You may have read Rick Page's best selling book, Hope Is Not a Strategy. This book offers six key pieces of advice for closing complex, high tech deals. Judging by the book's popularity, many people have found his advice useful. But there is one thing about the book that is hard for a Christian to live with. And that is Page's mistaken identification of hope with wishful thinking, or striving for good luck without a plan.
As we celebrate the joyous feast of Christmas and greet the dawning of a New Year, you and I are called to be a people of hope. But to be a people of hope we have to understand what hope really is. It has nothing to do with fuzzy predictions that conditions will no doubt improve or that, somehow, next year, "our troubles will be out of sight." Hope is not that feeling we get when we buy a lottery ticket. Christian hope is much more realistic, much more hard-nosed.
So what is hope? And what is the object of hope?
According to the teachings of the Church, hope is both a gift and a virtue. The seeds of hope were planted in us at Baptism and grow as we are evangelized, systematically instructed in the truths of the Catholic faith, and nourished by the Sacraments. As we open our hearts to the message of the Gospel as it comes to us through the Church, and as we share in all that Christ did to save us by partaking of the Sacraments, the hope planted in us in Baptism helps us to "live in this passing world with our hearts set on the world that is to come" (Preface for Lent II).
As a theological virtue, hope pertains to our relationship to God. It enables us to focus not merely on our short-term goals but on our ultimate destiny, and on the unseen and eternal realities toward which, like it or not, we are headed.
We know and accept those unseen and eternal realities by faith. Faith is the theological virtue that enables us to believe in all that God has revealed about Himself and all that the Lord has done to bring about our salvation. Sunday after Sunday, we, as a people of faith, profess the faith of the Church.
When we say "we believe," we are affirming that the teaching of the Church is true - that God exists, that He sent His Son, and that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we share in what the Lord did to save us. We affirm that Christ founded the Church to continue His saving work and that, in and through the Church, we are called to a unity of faith and love. We are called to a distinctive way of life that gives witness to God's love and glory.
We should not see our faith as a collection of interesting ideas and opinions, but rather as the primary window to truth - to eternal truth. We don't see faith as weaker than reason, but stronger - it is faith that illuminates reason.
Nor do we profess an unreasonable faith. Rather, there are all kinds of indications from reason that our faith is both true and coherent. It sheds light on every aspect of our human existence. It enables us to see the hand of God in the events of our lives and the eternal significance of our temporal decisions.
So when Elizabeth says of her cousin, Mary, "Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord's words to her would be fulfilled," she is not saying, 'You're blessed because your trust in God is shielding you from reality." She is telling Mary that she is blest because she trusted in the promises made by the One who cannot deceive or be deceived. And when Saint Paul urges us "to set our hearts on the higher realms where Christ is seated at God's right hand," he is not leading us down the garden path to hope in an unreal world. Faith affirms that God and His promises are real and true. Faith affirms that Christ really has conquered sin and death by His death and resurrection. Hope enables us to trust that we shall actually share in the salvation which Christ won for us.
But here's the rub. The world beyond - the world of inexpressible unity and joy known as the Kingdom of Heaven - is beyond our imagining. We tend to be earth-bound creatures who have grown relatively comfortable in this imperfect world. In our more candid moments, we also recognize that we have a long way to go before we have fulfilled what Jesus has asked of us: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." As a result, the realities that lie beyond tend to be unsettling, even frightening.
Once a priest in England asked a parishioner, "What do you suppose will happen to you when you die?"
The parishioner answered, "I suppose I shall experience an eternity of bliss, but just now I'd rather not discuss such an unpleasant topic!"
We can't really imagine what it will be like to see the Trinity face-to-face, or to be in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, or the saints. God has a habit of exceeding our expectations, and we have a habit of doubting that He will make good on what He promised us.
As a result, some simply try to forget about what lies beyond this life - and feel that, with any luck, it will be almost as pleasant as life in this world. Others chide the Church for doggedly pointing to life beyond, and tell us instead that the Church should put all her eggs in the basket of this world - to affirm the secular world all around us and say little about the world that is to come.
Still others presume only the best sort of afterlife, but are unwilling to take seriously the fact that each of us will be judged by Christ. Christ has won salvation for us, but He will not force us to accept it!
The feast of Christmas reminds us anew that the Lord has come in search of us, and that He wants nothing more than to enable us to accept and return His love. The New Year provides a grace-filled opportunity for a new start. These are not the easiest days for the Church and for our world. And hope is not a strategy that magically makes our troubles go away. Hope is the virtue that enables us to take up the Cross of Christ each day and to follow in His footsteps, confident that the way of the Cross leads us to wisdom and love in this life and eternal bliss in the life to come.
It turns out that hope is a strategy - the only viable strategy for keeping our fleeting lives anchored in eternal reality, and for experiencing life and joy long after every earthly deal has been closed.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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