The music of hope


22 Nov 2021

Hope is not wishful thinking, it a commitment to work to make things better.

In August 2012, that wonderful religious writer and speaker, Father Daniel O’Leary, wrote in The Tablet: ‘Something in all of us wants to dance when courage taps us on the shoulder, when the chains of fear and the baggage of false guilt fall from our shoulders. We want to dance when we feel a passion for the possible, when we hear the music of hope . . . The time to dance is now.’

It takes courage and faith to hope. It is not some vague wishful thinking. Indeed, hope is like dancing with a limp, to use writer Anne Lamott’s phrase. Hope and optimism are definitely not the same. Hope is an active virtue; optimism is passive. Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better. Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, highlighted this contrast very well: ‘Hope . . . is different from optimism. It is a state of the soul rather than a response to the evidence. It is not the expectation that things will turn out successfully but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out.’ (Quoted in Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001)

Father Gerard Timoner, Master General of the Dominicans, has said helpfully that ‘hope is the radical refusal to put limits on what God can do for us.’ In similar terms Pope Francis has told us that Jesus administers ‘a therapy of hope’.

‘We have all had difficult moments in life, dark moments in which we walked in sadness, pensive, without horizons, with only a wall before us. And Jesus is always beside us to give us hope, to warm our hearts and to say: “Go ahead, I am with you. Go ahead”.’

In recent days, as part of celebrating the story this year of Xavier College’s Kostka Hall campus, I have been interviewing some of its illustrious graduates. One such interviewee was James Massola, a widely experienced journalist and author both here and overseas. I had read his book The Great Cave Rescue about the rescue of a boys’  soccer team and its coach from northern Thailand’s Tham Luang cave in June 2018. It was an event that captured the heart-felt attention of people across the world. That team of elite cave divers, who successfully rescued every one of the young soccer players and their coach in the most challenging of circumstances over a period of some 18 days, demonstrated an abundance of hope. It is a matter of some pride that two leaders of that courageous rescue team were Australians Craig Challen and Dr Richard Harris.

In the first half of 1986 I taught for a term at St Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of their centenary celebrations. The head of the school’s strong theology department, Jim Skerl, was an alumnus of the school, and we became firm friends. Indeed, he spent a year with me in 1990 at Xavier College in a teacher exchange scheme and won the respect and affection of the school community. We maintained our friendship over the years, and I was fortunate to be able to visit him several times in Cleveland – a highlight being the celebration of the Eucharist at his home and a barbecue to follow for the theology faculty and their families. In August 2012 I stayed with Jim and his wife Kym after attending a Jesuit school conference in Boston, and when saying goodbye to him at the airport, I became emotional in sensing that I might not see him again.

As time passed, Jim wrote to me a year later to say that he had contracted pancreatic cancer and was receiving treatment. It was a shock to hear that someone so athletic and robust in health should be afflicted with such a virulent disease. Nonetheless, he recovered from surgery and did not miss a teaching class during the next 12 months.

In August 2014, about two months before he died, Jim wrote to me with a small gift but with a strong message of hope. ‘My beautiful wife, Kym, and I want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your friendship and support this past year (and more). The most recent chapter in our lives has been (and remains to be) a journey of faith that has proven to be best undertaken with others. As good as medicine can be for the body, prayer has been even more healing for our souls.

‘As a token of our deep appreciation, we would like to share with you the enclosed wristband. Because of your faithful support the past 18 months, Trust & Hope have permeated our lives. In addition, we have been greatly consoled by the words in the Book of Joshua: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, For I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go.” (1:9) If you feel up to wearing the wristband, know that its purple hue is the symbolic colour of pancreatic cancer research. Yet, we know that a wristband may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If this is true for you, we do ask another favour of you – that you share this small, silicone bracelet with someone handicapped, sick, in need, or young, who might be strengthened by its simple message. Please share with her or him a story of Trust & Hope that will help the wristband take on a holy presence.’

It is nearly seven years since Jim Skerl passed away and the wristband has never left my wrist. Not only does it help relive with gratitude a fond friendship, but it keeps playing for me the music of hope.

In the words of Pope Francis, it is a constant reminder of ‘the therapy of hope.’

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021/22 edition of Madonna magazine.

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