The Journey to Hopeful
“Cindy” felt buried and in the dark when she first came for spiritual direction. She had been divorced two years earlier. Her daughters were estranged and siding with their dad. She had a manufacturing job she hated. And, her friends had stopped calling; “I wouldn’t want to be my friend either,” she quipped.
She walked into my office for the first time with eyes and shoulders that slouched. “I’ve been in therapy for a year, and feel worse than ever. My sister told me to come, but I don’t know why I’m here.”
Hopelessness loomed around Cindy like a dense fog.
She recounted her losses and failures in a monotone. Her prayers and her God had dried up years before.
I invited forward her pain. I mirrored her sense of emptiness and desperation. I told her I would hold her story and her sessions as sacred: “I will walk with you, and hold hope for you, while you are in this time when you feel hopeless.”
I’d like to say that through the course of our next three sessions that I was fabulous, and she was transformed. That’s not what happened. In fact, things got worse.
In session five, she announced in her monotone that she’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Hope gets buried in people’s lives, submerged under resentments, fears, broken relationships, and dreams. A health crisis hits. The car repair drives debt deeper. Hope, that can be fleeting on the best of days, has little chance of flourishing when the strains of life pile on.
But hope can be as tenacious as life can be cruel. Like that underwater beach ball that refuses to be held down, hope is stubborn. And often it uses our greatest struggles as fuel for its emergence.
Hope is one of the instruments played by the Divine. It may be silent for many measures, but those who are listening can begin to hear its unique music woven, and sometimes a crescendo, through the ups and downs of life.
Strange things happened to Cindy as her world fell apart. Surprising thoughts and feelings poked through the hard soil of her life. Numinous visitations came to her during her cancer convalescence. She became bewildered and curious. She talked less. She listened more.
Her daughters started showing up. Something was different. There were hard talks, and tender moments. People from work that she tolerated started acting like friends. Her ex-husband sent flowers. To be sure, her days were often grim, but more and more they included melodies of hope.
I saw Cindy one time after her cancer treatments. She looked like death was already occupying her body. After some brief exchanges, we sat in silence. Her heavy eyes looking off to a place I could never know.
Suddenly, she looked at me, and with intense eyes and voice said: “Pastor, I’ve never felt more alive in my life.”
These were not the words of a woman denying her impending death, but rather celebrating that her journey to hopeful was complete.
Both our eyes filled with tears, tears that spoke more truth than any words we exchanged. The emotions were a kind of music, part of the finale foreshadowing her death four days later.
In the end, I realized that I was not holding hope for Cindy. The truth is that hope was—and is—holding us both.
Scott McRae is a husband and father living in Minneapolis. He is a spiritual director and offers a spiritual direction training program, supervision, and workshops, through Sojourners Institute, which he leads with his wife, Melanie. He is also Director of Spiritual Care and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor (ACPE) at Park Nicollet Health Services. Ordained in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), he has experience in parish and campus ministry, and is a graduate of Yale Divinity School.