; he must still try to work for their salvation: offering them the sacraments, teaching them, warning them against temptations, pleading to them to accept Jesus Christ, although he knows it will ultimately avail none of them. The priest can do this dutifully, but as a spiritual father, he is asked also to do something more painful–he must hope for the salvation of these children. He may not emotionally distance himself from them, saying “Since these souls can’t be won, the victory I will really try for is just to do my duty to them. I will do everything a priest could do and then take satisfaction in that. I will try not to love these children too much, so that I don’t suffer too greatly when they fall.” No, he must hope for them, work for their salvation not only dutifully but desperately, and he must allow himself to feel the agony of dashed hope and lost love as one by one each of the children fall into apostasy, sin, and spiritual death.
Or consider the case of a very elderly, or terminally ill, parent or grandparent. Both you and he know the end is near, although no one knows exactly when. It would be stupid and infantile to be holding out optimism for miracle cures or last-second medical breakthroughs. And yet, is there not a sense in which you must hope for his life until the very end? Namely, you must not try to soften the blow of his death by thinking past it, by pre-emptively reconciling yourself to the world without him, while he is still alive. Life after his death remains unimaginable until it is a fact, so that your emotional solidarity can be perfect now.
We are all dying. More than that, our civilization is dying and perhaps our churches too. The mortal blow has been struck. We can realize this, but if we love them, we can still hope for them. It would have been easier for us if we couldn’t.