To be a viator

It is hard to get past the first paragraph of a book by Josef Pieper (1904–97) without one’s head exploding. I was reminded of this last night after reaching for On Hope, a typically small book by this author, of five chapters with less than one hundred pages (Über die Hoffnung, 1977).

Consider the first paragraph:

“Pastoral melodramatics have robbed the reference to man as a ‘pilgrim on this earth’ and to this earthly life as a ‘pilgrimage’ of its original significance and virility as well as its effectiveness. It no longer clearly mirrors the reality it is intended to convey. Its original meaning has been overgrown with a welter of extraneous aesthetic connotations; it has been all but buried under a veil of discordant secondary meanings, the false sentimentality of which actually destroys the joy that contemporary man — above all the younger generation and, perhaps, precisely the best of them — would have experienced in striving toward the reality that is ultimately reflected in the metaphor.”

Notice, first, the plain modest clarity of this language, beautifully captured in the English translation by one of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (Ignatius Press, 1986). Like his countryman Bach, or his master Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pieper gets straight to the point — and yet often from an angle that is not obvious, until it is boldly stated. We cannot understand the Christian, and theological, virtue of Hope, without understanding this concept of the status viatoris: that we are in this world “as pilgrims,” and in this sense through our whole lives on our way to something: to one destination, or the other.

“Rise, let us be on our way” (Mark 14:42) are the words of Christ; the status viatoris means the condition of being on the way. We are going somewhere, and it is God’s revealed intention, in the design of ourselves and the design of the universe, that this destination be Heaven. It is, or can be made, an arduous pilgrimage. Hope is in the completion of our journey; and in subsequent chapters, Pieper expounds the two terrible vices, the Scylla and Charybdis that stand in our way. One is Despair: the fear that we can never reach our proper destination. The other is Presumption: the perversa securitas of Augustine’s teaching — the glib, bourgeois, Pelagian certainty of a happy homecoming, no matter what. Within these vices are many false roads, which Pieper marks so that we may avoid them.

There is no certainty in this world, beyond the certainty of death — not for us. The virtue of Hope is entirely supernatural. It requires, absolutely, supernatural grace, and therefore must be prayed for, with all the earnest of which we are capable. It is in this sense, of a gift for which we pray, perhaps the most mysterious of the three “theological virtues” — of Faith, Hope, and Charity, the most incomprehensible to the worldly and indifferent. “Love” may seem self-evident to them; “good faith” will sound much like a virtue;  but “hope” seems to belong to some other category. Therefore, beyond even faith and love, it requires prayerful puzzling. It is indeed a fit topic for continuous contemplation with one’s whole mind: a serious inquiry into what Hope is, and just what it is that we are hoping. It is the opposite of something that can be taken for granted; it takes us to the core of who we are: of how we are to live and what we are to do.

Pieper’s fifth and concluding chapter is on “The Gift of Fear.” We were made of nothing, we remain for our whole journey proximate to, or on the precipice of, that nothingness. Neither the woolly liberalism nor the rigid stoicism, that see in fear a weakness, can help us in the final trench — as I have seen with my own eyes again and again and again. We are right to fear, and that fear is to be used: Pieper expounds this in a remarkable way.

I have not summarized the book, but danced across the stream on several slippery stones. The book is itself a summary, and for all its clarity, will require several readings to take its riches in, for they are set so close together: a harvest not only of Aquinas, but through and beside him, the works of Augustine, Bonaventure, Chrysostom, Dante, and so forth through the alphabet. The greatest minds in Christendom have applied themselves to interpreting for our advantage the bottomless mystery of our Hope, and Pieper re-assembles this teaching not for some quaint scholarly purpose, but expressly for the benefit of the modern man, whose need for relevant instruction is urgent.

This was incidentally the man who with his wife translated writings by C.S. Lewis into German; who prefaced his extraordinarily learned reader’s guide to Thomas Aquinas with the remark that G.K. Chesterton had done the job better. (I don’t agree with him, but defer to his expertise.) He exhibits the very best of German precision in thought, with none of the pretense of the Teutonic academy: a genuine humility and a regard for the Truth that is both passionate and chaste. He was a giant in the minds of our two great popes of recent memory — Saint John-Paul II and Benedict XVI — and to read him is to escape from the bewildering fog now blowing around them, within which horrible acts of destruction to our beloved Church are once again taking place.

For again, the very meaning of our pilgrimage is being “all but buried under a veil of discordant secondary meanings, the false sentimentality of which actually destroys the joy of contemporary man.”

Think on it.