The Virtue of Hope (or, Thoughts While Shaving)
Is there some mundane everyday event that prompts you toward theological musing? For me, it’s the simple act of looking in the mirror.
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To be perfectly honest, if I’m looking in the mirror, there’s a good chance that I’m shaving, and in that case the thoughts running through my mind are not particularly lofty. (“Did I miss that tricky spot at the corner of my mouth? Ouch! Where is that styptic pencil?”) But then there are times when I take a good look at myself, and what I see worries me.
What I see, naturally, is a two-dimensional image: not a real man, but a reflection. It is an illusion, really, to think that I am looking at myself. The image is not the reality; the man in the mirror has neither body nor soul.
Then I reflect (no pun intended) that in another few moments I shall finish shaving and walk away, and my image will disappear from the surface of the mirror. For that matter, in another few decades, at most, I will disappear from the face of the earth. A hundred years from now, another man might be standing in this same place—possibly even looking in this same mirror. That man will not see my image. He will not know me; chances are he will never have heard of me.
This troubles me. I don’t want to die. But I look again in the mirror and see the face of a man who can do nothing to alter his mortality. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. I want to live forever.
If I keep looking deep into my own eyes, I discover something else that is unsatisfactory: me. I think of all the time I have wasted in this short life, all the opportunities I have squandered, all the good things I have left undone. From there my thoughts turn easily to all the things I have done and now regret. The problem is not only that I have sinned—although that is bad enough—but that I recognize myself as a sinner, repentant but inveterate. I make good resolutions and break them. St. Paul speaks for me, in the reading from today’s Mass:
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [Rom 7: 18-19, 24]
By now you may be thinking that this is a dreary way to start the day, and perhaps I would be a happier man if I let my beard grow out again. But I am not finished with my morning ablutions nor with meditations.
Now I recall that in Spe Salvi Pope Benedict remarked that one cannot fully understand the Christian virtue of hope until one understands the need for hope. You can only begin to long for salvation when you know that you need salvation. I know. I know that I am an inveterate sinner doomed to die.
At this point I splash cold water on my face, I realize that I do have hope for salvation in Jesus Christ. (Funny, isn’t it, that pouring water does the trick—again.) I can overcome my sins. Not by myself, certainly; that guy in the mirror is no help. The sins will still be there, but the Lord can wipe the record clean. Thanks to Him—no thanks to myself—I can live forever!
So now I am ready to face the day, clean-shaven and eager to go, still fully conscious of my own limitations but buoyed by confidence in Him who strengthens me. There’s still so much that I can accomplish. Look out, world! Or as St. Paul put it:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. [Rom 8: 19-21]
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