I read something interesting about the virtue of faith recently, and I wonder if it couldn’t apply to all the virtues. The author was distinguishing between faith and belief, and he wrote that faith doesn’t really have an object; that would be belief. When we’re speaking of the virtue of faith, he says you don’t really have faith in something; you just have faith. You can have belief in something, a belief that can either be rational or religious, but faith is more or less an energy, and in our tradition we think of it as infused, it is given to us by God, a sort of power. I was wondering if we couldn’t say that about love too: at first the virtue of love or charity is just a blind force for the good, for creativity. It’s only later that we can choose to what and to whom we can attach our love so that it has an object. This makes sense of Augustine’s notion of sin being disordered love, as in loving popularity more than integrity, or loving possessions more than relationships.
But what I was really thinking about in regards to today’s gospel was the virtue of hope. I’ve spoken about this before, how it’s instructive to remember that the virtue of hope is not wishing for something––“I hope the Cubs win the World Series!” Hope too at its inception is kind of this objectless energy. As Vaclev Havel wrote, Hope is “a dimension of the soul... an orientation of the spirit.” Hope is what propels us forward not just for survival, but for growth and the evolution of our consciousness.
One of the reasons that I am thinking of that is because I heard one commentator say that our current president-elect “gave a certain group of people hope.” But I think that’s wrong; only God can give us hope. It may have looked as if that candidate could fulfill their wishes for what they wanted the country to be like, but only God gives us hope. Our current president wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope, but neither can he give hope. Only God can give hope. It is up to us however to decide for what and to whom we turn that hope into a wish––and we also have to be careful for what we wish for, who we attach that hope to. Our aim might not be high enough.
And the other aspect of hope I am recalling is that phrase also from Vaclev Havel, that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless how it turns out.” Hope is “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” So Paul’s admonition actually ends with this line: Do not grow weary of doing what is right (2 Thes 3:13). We should never get tired of doing the right thing, whether it looks like it’s gonna work out or not. That’s the energy of hope.
We can safely guess that when Jesus is saying these things in the gospel today (Lk 21:5-19) he is starting to expect his own death. So it’s all the more powerful then to hear him say, to hear him have this hope, this conviction, this belief based on his faith that ‘By your perseverance you will secure your lives.’ ‘They may seize and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, lead you before governors and kings… You will be handed over by your own family and friends… ‘By your perseverance you will secure your lives.’ That doesn’t all sound very hopeful in the way that we think of hope, like things are going to work out, but it does sound like the virtue of hope, the energy and a strength to persevere, in spite of all and that by that perseverance we will save our lives.
I was thinking of a couple of examples of this hope and perseverance in spite of the fact that it doesn’t seem like it’s gonna work out. In the spiritual life itself, sometimes it seems as it I keep going over the same stuff over and over again, running up against the same internal roadblocks and landmines; sometimes it seems like I’m getting nowhere. It is difficult sometimes to hold to the promise that we don’t have to be successful, that we only need to be faithful. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the mercy of God is drawing me to its womb. But I know that it’s by perseverance I will save my life. As we sing when we make our monastic vows, Do not disappoint me of my hope! I was remembering our late Fr. Romuald yesterday, when he was out at beautiful Epiphany Monastery in New Hampshire, how even when he was the only one there, which happened a few times, he would still get up each morning and go down each evening and sing the entire Lauds and Vespers. It didn’t matter if there was someone there to support him or if anyone was going to see him or if anyone would ever come and live with him: he knew that that was what he was supposed to do. It’s a worry sometimes for us; what if no young guys come and join us? What if we age out? I try to remind myself that I didn’t become a monk because I thought it was going to be successful and popular. I became a monk because I wanted to be a monk! And by perseverance we will save our lives.
I was thinking of some other current examples that are facing Christians in this day and age, more social. For example, we are not really supported in our defense of life on either side of the political aisle. It’s the same argument over and over again: we’re always having to choose between abortion and all the other pro-life issues. Three states upheld capital punishment, while another state ratified doctor-assisted suicide. And yet, as hard as it is, we have to hold that tension, the seemingly un-reconcilable sides, and be the prophetic voice for the seamless garment, all of life from the womb to the tomb. I don’t have a lot of optimism but, as Cornell West says, I’m a prisoner of hope. We can never weary of doing the right thing.
