…My three virtues, says God.
The three virtues, my creatures.
My daughters, my children.
Are themselves like my other creatures.
Of the race of men.
Faith is a loyal wife.
Charity is a Mother.
An ardent mother, noble-hearted.
Or an older sister who is like a mother.
Hope is a little girl, nothing at all.
Who came into the world on Christmas day just this past year.
Who is still playing with her snowman.
And yet it is this little girl who will endure worlds.
This little girl, nothing at all.
She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.
She alone will guide the Virtues and World.
One flame will pierce the eternal shadows.
∼ The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue
Only twice in the entire New Testament does Jesus express “amazement” at the behavior of others. And what is especially telling about these two examples is the fact that each stands in complete opposition to the other. The first time is in response to the centurion’s insistence that Jesus need not come into his home to cure his servant, because he, the centurion, doesn’t think himself worthy enough. Just give the order, in other words, and it will happen. On hearing this, we are told, “he [Jesus] was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith’” (Mt 8:10).
The other time, which reveals the strongest possible contrast to the faith shown by the centurion, is when Jesus finds himself in Nazareth, and there is confronted by an appalling absence of faith. “He was amazed because of their unbelief,” we are told in Mark’s Gospel (6:6). Indeed, so thick was this wall of disbelief that Jesus could not breach it, and so he performed no miracles among them.
In telescoping these two examples which appear to cast light upon the issue of faith—whether the amazement it awakens be the result of an absence or presence does not for the moment matter—I wonder if maybe we shouldn’t be looking through the other end of the instrument. Because the real issue here is not faith, but hope, through the lens of which the whole life of faith may be seen. Hope is what stokes the furnace of faith in the first place, without which there is simply no reason to believe.
There is ample biblical warrant for doing so, by the way, beginning with the First Letter of Peter, in which the two terms, while they appear to be almost interchangeable, are yet situated in a sort of pecking order with hope given pride of place. Because in urging us always to be ready “to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (3:15), what Peter is really telling us is that the strength of that hope is precisely the ground on which the whole life of faith depends. It is the anchor that allows us to hold fast to God. And what is the nature of that hope? Is there a key that turns the lock on hope? There is, indeed, and it is nothing less than sheer desperate desire for God, for the help and the healing he promised to those whom he’d come into the world to redeem. Thus the two virtues are set in a sort of symbiotic frame, with faith finding itself squarely within the ambit of hope.
And, then, there is the famous passage from Ephesians, where we are reminded that before the coming of Christ all of us were bereft, “having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). Notice that the text identifies the missing link here as hope, which is what ignites the fire of faith in the first place.
And, finally, there is the text in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 where Paul, adverting to those who have died, at once admonishes the living not to “grieve as others do who have no hope,” inasmuch as the true basis of their belief, the foundation stone on which their life finds its most secure footing, is the fact that Jesus, having risen from the dead himself, will likewise raise all who have fallen asleep in him.
In other words, while faith plainly tells us that we are bound together in the Lord, both living and dead annealed in the One whom we are destined to meet again, unless we are first fired by the hope that all this may be so—that our longing for unending life does in fact drives us forward—the whole exercise becomes pointless. What is the advantage in telling people about a place Christ has gone to prepare for them, that being the targeted aim of faith, if nobody really wants to go there?
Of course, the overarching point that needs to be made—besides, that is, the promised partnership between faith and hope—is that all the virtues stand in symphonic relation to each other. For we dare not leave out love—which is to say, charity—especially as it represents the most perfect and perduring of the three great theological virtues. “In the evening of your life,” St. John of the Cross tells us, “you shall be judged on love.” And yet, once again in deference to Peguy’s “little girl,” do we not dare to hope that the judgments of love will prove gracious? That amid the blazing Pentecostal fire, I hope to find the heart’s most deep desire? So that, inflamed by his Word, my life will thus stand illumined by all I’ve heard?
Yes, I must hear the Word spoken, which is the business of faith to communicate, but first there must be this deep driving need to hear it, this hollowed out space awaiting a Word it could never itself speak. Faith may well be, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta assures us, “the most beautiful gift God can give … to believe that he Is, and that Christ Is…” But unless one is first possessed by the longing to know that the possibility of such good news exists, that in fact it is a truth no greater than which can be imagined—in short, that the whole weight of human eros is ineluctably drawn by a hunger and thirst that only God can assuage—faith is no more than a cold and empty abstraction. I need not only to believe that Jesus speaks his word of salvation to me, but that it is precisely the message I most long to hear. The medieval mystic Mechtilde of Hackeborn surely nailed it when she set down these words spoken to her by God: “I tell you the truth that I am very pleased when men trustingly expect great things from me.”
Isn’t this what characterizes the centurion? The distinguishing mark that so completely sets him apart from all the rest, that indeed so moved Jesus, the Son of God, that he is amazed to see it? The centurion is looking for something he does not have, a gift he could never himself give. Thus stirred into action by a desire deeper than anything he knows, he will, with bold and childlike confidence, approach the living throne of God to ask for this truly great thing. A pagan, no less, who, incredibly, expects something far in excess of what he deserves! Why wouldn’t this fill Jesus with joy? What else is happening in Jerusalem to make his day? Here is this simple soldier, a paid agent no less of an occupying power bent on conquest and oppression, showing such simple and guileless trust in the power and goodness of God that Jesus can find no example among the Chosen People to compare him with. Amazing.
Convicted by a witness so unexpected, from whose unbaptized lips testimony is given to the boundless mercy of God, why shouldn’t the rest of us—the baptized, for heaven sake!—expect still greater things when, asked to say each day at holy Mass, “Lord I am not worthy, but only say the word…” we boldly step forward to experience the amazement of God?
“The Christian people see only the two older sisters,” laments Peguy in his incomparable poem, The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue:
And they hardly ever see the one in the middle.
The little one, the one who’s still going to school.
And who walks.
Lost in her sisters’ skirts.
And they willingly believe that it’s the two older ones who drag the
youngest along by the hand.
In the middle.
To make her walk this rocky path of salvation.
They are blind who cannot see otherwise.
That it’s she in the middle who leads her older sisters along.
And that without her they wouldn’t be anything.
But two women already grown old.
Two elderly women.
Wrinkled by life.
May the joy of hope, and the amazement evoked in God by its exercise, keep us all wrinkle free.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Christ and the Centurion” was painted by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1575.