When there is no hope – when people cannot picture a desired end to their struggles – they lose the motivation to endure. As professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University, I’ve studied positive psychology, forgiveness, wellness and the science of hope for more than 40 years. My website offers free resources and tools to help its readers live a more hopeful life.
What is hope?
First, hope is not Pollyannaish optimism – the assumption that a positive outcome is inevitable. Instead, hope is a motivation to persevere toward a goal or end state, even if we’re skeptical that a positive outcome is likely. Psychologists tell us hope involves activity, a can-do attitude and a belief that we have a pathway to our desired outcome. Hope is the willpower to change and the way-power to bring about that change.
With teens and with young or middle-aged adults, hope is a bit easier. But for older adults, it’s a bit harder. Aging often means running up against obstacles that appear unyielding – like recurring health or financial or family issues that just don’t seem to go away. Hope for older adults has to be “sticky,” persevering, a “mature hope.”
How to build hope
Now the good news: this study, from Harvard’s “Human Flourishing Program,” recently published. Researchers examined the impact of hope on nearly 13,000 people with an average age of 66. They found those with more hope throughout their lives had better physical health, better health behaviors, better social support and a longer life. Hope also led to fewer chronic health problems, less depression, less anxiety and a lower risk of cancer.
So if maintaining hope in the long run is so good for us, how do we increase it? Or build hope if it’s MIA? Here are my four suggestions:
Attend a motivational speech – or watch, read or listen to one online, through YouTube, a blog or podcast. That increases hope, although usually the fix is short-lived. How can you build longer-term hope?
Engage with a religious or spiritual community. This has worked for millennia. Amidst a community of like believers, people have drawn strength, found peace and experienced the elevation of the human spirit, just by knowing there is something or someone much larger than them.
Forgive. Participating in a forgiveness group, or completing a forgiveness do-it-yourself workbook, builds hope, say scientists. It also reduces depression and anxiety, and increases (perhaps this is obvious) your capacity to forgive. That’s true even with long-held grudges. I’ve personally found that successfully forgiving someone provides a sense of both the willpower and way-power to change.
Choose a “hero of hope.” Some have changed history: Nelson Mandela endured 27 years of imprisonment yet persevered to build a new nation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought hope to millions for a decade during the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan brought hope to a world that seemed forever mired in the Cold War. From his fourth State of the Union address: “Tonight, I’ve spoken of great plans and great dreams. They’re dreams we can make come true. Two hundred years of American history should have taught us that nothing is impossible.”
Hope gets you unstuck
Hope changes systems that seem stuck. Katherine Johnson, the black mathematician whose critical role in the early days of NASA and the space race was featured in the movie “Hidden Figures,” recently died at age 101. The movie (and the book on which it was based) brought to light her persistence against a system that seemed forever stuck. Bryan Stevenson, who directs the Equal Justice Initiative, and the subject of the movie “Just Mercy,” has successfully fought to help those wrongly convicted or incompetently defended to get off death row.
Stevenson laments that he could not help everyone who needed it; he concluded that he lived in a broken system, and that, in fact, he too was a broken man. Yet he constantly reminded himself of what he had told everyone he tried to help: “Each of us,” he said, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Hope changes all of us. By regaining his hope, Bryan Stevenson’s example inspires us.
Regardless of how hard we try, we cannot eliminate threats to hope. Bad stuff happens. But there are the endpoints of persistent hope: We become healthier and our relationships are happier. We can bring about that hope by buoying our willpower, bolstering our persistence, finding pathways to our goals and dreams, and looking for heroes of hope. And just perhaps, one day, we too can be such a hero.
We have been privileged to live in a generation that has mastered the art of multitasking, being able to do multiple things at the same time and excelling. You really have to, otherwise, life will pass you by.
Sometimes the news changes so fast that if you wait too long, you are outdated. Have you ever been in a situation where you did not check your phone all day, and by the time you turned it on, it seemed as though you were on a different planet because so much had happened? That is the gift of living in a world of possibilities. Everything is possible and anything can happen. The sky is the limit.
Limitation presents itself in a very cunning way in our lives. For some, it begins at a young age through criticism from a parent or guardian, a teacher or peers that begin to conform your mind to think a certain way.
Or, it could be the environment that you are first exposed to. Unfortunately, depending on the zip code that you reside in, it can determine the kind of privileges that are afforded to you.
Limitation can enter your life through rejection, a lack of acceptance, where you never fit in and regardless of how kind you try to be, or all the things you try to do, you just never measure up. Therefore, you feel limited, constrained, suffocated and blocked.
Limitation could be geographical. The opportunities that could bring a breakthrough in your life may not be at the proximity of where you are currently located. Moving out of that geographical region would be coming out of that box of limitation and pursuing something that could change your life.
The mistakes that we make are stepping into these boxes of limitation that are presented to us daily in our lives and getting comfortable. We take our pity party pillow, and our “poor old me” throws, find a nice corner to hibernate, and hope that Jesus will come down and rescue us from our misery.