Believe me, I am sick of hearing myself talk about this, but global warming climate change was never mentioned during the presidential debates this year by either candidate, and our current ruling party is loudly touting the fact that they are going to undo the small steps we’ve made toward better stewardship of the planet. And yet we have the lead of the Holy Father and so, as insignificant as it seems, I’m going keep recycling my plastic milk bottles and other single use disposable items, and printing on used paper, and watching how and what I consume––and that’s only entry level environmental stewardship!––because my hope, my energy tells me that by perseverance in doing what I think is right that I will save my live. I still have to do it; it’s the right thing to do.
This is a big one: It’s easy to say you are a pacifist when there is no one in your face shouting at you. It’s easy to say you want to be a peacemaker when you don’t see any injustice going on around you. On the other hand I actually often find it very difficult, whether it’s the fiery Sicilian blood or the hot Irish temper. (On the Sicilian side perseverance means whoever can shout the loudest and longest wins; on the Irish side perseverance is more like a passive-aggressive game of chicken, whoever can hold out the longest in a steely silence.) At a micro/local level I find it very hard to act consistently in the way that St. Paul is always urging us––to be kind, let your gentleness be known to all––let alone Jesus telling us that the meek shall inherit the earth! But then on a grander level, there was a pastor in Raleigh, Virginia who recounted these incidents in the first days after the election: a home in Noe Valley flying a Nazi flag where kids walk by to get to school; a white middle school student who told a black classmate it was time now for him to get “back in place”; a gay New York City man getting on a bus being told that he should “Enjoy the concentration camps, you [expletive deleted]!”; the NYU Muslim Students Association finding the name of our president-elect scrawled on the door of their prayer room; parents of minority children this week picking up their kids early from schools across the country because they were afraid. The first headline I read this morning: “New York college dorms where three Jewish women live vandalized with swastikas as hate crimes sweep the country.” That stuff makes my blood boil! On the other side I know a lot of people who are fiercely angry right now, burning political figures in effigy, one guy who said he wishes he could punch a certain senator right in the face, and others already threatening a rebellion. It feels very wimpy to be a reconciler right now––and I am certainly not at this point going to tell any of the above people that they should play nice and work for unity for the good of the country. But there is still no way around that beatitude: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God, at a micro and macro level. ‘By our perseverance in that we will secure our lives.’
Our highest common denominator as Catholics after the gospels themselves is the teaching of the Church, plus the words and examples of our leaders. Fortunately we have a great model in Pope Francis right now. With so much xenophobia and discussion about refugees and immigrants, and so much fear of the other (perhaps justifiable fear!) going around in many developed countries around the globe, including our own, it was heartening to read that Pope Francis spoke on Saturday about how Christians should welcome others “without classifying them on the basis of social condition, language, race, culture, religion.” “Mercy is that way of acting, that style,” he said, “with which we try to include others in our life, avoiding closing up into ourselves and into our selfish securities.” And Thursday evening Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, the former Opus Dei bishop who is no liberal firebrand, led an interfaith prayer service at the cathedral there. In his comments he stressed the importance of unity between religions and even went so far as to reassure immigrants, even those who were in the country illegally, that the church would continue supporting them no matter what. This is not going to be a popular viewpoint in this day and age, even among our co-religionists, but ‘By our perseverance we will secure our lives.’
There is a good chance that each and every one of us is going to be called to stand up and give our testimony in the days ahead. We might even get pilloried by our families, friends and benefactors, and hated in the name of our faith. We have to “avoiding closing up into ourselves and into our selfish securities.” We have to decide what the object of our faith is going to be, the object of our love, the object of our hope––and make sure that it’s the gospel of Jesus. Even more importantly, we have to build a world of justice and peace in our own little village, in our own families, whether we say anything or not. And it will only be by perseverance that we will secure our lives. Let’s pray that, strengthened by the Word and the Sacrament, we never grow weary of doing what is right.