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The Habit of Hope

On most weekend afternoons the year I turned seven, you could find me in my room pacing the purple shag rug while a library record spun on my old turntable. That summer, the last track on the b-side of a recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was on heavy rotation. It’s the first time I remember hearing the story of Pandora’s Box, and I was enthralled.

Over and over again I listened while curious Pandora opened the box and bad things escaped. Hunger, madness, despair, violence, greed—shadowy bat-like creatures, spiraling out of the box and surrounding poor Pandora before they flew away. The image haunted my dreams for years. But Pandora closed the box just before everything could escape, trapping the one remaining thing inside. Pandora’s Box was my introduction to the concept of hope, and I was hooked.

At seven, I didn’t know many of the monsters that flew out of Pandora’s box yet, but I knew long silences over dinner when my father chose a can of Budweiser rather than the water or tea my mother offered. I knew a growing tension marked by closed-door “discussions” in the kitchen. I knew it was just my mom and me most nights in our little NJ rancher. And still, it came as a surprise when my dad tucked his long, lean body next to mine where I sat, reading, in his favorite chair—the one he fell asleep in most nights, dog in his lap, T.V. on, empty beer cans on the end table. He said all the right things: he loved me, it wasn’t my fault, they just couldn’t be married anymore. Fear, shame, anxiety, abandonment. The shadows lengthened.

“Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and that’s how I pictured it: a tiny fluttering bird, trapped, delicate, and weak. I had no idea how such a fragile thing could do any kind of battle with darkness, but I desperately wanted it to.

I had no idea how such a fragile thing could do any kind of battle with darkness, but I desperately wanted it to. Dawn Elizabeth Morrow

“The doctor found something; it’s not good.” It was the Monday just after Thanksgiving during my first year of business school and my mom, still groggy from sedation, was calling with the results of her colonoscopy. By the end of the week, we had a diagnosis: stage four colon cancer, already metastasized to her liver and lungs. It would eventually kill her. Sickness, death, loneliness, despair.

Four years later, in early December, I sat on a daybed while she slept in her recliner nearby. White lights from the Christmas tree we’d decorated together lit the room. Day by day, her body was trudging in time with death’s slow march. She slept more and more, her fingers and toes grew cold, her breath hitched. On the morning after the death rattle started, I woke up early and recited the creed I’d known since childhood: I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. I believe in the Holy Spirit…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. For twenty-five mornings, as my mother died in the next room, I had returned to the most basic hope of the gospel. It was the thread holding my days together.

In those early mornings, I found the hope I practiced was fundamentally different from the frail little bird I pictured as a seven-year-old. This hope was strength. This hope was endurance. This hope actively clung to the fringe of faith on the threshold of tragedy. Hope, by its very nature, thrives in the liminal places of life—between the promise and the coming true. It’s the hush before the curtain rises, the space between lightning and thunder, the Sabbath between death and life. It’s the quiet spaces in prayer when we wonder if we’re talking to ourselves. Hope is not fragile. It exists to wrestle with our doubts. Sometimes it’s tattered, with a bloody nose and a black eye, but it always stands back up. Hope is a practice, a repetition, a habit.

Years later I watched, weeping as Notre Dame burned. I’d stood under the rose window the summer before and listened to the bells ring. As the Cathedral’s spire fell, people gathered on the banks of the Seine and they sang: Ave Maria, pray for us. It was the habit of hope, cultivated from liturgy to liturgy, and in their hour of grief, they returned to it.

Practice hope and may you return to it again and again.

Notre Dame in Flames

One April the gargoyles awakened, carved chimera breathing fire, alive for the first time in nine hundred years. They rose, wings outstretched, on plumes of smoke high over the city. For miles around people stopped, craning their necks to see fingers of fire wrap around the cathedral’s spire, and topple it like a child’s block tower

Thousands of miles away, I watch, transfixed by flame-tails trailing across darkening sky, the sunset overshadowed by the orange-red glow of the church as it burned. Not long ago I stood under the rose window, spellbound, bell-song resonating deep in my chest, calling the faithful to prayer.

In Paris, the people press in, held back by police lines and firemen. They watch the glow ebb and flow, as if it breathed, and they sing, as desperate as Orpheus to bring her back: Ave Maria, Pray for us. They raise the song like a knight’s sword at the dragon’s throat.


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