By Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
St. Paul seems to have defined the triad we know today as the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. No Jewish source before him brings those three words together, and the pre-Christian pagans do not speak of them as interrelated virtues.
The most famous passage featuring the trio is the conclusion of Paul’s glorious ode to agape, the Greek word for patient, kind, humble, and self-sacrificial love: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So, faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13). For Paul, faith and hope are expressions of trust and longing for something not yet fully attained; they will not be necessary after we cross the threshold of death. Only love continues to animate the souls united to God eternally in heaven.
Before writing 1 Corinthians, however, Paul arranged a differing ordering of the virtues in 1 Thessalonians, likely the first New Testament letter that he wrote. He places hope last, giving it a certain pride of place, on two occasions: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3); “But since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Some scholars speculate that Paul was expecting the imminent return of Jesus and therefore accented hope as the essential virtue for the Thessalonians; he would be highlighting love for the Corinthians as he ponders how to understand the seeming delay in Jesus’ second coming.
We need not worry whether the scholars are right about this. Since we are still awaiting patiently the Lord’s definitive coming in glory, and since we have reached the season of waning daylight portending the cold wintry months, a brief reflection on this trio is fitting.
St. Paul gives us yet another inspired passage in which he outlines how these supernatural gifts of grace compel us to desire our ultimate end in Christ: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5).
Paul links afflictions, endurance, and proven character with hope, and we usually connect hope to patience, resilience, and perseverance — concepts denoting the long and perilous trek through life. But Charles Péguy, a brilliant French poet killed too young in the opening days of the First World War, emphasizes another dimension of hope that bears celebrating. In his poem, “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope,” Péguy pictures Hope as a child, the younger sister of Faith and Love. This “little girl Hope” delights in dancing and running; she assumes that you see the world through her own exuberant, innocent, and radiant eyes; she “is always playing.”
In another poem, “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents,” Péguy explains why hope has a certain primacy over her sisters Faith and Love: “Faith is a church, a cathedral rooted in the soil of France. / Charity is a hospital, an alms-house which gathers up the wretchedness of the world. / But without hope it would be nothing but a cemetery.”
Hope, in other words, is the virtue that we need to make us young in the truly spiritual sense: to be aware of the bursting gift of life even in the midst of suffering and death; to trust that our Father loves us and smiles upon our weak efforts to love Him; to sleep in the assurance that a joyful dawn awaits us, tomorrow and forever.
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.