What Benedict XVI Taught Us About the Virtue of Hope
Had the ‘Letter on Christian Hope’ been the only thing Benedict XVI wrote after nine years of being pope, it would have been worth it.
The question of eternal life, which has haunted humanity from the beginning, lies at the heart of a short encyclical letter issued by Pope Benedict XVI on the last day of November in the year 2007. On what basis, he asks, may we enter with confidence into the joys of eternal life?
Spe Salvi appeared on the Feast of St. Andrew, first of the apostles to open the door of hope, in the third year of a pontificate destined to prove heartbreakingly brief. Not unlike the letter itself, in fact, which was less than 60 pages. No one could have known this at the time. How often, after all, do popes resign? The last time around was about six centuries ago.
But here, taking the long view, is what I think: Had the Letter on Christian Hope been the only thing Benedict wrote after nine years of being pope, it was worth it.
Because, for all the other wonderful things that he did leave us, which would take an accountant to keep track of, this was perhaps the most moving — indeed, the richest and deepest meditation of all. Certainly, it was the most relevant, for who doesn’t want to know the outcome of his own life? If humankind is on a journey back to God, don’t we all want to arrive safely? Maybe not as soon, say, as this very moment, but, let’s face it, when the Old Guy finally does show up with the summons, can there really be a single sentient being on the planet who would not want to go home to Heaven?
“There are moments,” Benedict tells us early on, “when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true ‘life’ is — this is what it should look like.” Yes, but then it happens. It always does. Straightaway, as it were, the sensation falls away, leaving us with nothing more than fleeting intimations of something we do not have. Memories as wispy as a distant cloud, or a receding fog. Something so tantalizingly close, yet at the same time so exasperatingly elusive that we cannot reach out and actually touch it. Why can’t we lay hold of the loveliness of which we have sometimes been given a glimpse? How unfair it all seems. That, as the poet Eliot puts it in Four Quartets, “only hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses,” come our way.
It is because we want so much more. “And what the dead had no speech for, when living,” he tells us,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Yes, but how does any of that help us right now, set down in a world where eternity will never show up? Being dead, what difference does it make to us earthlings how “tongued with fire” their communication is? We want more than mere echoes and whispers. We want God to take hold of us, to show himself to us.
St. Augustine wrestled mightily with the question, which is why Benedict wants to shoehorn him into the conversation. He says that Augustine, in answering a question about prayer put to him by a wealthy Roman widow named Proba, reminds her that what we all want at the end of the day, is really the same thing, which he calls “the blessed life.” There is nothing other than that to fuel the soul in its drive toward ultimacy. “But then,” writes Benedict in commenting on his reply, “Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like.
We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. ‘We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,’ he says, quoting St. Paul (Rom 8:26). All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist. ‘There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak,’ he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this ‘true life’; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.
There is the key text, the salient discovery on which everything turns. Augustine has surely nailed it. This unknown ‘thing’ that is the driving impulse behind every desire, the firing pin of all that Augustine and Proba and ourselves finally hope for, is simply another name for eternal life. And in giving it expression, Benedict achieves a level of eloquence that can only be compared to poetry — lyric poetry of such beauty and intensity as to leave the reader breathless. In Spe Salvi 12, he writes:
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John's Gospel: ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (16:22).
This is how we are to think of Christian hope, which is the hope of being someday with God, basking forever in the company of his angels and saints — with those we have loved and left behind, too, who are waiting for us on the other side of death. They have been waiting for Benedict, too, who has long wanted to go home. May it please God to welcome him into his arms forever.