What is hope? What can we hope for? Can a Christian place his hope in anything other than God?

For many years I have felt drawn to learn what St. Thomas has to teach us about hope, but I had never taken the time to study his writings on this topic. Providentially, as the need for hope became increasingly urgent in the last year, I had the privilege of translating Aquinas’s passages on hope from Book III of his Sentences Commentary, which the Aquinas Institute will be publishing later this year.

Hope is unusual in that it names both an emotion, rooted in the sensitive appetite, which we share with brute animals, and a theological virtue, one of the gifts from God that can get us to heaven. This means that hope can be simultaneously one of the highest activities we can engage in, and one of the lowest. How do I know what kind of hope I’m employing at a given time?

In the Sentences Commentary, Thomas expanded on Peter Lombard’s teaching on hope to underscore this all-important difference. In the Master’s text, Distinction 26 deals only with the theological virtue of hope. Aquinas’s commentary spends half its time on hope as a passion, before addressing it as a theological virtue.

As an emotion, hope is a response to a sensible good. But unlike simple desire (the flagship passion of the concupiscible appetite), hope is specified by stretching toward a future good that is “arduous and difficult”—but not impossible. The arduous and difficult is the realm of the irascible appetite, and that makes hope its principal passion. Moreover, since the sensitive part of the soul is something we share with lower animals, hope is a passion that can also be witnessed among animals:

. . . which is seen in the fact that animals are found to work for the sake of some future good they deem possible. For example, birds make a nest for the sake of raising their young—and they would not do anything for the sake of an end unless they considered that end as possible for them, for there is no natural desire for impossible things. In the same way, it is clear that one animal does not attack another unless from a hope of victory. (In III Sent. D. 26, Q. 1, A. 1)

The sense appetites, whether irascible or concupiscible, respond to goods presented to them by the senses. In the case of future goods, these goods might only be sensed in the imagination. So this is the emotion at work when I hope there will be something good for dinner, or when I hope that the traffic light will stay green until I get there.

The theological virtue of hope, on the other hand, is a virtue that perfects the will, the rational appetite. It is a virtue of the will because it stretches toward a good that reason proposes to it. It is a theological virtue, because the good that reason proposes is God himself. It is called hope because it is still focused on a future good, union with God, which is arduous and difficult, but not impossible.

As distant as the passion and the theological virtue are from each other, they nevertheless possess an affinity that is unique:

The names of the other passions cannot so appropriately be applied to virtues as hope can, because hope is said about an ordering to the good and thus involves a movement of desire toward good; and this has a certain resemblance to the intention and choice of the good that is required for any virtue. (In III Sent. D. 26, Q. 2, A. 1, ad 1)

Despite important and fundamental differences, it’s as if the passion of hope somehow paves the way for this theological virtue. A theological virtue by definition comes as a gift from God, so we wouldn’t say that experiencing this basic passion predisposed a person to hope for eternal life—and yet there’s a definite way that this reaction of the irascible appetite surpasses the sense faculties, foreshadowing what would allow a human being to aim for eternal happiness.

The sheer ambition of this expectation highlights another important aspect of the theological virtue of hope. How can a human being hope for union with God as something attainable?

The will desires both possible and impossible things, and no one acts for something that is impossible to attain, although he may desire it; and for this reason, for the will to begin to act it must tend toward something as possible. And this inclination in the will, tending toward the eternal good as something possible to it by grace, is the act of hope. (In III Sent., D. 26, Q. 2, A. 3, qc. 1, c.)

The theological virtue enables our will to aim for eternal life as something possible. However, it is only possible by God’s help. Here we see another way that God is the object of the virtue of hope–not only is he the good we hope to attain, but he’s the one by whose help we hope to obtain eternal happiness:

Therefore, a person who has hope, hopes to attain God, and hopes to obtain through him all necessities, however difficult, and to repel through him all harms, however difficult. (In III Sent. D. 26, Q. 2, A. 2, ad 2).

The theological virtue of hope looks toward union with God as the goal of life, but it also leans on God’s assistance to attain this goal.

Not only is God hope’s final object, but hope can be generalized to include any other good that can be referred to this last end. This means that I might hope for peace for my homeland or health for my children by the theological virtue of hope—if these goods are for our salvation.

At the same time, hope leans on divine assistance to attain the goal that is union with God. But it can be broadened to include anyone whom God uses as an instrumental cause to bring about our salvation. And this is how we can hope in the saints, and address Our Lady in the Salve Regina as “our hope”.

The reality that the good for whom we long is also the one who will help us reach him is illustrated vividly in Hebrews 6:19-20, which St. Thomas refers to in his treatment of hope in the Summa:

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchiz′edek.

Here we have the “anchor” of our hope—that Christ has paved this path for us. The Cross is the reason that this arduous and difficult good is not impossible for us, as we sing in the old song, “O Crux ave! Spes unica!”—“Hail, Cross, our only hope.”

God, by taking on our animal nature, has transformed this animal impulse to strive for the future into a real pathway to eternal happiness.

Today, St. Thomas’s feast day, brings to mind one more of his lessons on the virtue of hope, from Chapter 10 of the Compendium’s unfinished treatise on hope. Many scholars believe he was working on this text when he died. Under the title, “That it is possible to reach the kingdom,” Thomas begins, “We must go on to show that man can reach that kingdom. Otherwise, it would be hoped for in vain and prayed for in vain” (Compendium, Book II, C. 10). He gives as the first reason for our hope the divine promise, quoting Jesus’s words from Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

“Second,” Aquinas continues, “an evident example shows that attainment of the kingdom is possible.” There, the text abruptly trails off. It may have been the very last sentence that the Angelic Doctor ever wrote. It is as if God took St. Thomas at his words, “We must go on to show that man can reach that kingdom,” and used St. Thomas himself to complete the “evident example.”

In our own striving for the one arduous and difficult good that is the purpose of human life, it is not only St. Thomas’s luminous teaching that can help us, but his even more luminous example. And now we can depend upon his prayers as a friend who has made this journey ahead of us.