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Professor Paul Waddell
Paul Wadell

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

- words of M. Louise Haskins (1875-1957), made famous when King George VI included them in his Christmas message at the start of World War II.

January 2007

Every Wednesday morning, the campus community of St. Norbert pauses for an hour, a sacred space in the working week. Those who are so inclined gather in Old St. Joseph Church for a short service of Common Prayer, presented each week by a different individual or group.

One recent Wednesday, Paul Wadell (Religious Studies) spoke on hope, and for his text he took a childhood observation of the poet Robert Louis Stevenson. Growing up in 19th century Scotland, Stevenson delighted in the work of the lamplighter who lit the streetlamps. “Nana! Come quickly,” he is reported to have said to his nurse. “There’s a man coming down the street punching holes in the darkness!”

We share Wadell’s account with you at this dawn of a new year with our hope and fervent wish that 2007 will indeed be a Happy New Year for you, your loved ones and the worldwide community of St. Norbert College.

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Vignettes of Hope

I have had hope on my mind for the last few years. Hope fascinates me.

Hope is an essential virtue for life. It is a kind of energy for life that keeps us moving and gives us strength to deal with the inevitable adversity, hardships, sufferings and losses of life.

But hope also frightens me. We cannot live without it, but it can be easily lost. Isn’t it true that sometimes the darkness is stronger than the light and we have to find ways to “punch holes in the darkness” all over again in order to recover the light?

Hope is a gift and a grace, but it is not a gift we can take for granted. We have to work at hope. We have to work at being hopeful persons and, here at St. Norbert College, we have to work at being a hopeful community.

I believe hope is all around us—I believe there are signs of hope, messages of hope we encounter in our ordinary lives. But we have to learn to see these signs of hope, and so I want to share with you two vignettes of hope, two episodes from ordinary life that gave me hope.

The first came at the ring of the doorbell. It was a Saturday morning last spring. My doorbell seldom rings on Saturday mornings, so I wondered who was there.

When I opened the door there was a young couple standing there, very nicely dressed and wearing bright smiles. The woman was holding a Bible in her hand.

They greeted me and asked if they could share a Bible verse with me. Being a theologian, how could I say no to that?

They read a verse from I Timothy and said they hoped its message would console me throughout the day. The whole exchange hardly took more than a minute, but it did, surprisingly, console me throughout the day.

A few Saturdays later they were back offering another Bible verse and a word of encouragement. And then another Saturday and yet another Saturday.

Eventually I decided to invite them in. Their names were Jake and Bree and they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now Jake comes almost every Saturday morning at precisely 9:45 a.m. He always brings somebody with him—he’s brought his father, he’s brought his wife, his pastor and other members of the church.

We sit at the kitchen table, chat for a few minutes, and then Jake begins with a prayer. We read some passages from the Bible, go through a few lessons from the little book they gave me, and then they leave.

In one way it’s all kind of funny. They know I’m a Catholic theologian with no plans to become a Jehovah’s Witness and, to be honest, the lessons are ridiculously easy. But I’ve come to look forward to their visits.

My wife, Carmella, teases me: “Doesn’t anybody else ever come to visit you?” But to my surprise their visits have become a source of hope.

When he was writing about the virtue of hope, St. Thomas Aquinas said we are much more inclined to be hopeful when we have friends to rely on and, in ways I never expected, Jake and his companions have become friends I rely on.

Aquinas’s point is that we never hope alone, we always hope together. Hope is a kind of partnership. It is not something we can achieve for ourselves but is a gift we give one another.

We supply hope for one another and, in some strange way, this is what my weekly visitors do for me.

They have become for me, in ways I am sure they don’t imagine, companions in hope. They have given me hope, because I’m impressed at all the trouble they go to each week to share with me something they deeply believe and think worth knowing. They have punched holes in the darkness.

The second vignette of hope comes from a movie my wife and I watched a few months ago, a film entitled “Millions.”

It’s the story of a young boy growing up in Britain whose heroes are the saints. He knows the stories of the saints—their dates of birth and death, their exploits—like other kids know sports statistics. And the saints occasionally appear to him.

Early in the film a smoking St. Clare appears to him. The boy is shocked to see Clare smoking but she tells him, “You can do anything you like up there. It’s down here that there are restrictions.”

Later St. Peter makes a visit, then St. Francis of Assisi, and even the Ugandan martyrs.

The heart of the story revolves around quite a bit of money that the boy comes across. In reality the money is from a robbery, but the boy doesn’t know that.

He thinks it’s a miracle. He believes God and the saints have thrown the millions in his path so that he can do good by it. And so he starts giving the money away.

He gives it to his friends and to his classmates. He buys meals for homeless persons. And the movie ends in a fantasy sequence with the boy and his family being projected through the sky to Africa so that he can give the rest of the money to the poor.

The young boy was not himself the light but, as in John 1:7, he sure did testify to the light. He punched holes in the darkness.

The movie is immensely hopeful to me because it makes goodness attractive. It shows the beauty of goodness, the captivating power of goodness, the lure of goodness. But it also shows through the life of this little boy that goodness is the key to life because, without goodness, everything falls apart.

And so we work at hope through goodness. As St. Paul says in Romans 12, we bring hope to life when we hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. We bring hope to life when we love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honor and do our best to live in harmony with each other.

When we do all these things we punch holes in the darkness and give witness to the light.

Hope has to be seen to be believed. It has to be made visible. It has to be something we can feel and touch. It can sound so ordinary, but sometimes I think we supply hope for one another when, like the young boy in the movie “Millions,” we have the courage to do the right thing.

We are called to be persons who embody hope for one another and St. Norbert College is called to be a community that embodies hope. But we have to work at hope and we have to work at it together.

We have to be each other’s partners in hope. We have to supply hope for one another.

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