Do you reach for your phone or turn on a TV or read a newspaper and find yourself feeling “overwhelmed, outmatched, even desperate”? Father Philip Bochanski, a priest of Philadelphia and executive director of Courage International offers a bit of a respite from everything we’re bombarded by in a new book The Virtue of Hope: How Confidence in God Can Lead You to Heaven. It’s instructional — catechetical — and inspiring, including profiles in courage from well-known names like Saint Augustine and lesser knowns like Caryll Houselander.
The book is in part a rallying cry to baptized Catholics and other Christians. He writes:
We know, as a matter of theology, as a matter of faith, that we have been granted the theological virtue of hope as an unmerited gift by virtue of our having been baptized. We’ve got it. Whether we understand it, whether we are practicing it, exercising it, developing it, or not, are different questions. What is obvious is that it is extremely difficult to live in the modern world with any semblance of serenity — perhaps even difficult to live here with any great degree of sanity — unless we learn to use well the theological virtue of hope which has been entrusted to us.
Living hope is something the world sure could use us to do. Father Bochanski reflects a little on the virtue and the call to take up this virtue with a new boldness, this virtue that “gives us the strength to preserve without losing heart” in an interview.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is hope the greatest challenge of our time?
Father Philip Bochanski: It certainly feels like that sometimes. I’m not sure if the world is actually more violent or more unjust than it’s been in past generations, but the ubiquity of news outlets, social media, and “screens” brings even distant turmoil into our homes on a nearly constant basis. This creates not only fear, but a general pessimism that doubts if things could ever get better. Add this to the relativistic, practically atheist atmosphere of modern secular society, and you have a perfect storm: It’s worse than ever; we can’t possibly fix it; and there’s no one else to help.
Lopez: So many people seem so devoid of hope — I’m thinking of what people are sometimes referring to as suicide contagion. But as you write about, turn on the news, look at your phone — or look at your bills, assess all of what you’re facing on a given day, perhaps — everything can seem so overwhelming.
You write about how “the object of our hope is something that is supposed to be demanding, is supposed to be fearful or tough or difficult to obtain” as “startling to some, refreshing and freeing to others.” How can it be a game changer to see things in this way?
Father Bochanski: It’s natural to get frustrated with the difficulties of life, but two things make this frustration worse. One is the feeling of isolation: I must be the only one going through such difficulty, the only one who can’t get it together and handle things. Another is the idea that I ought to be able to figure it out and do it on my own. The first attitude is fostered by our curated, airbrushed, “everything is awesome” social-media culture, and the second by our hyper-evaluative, “what have you done for me lately” economic culture. St. Thomas’s insight that hope allows us to do something which is “demanding but possible” relieves this double burden. I’m not a terrible, helpless person because I’m struggling in this way and can’t figure it out on my own. It’s difficult because God is calling me to something supernatural — it goes beyond my natural abilities — and he never intended for me to do it on my own. Hope allows a person to trust in and to accept the guidance and help that God is offering so that one can do his will.
Lopez: Why does God make it be this way? Isn’t that one of the biggest questions and obstacles for faith? Why suffering? Why won’t God help us here more?
Father Bochanski: The question of why a good God permits evil and suffering is as old as humanity, and there’s no simple answer to it. In fact, it seems that different reasons apply in different moments. At times, God permits a trial in order to show us what we’re really capable of accomplishing when we cooperate with him. This was St. Paul’s experience. At other times, he permits a struggle or a suffering so that he may teach us and others about his goodness and power when he rescues us from it. Jesus says that the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus, were both to give God glory, but of course they followed suffering for those involved. It often seems that God cannot simply whisk away our suffering because of the way it is connected with the intricacies of the human heart and human relationships. Were he to simply take away a desire or force a change of mind or action, he would be violating our free will, and thus contradicting his own will that includes our freedom. But hope reminds us that, whatever the cause of his apparent silence or inaction, God is in fact always helping us in the way that is best for us, and that God is never far from those who need his help to bear suffering well.
Lopez: How should the Christian be thinking about virtues as a practical matter of daily life?
Father Bochanski: The best way to consider virtues, I think, is in the context of relationships, particularly one’s relationship with God. The theological virtues are the foundation; they answer the question, “If I were really going to be a friend of God, what would I need to make that possible?” The ability to believe in someone, to trust him, and to receive love from him are part of every human relationship. If these are missing from our relationship with God, then the doctrine of theological virtues reminds us where to find them again: in the sacraments, in prayer, in an earnest request that God will stir up in our hearts what we need to love him.
The cardinal virtues (and all the human virtues) take this one step further: “If I really believed in, hoped in, and loved God, how would I show it to him and to others?” And so our relationship with God — in which he takes the initiative by infusing the theological virtues — starts to change the way we act in relationships with others, as we become more just, more prudent, more temperate, more courageous.
Lopez: How essential is humility to hope? Do we have to grow in humility to more fully have hope?
Father Bochanski: Hope is premised on the notion that I am not self-sufficient, that there are things that I cannot ever do completely on my own, and that I ought to look trustingly to God for help. So, humility is absolutely essential — prideful people who are the center of their own universe delude themselves that they have no need to look anywhere else for guidance or assistance, and thus no reason to hope. Hope is the way to true humility, as we learn to trust ourselves less precisely because we are learning to trust God more, and learning that we can trust God infinitely.
Lopez: Is there a step one when it comes to hope? Besides being baptized and really letting that be our reality?
Father Bochanski: I think we really begin to appreciate our need for hope — and thus to live it, as opposed to just thinking about it — when we have come to understand the notion of vocation, that we are called to some supernatural commitment to a way of life that will make us saints. This requires a definitive choice to follow God’s plan completely, to be “all in,” and this will surely provoke a look at what we have to rely on in terms of natural abilities. If that’s an honest assessment, we next come face-to-face with our own weaknesses and limitations, and then follows a second choice. Will I despair of my limits, try to do it on my own, or look somewhere higher for help? When we’ve made this definitive choice — not just to follow God, but to rely on him completely and in every moment — then we begin to live the virtue of hope.
Lopez: You write about a woman named Caryll Houselander. Why couldn’t you have done this book without her?
Father Bochanski: For a couple of reasons. First, Caryll Houselander provides a poignant example of someone who courageously muddled through the vicissitudes of daily life in a rather ordinary way — her daily work, a small circle of friends, a simple but steady plan of prayer and devotion — and yet experienced the extraordinary dangers of the Blitz. Her life thus provides a model for how acting hopefully in small matters prepares a person to brave the worst and hold on to hope. She also writes very honestly about her experience with some of the poignant challenges facing modern people: loneliness, anxiety, and depression, heavy burdens on her time, exhaustion, and more. Her exercise of hope is very relatable to the reader and applicable to his or her own challenges. Finally, since my seminary days, Caryll Houselander has been a real guide and inspiration for me, and has shaped much of my own approach to spirituality and pastoral care. To the extent that this book comes out of my own life and experience, it has been shaped in many ways by my contact with Caryll’s writings.