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Late Reflections on Charles Peguy's Portal of the Mystery of Hope

Among the three theological virtues, Péguy says, it is hope which surprises God the most. He almost cannot believe it, this ability of man to hope.

Faith is obvious. It is easy. We can easily believe in God because one look at his creation tells us that he is real, true, ever beautiful. We cannot but see God around us “in the universe of [His] creatures,” in “the stars of the firmament and in the fish of the sea,” “in the gaze and in the voice of children,” in “the kingly eagle who flies upon the peaks” and even in “the serpent who tricked the woman.”* “I am so resplendent in my creation,” says God, so visible, so present in the marvel of all that he has made and all that he will make. 

How then can one ever not see God, not have faith in him? “In order to really not see me these poor creatures would have been blind.” You have to close your eyes in order to not have faith in him or lose it. Otherwise he is all there—evident, obvious, unmistakably there. To not have faith then is not natural; it is to close the eyes that were made precisely in order to see him in his creatures. “In order to not believe, you would have to do violence to yourself, frustrate yourself. Harden yourself.”

Charity, too, unfortunately, is not surprising. “These creatures,” says God, “are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone how could they not have love for each other”? It is almost impossible to not love your neighbor because love is natural for man, all the more when you see the plight of your brothers, hear their cries, when they seek your help, look at your face. The little street urchin, the lonely friend who despairs, the man who has no food to eat, the sick man, the dying, the imprisoned, the man driven to insanity—How can I ever not love them? How else but by keeping myself from doing what is so natural, giving charity. How else but by busying myself with only my own affairs, like the little ant “who digs tunnels in the dirt / In the cellars of the earth / For stingily gathering his treasures / His worldly treasure / Pitifully.” I am only able to fail to respond to the call to charity by remaining in self-love; by redirecting the love made to be given to my brothers to myself; by focusing all my strength, intellect, spirit and training them all for my own wealth, success, enjoyment, my own dreams, my own intellectual pursuits and hedonistic ends—in other words, when I love not in the name of charity but of vanity. It is, to be sure, easy to fail to love if all I love is myself. Nevertheless, love is natural. It just so happens that most of us love the wrong object: ourselves or, at most, only those who love us. 

I was created by God in his image, I believe, and my resemblance to him does not lie in looking like him, but perhaps, in doing as he does. Charity is God's third and highest name; God is love and to resemble him does not consist in having infinite power or wisdom, but to imitate him is to love like him, love in the way that he loves his creatures. To therefore not love is to keep myself from being what God made so natural for me to be; from doing what he meant for me to do, which is to give love in the same way that he gave his Son so that his love may be made known to the world, so that we may once again remember how to love, and more so, who to love.

But hope, oh, “that is something that surprises me,” says God, ”and I can't get over it.” As he goes on: “That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better / That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning / That is surprising and by far the greatest marvel of our grace / And I'm surprised by it myself / And my grace must indeed be an incredible force / And must flow freely and like an inexhaustible river.” Hope is surprising because it is able to see what cannot be seen—in the present, even in creation, before me, now. Hope is incredible because it knows what cannot be known as of the moment, for example, that the happiness I do not experience I will enjoy tomorrow; that the suffering I am going through is not the last word; that the plight of my brothers will not end in death and in vain. Hope is almost unthinkable to even God because we don’t have the abilities to possess it in the first place, and much more to sustain it. It's impossible because how can hope know if it has no basis? Faith and love have basis because I only have to look around (the beauty of his works, the face of my brother) to have them. But hope is not evident, has no basis in my surroundings especially when what I see tempts me to despair. Man shouldn't be able to hope—yet he does; it is, to echo Schopenhauer, something which is impossible but real. (And for the Christian, often more real than the real).

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888

Then why can such an impossible act for man become possible and even real? How else but because He gives us the grace necessary to be able to hope. Alone, man lacks strength and fortitude to withstand the vicissitudes of life and overcome his weakness and fears. But right when he seems most absent to us, oh so silent, God then enters the human drama in glory by filling the despairing hearts of men with his grace. It is so much easier to despair, Péguy says, to choose death over life, to surrender, to settle the score by one quick cut, to hate creation. Despair is easy, even natural; but hope is the opposite, it is supernatural. Whence the need for the supernatural God to make it still possible for us to choose light and take flight from the heights of despair.

