We are not very well equipped to deal with the infinite – our “small durance… with the steep or deep,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it in one of his sonnets. There are times of pure pain in our lives. How does this fit with our reflection on hope? I cannot treat here the theme of suffering in depth, but perhaps it can be integrated into these reflections by understanding suffering as the ‘education’ of our hope, as something that gradually ‘stretches’ our deepest being and equips us for the Infinite. And as something we get through only by leaning on God’s help.
St Thomas says:
For we should hope from him for nothing less than himself, since his goodness, whereby he imparts good things to his creature, is no less than his essence. Therefore the proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness. (II. II. 17.2).
Eternal happiness is the object of hope. It is, therefore, a difficult virtue, inasmuch as it is directed to eternal life rather than this earthly life.
‘Right,’ I say to myself. ‘Hope as a theological virtue is always directed to a good that has not yet been attained. In the theological virtue of hope, I hope for eternal happiness – but I’ve got to die first in order to attain it. That’s part of the problem. And the other part of the difficulty is that the theological virtue of hope places the sufferings of this life in a secondary position, as means to the end – in other words, sufferings are not always meant to be got rid of, for they have a purpose: they stretch our being, and fit it for eternal happiness. They go on for as long as God sees that they need to go on in order to fit us for Him. And that’s why hope is a virtue that must be ‘exercised’ – or worked at.
But, it’s not as grim as all that. Recall, hope is a divine gift, filled with divine life. Therefore, I have intimations of hope’s fulfilment even now, as we saw with the virtue of faith: we have “the beginnings” of eternal life. For instance, St. Thomas, in the one of the above quotations is saying that God gives us himself when we pray to him. He’s not going to give less than that, even though what we ask for is usually less than that. My capacity to recognise Him – especially in times of pain – is limited. But that does not mean that God is failing me. Rather, what comes from Him is always what will lead to a fuller share in His life: to connaturality with him – even now.