I love the Bible because it is a wonderful and precious book filled with verbs. God is all about movement, action, and purpose.
In the book of Genesis, our first encounter with God, is His interaction with an earth that was void and filled with darkness. That did not intimidate Him or make Him cower back. Instead, His Spirit “moved” upon the face of the waters.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Your life may be filled with void and darkness, but guess what God wants you to do? MOVE!
I created an acronym for the word MOVE to push me during those times that I sense limitation is looming over me, trying to push me down a dungeon of hopelessness.
Sometimes you have to look at life as a classroom that you show up to master and excel in every lesson presented. By the time we get to verse 31 in Genesis 1, God had taken the earth that was void and made it to be very good. You have to take your void situation, be motivated by purpose and create the environment that makes it very good.
31 And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Instead of throwing a glamorous pity party and sending out beautiful invitations to host limitation in your life, I suggest:
1. Returning the limitation box back to the sender
Just the way you return mail that is not yours, you do not have to receive projections of limitations that are said to you, thrown at you, or even perceived by you from others. You have the power to control what you receive. Learn how to reject that which will limit your progress. Let it “talk to the hand!”
2. Follow God’s role model
The first thing that God did was move. He was not concerned about how things looked, He got busy creating. He got busy with purpose. Instead of complaining about what is wrong and how unfair life may be (which may be true), get busy moving into purpose and finding out why you are here. Passivity is a hobby that many take up, waiting for a change that may never come. You are the agent that triggers the change you are praying for.
3. Believe in yourself
There comes a point of decision and reckoning that you are unique. You have to begin investing in self-affirmation ministry to yourself and build up the confidence muscles that may be feeble in you. You may have to cry sometimes and that is okay, but after crying let there be purpose in your tears. The greatest gift that you can give yourself is to refuse to be limited and live a life that is open to receive all that God has for you.
Help me with the daily struggle of limitation that overwhelms me. If I have limited myself and allowed sabotage in my life, or refuse to step on the platforms that You bring to me, forgive me. I give myself permission to succeed. I look to You for confidence, and I receive the boldness to walk into purpose and the liberty of being myself. That is a gift, a precious gift that I ask You to help me guard. The gift of being me. Thank You God for making me, me.
I’ve always wanted to do a homeschooling podcast with my son. We’ve talked about it so many times — what we’d talk about, how long it would be, yadda, yadda, yadda. We even purchased the equipment together, but I keep putting it off. “I’ll do it after I do this. It won’t work unless I do that. We need to plan for this.” Then I listened to a podcast by Dr. Neichelle Guidry called Modern Faith. In that podcast, she said, “What are the dreams of your heart? What are the ideas that you’ve had that you’ve said it’s too big for me? What are the things that are so big that you’ve talked yourself out of it? Unearth that thing.” She had my attention. But my mind immediately started moving to action when I heard her say, “I’m trusting in God to give me everything I need to walk this path of manifesting my goals, dreams, and ideas. I’m not sitting on them any longer— whether it’s a new mind, or a new heart, or new habits.” I’m recording my first podcast this week.
Dr. Guidry’s voice is soothing, soft-spoken, and powerful at the same time. She speaks authentically about the world around her and inspiring and motivating millennial women of color to lead and get out of their comfort zones. Though honestly, her messages will resonate with any generation. Dr. Guidry is currently the Dean of the Chapel and Director of the WISDOM Center at Spelman College. She is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University (2007, BA) and Yale Divinity School (2010, M.Div.). In 2017, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy in the area of Liturgical Studies with a concentration in Homiletics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Before her current position at Spellman, Dr. Guidry was the 2016 Preacher/Pastor-In-Residence at the Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary. And she served as the Associate Pastor to Young Adults and the Liaison to Worship and Arts Ministries in the Office of the Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago for six years. She was listed as one of “12 New Faces of Black Leadership” in TIME Magazine in January 2015.
Urban Faith had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Guidry about her approach to ministry, the new season of her podcast Modern Faith, and the woman she admires most in the Bible.
There have been exhaustive conversations about reaching the millennial generation and older generations. Still, I’m wondering, given your work at Spelman, what you see in Generation Z and how they worship and their attitudes about the church? That’s an interesting question because, in years past, I used to be heavy in these conversations about the church and millennials. Then I just got really tired of both conversations because millennials became very commodified in the church. It became less and less about a relationship and a whole lot more about how do we get them? It perturbed me because we began to speak of human beings in the same way that we spoke of material goods. And to me, it illuminated how capitalist inclinations of the church. Our preoccupation with numbers is an ethical issue, a moral issue, and a leadership issue that cuts across so many different areas in the life of the church. This is, in part, why I choose to do ministry in the college setting. In the college setting, I can think about my ministry as a curriculum. I can think about what it means to teach compassion, not just to preach about it. I can provide humanizing frameworks, language, praxes to my students. This is important because these tools empower our students to move beyond hearing me preach a sermon or a Bible study on compassion or kindness, and to embody these characteristics in the world. In some sense, Generation Z is very similar to the millennials, where if there is a disconnect between what a faith leader talks about and how they’re walking in life, we don’t believe it. And that’s why I really think the millennial generation was the pivot generation for the church. And as the emerging generation, generation Z is going to build on the ground that millennials have broken, the challenges that the millennials have raised to the church and to leaders, and they’re going to run with it. And I see my position as being a support to their disruptive work. I love to see Holy disruption. I believe that that’s exactly what Jesus did himself and still does through us.
