An Insight on Hope from St. Augustine

The word “hope” in modern English has lost much of the vigor assigned to what we call the theological virtue of Hope. In English hope often means merely a vague wish, as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” But the theological virtue of Hope (which I capitalize to distinguish it from worldly hope) is more vigorously defined as the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal salvation. Notice therefore it is no mere wish, it is a confident expectation based on God’s promises and love for us.

A reading from St. Augustine in the Breviary this week is rather well known and summons us to humility about our sins. But I want to briefly consider a subtlety in the text regarding hope. St. Augustine writes:

Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent (rude) in asking to be spared. (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)

Notice how he says, “But men are hopeless creatures…” Clearly, he speaks in a general sort of way, for not all people are hopeless. But consider his insight here in terms of how we defined Hope above. Too many people do not have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining unto salvation and the holiness that precedes it. And hence, we tend to settle into a mediocrity at best and despair at worst. Thus, having little sense we can be free from our sins, especially our more serious ones, we seek to avoid thinking of them. This of course leads to the other behaviors St. Augustine describes above such as being more interested in the sins of others than our own, becoming the critic and so forth. We belittle others as a strange way of feeling better about ourselves.  We think, “At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!” But we forget that being better than so-and-so is not the standard, being like Jesus is the standard. And this is why we need a lot of humility and Hope.

Consider then the role of Hope. If I have a vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation then I can humbly admit that I am a sinner and turn to him for help; I can confidently engage the battle against sin. And this Hope prevails even if one perceives that the battle to overcome some very habitual sins may be a lengthy battle marked with setbacks, for Hope summons us to engage the battle with confidence of God’s help and love. In this way Hope interacts with fortitude. Fortitude is more than courage, it is the virtue whereby one is persevering despite obstacles, opposition and setbacks.

Therefore, note the subtlety in St. Augustine’s description of the gossipy and hypercritical world of hopeless people.  He teaches us of the great need for the vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help that we call Hope.   Hope (and humility) help us to stay in our own lane and work our own stuff and will not disappoint if we persevere in the battle for holiness.

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