The Virtue of Hope - Talk 2: CatholicCare Reflection Day

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In this second talk I would like to explore one virtue in particular: it is the virtue of Hope.

In a staff conference two and a half years ago, the virtue of hope was identified as central to the values of CatholicCare staff.

We notice that in Seligman’s list it is listed among the final list – under what he calls the virtue of transcendence.

In contemporary society the recognition of the importance of the virtue of hope is increasingly significant. We are aware of the rise of depression - or loss of hope - as a serious issue in our society. I am sure that you confront the issue of loss of hope regularly in your clinical situations.

Why is hope so important for human flourishing?

• We know that hope inspires positive action. When there is no hope, people give up.
• Hope provides motivation. When there is hope people are prepared to try.
• Hope nurtures courage. Often when faced with seeming unsurmountable challenges a person without hope just cannot bring themselves to tackle the issues.
• Hope encourages engagement with challenges and to not simply give up.

Psychologists like Snyder (1994) see the importance of hope in assisting people setting realistic goals to overcome difficulties and then being confirmed by achieving them.

I am sure that one of the key elements to your counselling or guidance of people is to employ hope-enhancing techniques. You know that without hope a person is destined to stay locked in their problems.

However, in the end hope is more than just a positive motivation. Indeed, there is such a thing as false or an unrealistic hope. A person can suffer from a delusion of one kind or another and set unrealistic goals, for example, the person suffering from anorexia who is trying to become beautiful by losing more and more weight.

Source of hope

What is the ultimate source of our hope? In the end, hope involves our sense of meaning and purpose to life. Indeed, hope entails our understanding of the value of our existence.

Why would we want to do better if there is no final value in the good? Even good people can become subject to cynicism when they have no higher vision of the worth and value of human life. Hope is vital; drawing us out of ourselves and seeing the worth of the struggle for something better. We are naturally drawn to seek happy endings and to see the triumph of good over evil, of life over death, of the flourishing of the human person.

This is where it is worth considering that Seligman puts hope under the virtue of transcendence.

• Transcendence suggests that there is a greater why to human existence. Transcendence suggests that the purpose of human life cannot be contained within the limits of the here and now.
• Transcendence suggests there is a greater perspective to how we understand ourselves and the meaning of our own existence.

Pope Benedict wrote a beautiful reflection on hope in a document entitled Spes Salvi. The title is interesting: it translates as “saved by hope”. There is a profound insight just in that thought. We are saved because we have found hope.

The Pope addresses the nature of hope by asking the key question: Can one have hope if one abandons belief in God? If the universe is seen as a random reality, if human life is just part of a evolutionary process, if the human person is just a moment in history and then gone, how can there be hope?  He says this:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer have the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.

He asks an important question: where is the source of our hope? What can engender and sustain hope? He argues that knowing a good God who is love personified gives meaning and value and purpose to human life.

He wrote in another place: “Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars to indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives.” Not just those who are living, but also those who have gone before us. They don’t just set a good example for us that greatness is possible, they remind us that there is life after death.

He presents that truth that in the end our hope is in eternal life.

To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover. That’s not easy, but the basic Yes, the conviction that God has created men, that he stands behind them, that they aren’t simply negative, gives love a reference point that enables it to ground hope on the basis of faith.

Our material existence left to itself lacks the capacity to finally offer full meaning and purpose to us. The injustices, the suffering, the denial of true opportunity can foster cynicism or a desire to abandon the pursuit of the good and settle for self-satisfaction.

When we believe in a good God, when we believe in eternal life, when we believe in a final judgement when all will be made right, then we find that we can always live in hope.  We can go through life with the knowledge that all will be well in the end.

In the Scriptures the anchor is a symbol of hope. In the Letter to the Hebrews it is expressed thus: “We have this anchor a hope for the soul, firm and secure.” (Her 6:19) Anchors stabilise the ship and gives it a steady mooring. The ship can sustain storms and wild weather when it is firmly anchored. It is not subject to the elements and swept to destruction.

The virtue of hope is a vital one for those involved in counselling and assisting those struggling with life’s pain and injustices. Having a deep hope in our own souls enables us to communicate hope to those that we are seeking to help.

I would like to propose now that we spend a little time in groups exploring the importance of the virtue of hope.

Small group discussion

1. How do you see hope as being important in your work?
2. What are some of the characteristics of the virtue of hope?
3. What are the obstacles to practicing hope?
4. Identify an exemplar of hope and describe their qualities.

Archbishop Julian Porteous