About a year before he died, Richard John Neuhaus did a small series of videos on vocational discernment and marriage. They present him at his finest and capture well the faith that fueled him in his life, priesthood, and public work, particularly a deep and abiding hope in God. Hope, he liked to say, was not optimism. Optimism is a matter of optics, of whether the world looks rosy or gray. Hope is the forward projection of the faith we have in God.
In the videos, Fr. Neuhaus notes that many young people approach marriage wanting to work it all out before they enter. They have a checklist of characteristics they think are essential in a spouse, and they want to get all the ducks in their own lives in a row before they take the plunge. As much as there is a place for prudence and consideration, however, we cannot live life by a checklist. Rather, Fr. Neuhaus reminds us, we must live in faith-based courage. We must have the courage to look at our own lives, messy and riddled with sin as they are, and commit ourselves to the loving care and providence of God. Courage, Neuhaus says, is the form that faith takes in the midst of anxiety, and we must look our anxiety in the face, make “the great ‘nonetheless,’” and cast off into the deep.
We can do this, Fr. Neuhaus argues, because marriage is God’s project before it’s our project. We do not create it out of whole cloth. Rather it is an institution, “the gift God has given for the right ordering of human loves in abiding fidelity to the gift of life and openness to the gift of new life.” Those who ask themselves whether they are prepared to embark on the adventure the Church proposes should freely admit that they are not prepared for it–but that’s okay, because it is not their problem. They are responding to an invitation to the Lord that requires wise discernment, yes, but that remains the Lord’s invitation.
Invitations require decisions. To decide, Fr. Neuhaus liked to say, comes from the Latin word decidere, to cut off. It means to say yes to something, and in so doing to say no to others. We are frequently afraid to decide because we might make the wrong decision, but we must make that great “nonetheless” nonetheless. After all, he reminds us, there is no mistake so great that we will no longer remain “abidingly in the hands of God.”