What man lacks, he fulfills; what he may not have enough strength to accomplish, he supports. What I fear, he encourages me to confront. What, in other words, I am not able to do on my own, he makes possible by not only making me stronger but in making me see that I am not alone. That I am with my brothers and not alone. That I am with Him and never alone. That when I fail, also, I will not be alone. That is why, as Péguy says, we should be able to sleep soundly at night because there is a God who watches over our affairs when we cannot do so because of weariness and finitude. I may only remain steadfast in my faith and unwavering in my love because I believe that all these will not be in vain because my works are not only my works. They are also his own works of love. Done through me, or better, done with me.

Above all, God makes it possible for me to continue to hope in spite of my blindness and ignorance of tomorrow because he already showed his face to me before. I myself felt him, too, in the past, I felt the wind he left as he passed. I heard him, too, and it almost drove me crazy. And he spoke to all of us, breaking the silence, and He promised that he will come back in his full glory. Péguy writes:

My God, I hope, with a firm confidence, that you will give me, by the merits of Jesus Christ, your grace in this world, and, if I observe your commandments, your glory in the next because you are supremely faithful in your promises.   

God is not like Godot. Hope is not waiting in vain for the arrival of a God whose appearance tomorrow depends on whether he feels like coming or not, if he remembers us or not, if he senses it is time, if he sees that we are getting impatient, if he sees that we are already hanging on to the end of the rope. Life is not idling and wasting away the time, letting it pass or which comes to the same letting our lives pass, where everything is held in anxious suspense, in doubt, always nervously asking Is he arriving tomorrow? Or will he arrive at all? The Christian, unlike Estragon and Vladimir, does not have to ask himself every night if he is to hang himself because Godot may never come, or if he is to hold on for another painful day because, who knows, maybe he'll change his mind and come tomorrow. Godot didn't promise anything, unlike the God we believe in. Ultimately, I may have hope in God not only because he promised he will arrive, but more so because I believe that my God never forgets and is supremely faithful in his promises.

in gratitude for a decade of friendship and teaching

Last lecture in Existentialism class STVI
02 March 2012 

* All quotations come from Charles Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (London: Continuum, 2005).


  1. Anonymous4/08/2012

    A Conversation, Perhaps: A response of sorts

    "He almost can not believe it, this ability of man to hope," my teacher reflects on Peguy. He grins. He finds this most fascinating.

    I sit up and listen closely. Certainly, that man hopes -- and that he has to -- is most terrifying. Though that's not what my teacher said. It is the fact that man can, not that he does or has to, but that he can that surprises God.

    Faith is obvious and easy as one simply has to marvel at creation to know that there is a God, he manages to convince himself. I wonder if he talks of the same creation that brings to me disgust, disappointment, and despair. Hope, however, is not as easy, he continues. I lean back again. I don't quite see the difference. After all, what use is a God one can not hope on?

    It's not so much what he says but the glee that his eyes betray as he says them that unsettles me. Love, by all means, is a beautiful thing, but this faith and this hope, I do not understand.

    I have always thought that the demand of faith and the helplessness of hope are the most cruel and terrible impositions God has placed on his human playthings. Why must the origin, the crux, and the destiny of my existence be predicated on mystery? Why can't I just know? I ask myself quietly, afraid of the mocking amusement with which my teacher would approach my angst.

    It is a class on the Philosophy of Man -- What is Man? "Bakit meron, kung pwede namang wala," he asks all the time, summarizing Heidegger or Neitzsche or Padre Ferriols, I forget. I never was a very good student. I never quite knew if we were actually supposed to answer the question. I don't quite know if he actually did.

    I've digressed enough. I allow myself to -- my teacher and all the philosophers do, anyway. To his questions, and to mine, I begin to wager a guess, a guess I hold now and might very well abandon depending on the weather, my temperament, and what I have for breakfast tomorrow.

    I think of the stars and how they shine not to accomplish anything else, but simply because they shine, they accomplish their star-hood. Perhaps, the same is true about man and his hope. And then, I grin. I find this most fascinating.

    The bell rings, and my thoughts are interrupted. My teacher concludes he has hope because he believes that God never forgets his promises. I don't know about that. I cling only to the irrational certainty that I am loved. Yes, something I should not be able to do, something impossible, but real.

    The bell rings again. I pack up my things and run off to my Finance class, where we contemplate more important matters. These are thoughts for another time, and the answers are surprises for another life. I hope.


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