I saw on your site, shepreaches.com, that you’ve not only got inspirational messages, but downloadable tools ministry leaders can use in their own circles. What are your goals for the future of the site and also your podcast, Modern Faith? I’ve gotten into podcasting as a way of democratizing the content that was laid on my heart to share. I have a heart for people who have a deep spiritual yearning and desire to connect with God, but have no interest or trust in institutionalized church. Many faith leaders are scrambling right now because of COVID-19, but there have been a lot of us that have been utilizing technology, social media, and digital media for community building. When I started shepreaches.com in 2012, I was kind of in a first wave of millennials doing digital ministry. It was an amazing time. But time has evolved, so have my own life and ministry. Furthermore, as the Gospel has been ransacked in quality over the past four years and the dominant narrative in the United States around Christianity has been the conservative evangelical witness, I really felt like we need more progressive, inclusive, and justice-oriented voices doing public theology. There needs to be more radically loving, just, and inclusive Christian voices that are also a part of this. And I’m not the only one. There are so many.
What will you cover in the new season of your podcast? So, the next episodes specifically deal with the Coronavirus, its implications and how we can spiritually survive this global experience. I’ll be talking about the kind of spiritual principles that are emerging for me about finding a balance between being informed and becoming a little too immersed in the news cycle. So, I will cover topics such as, some of the spiritual and mental health practices for self-care and spiritual wellness that can keep us in that healthy center.
And then there’s going to be a few episodes that focus specifically on spiritual discipline. Many of us have more time on our hands right now. And so people were talking a lot about taking up new hobbies, taking online courses, and staying connected via virtual hangouts. And I want to add practicing spiritual discipline into the mix.
That’s interesting you mention mental health. How do you think the faith community and the Black church handle mental health issues? Do you think there is still that stigma, even now? In a Black History Month sermon in chapel, I talked about this mental health, and I expressed my joy at seeing how not only are we, as Blacks throughout Diaspora, talking more about mental health, but we are also going into mental health professions and creating more resources. There’s so much out there now. There’s research, podcasts, books, conferences, and even social media accounts that solely promote Black mental health and flourishing.
In my past, I’ve wrestled with my mental health. When I was in high school, I, like many teenagers, had some anxiety and some depression. I know personally how going through such experiences can feel like “hell on earth.” So many people struggle with mental illness and have bad theology thrown at them when our mental health requires going to find a professional and perhaps even taking some medication. I see the de-stigmatization that’s right now as a movement of God because Black people were dying in silence and shame, while our operative theologies were often in support of Black death.
It’s taken time, and it’s taken education, and it’s taken broadening our thought patterns and our belief systems to come to a place where there are people like me, people like Melva Sampson, Candace Benbow, Lyvonne Briggs, and many more Black women of faith who talk openly about being women of faith and having serious self-care and mental health practices, including therapy.
Which woman of the Bible do you admire the most? My heroine in the Word of God is Deborah in the book of Judges. As a woman of power, she had the seat of power and the seat of leisure at the same time. But, when her people were in trouble, she got out of that seat of power and went to the battlefield. We see her willingness to leave her seat of power and comfort, to the very front line for her people. One of the most powerful things about Deborah is when she prophesied that God was going to give the victory to a woman, she wasn’t even signifying herself. She was talking about Jael. What I love about her model is that, even if it’s not me, even if I’m not the one that’s going to get the shine and the glory, another sister is. She’s my hero in the Bible.
Such a one is like a tree planted by water-streams
That brings forth its fruit in season
And those whose leaf does not wither
Whatever this one does prospers.
Is this the doctrine of some strange Asian religion? The teachings of some self-proclaimed guru? You might be surprised to learn that this description of the power of meditation comes from Psalm 1 in the Hebrew Scriptures and is attributed to Israel’s great King David.
What compelled David to devote himself to meditative practice? Finding his personal life in turmoil, David sought, as many people of all faiths do today, a sense of peace and an enhanced ability to cope with troubles. Initial meditative or contemplative sessions often bring this kind of relief.
Even at the very beginning stages, most meditators discover a sense of something beyond mere respite. They find, as the Prophet Elijah did in the cave at Sinai, that”a still, small voice “speaks to them. It is a voice that seems to transcend religious differences.
The writer and former Taoist monk Deng Ming-Dao likens the meditative experience to a cave: “In a cave all outer sounds are smothered by rock and earth, but this makes the sounds of one’s own heartbeat and breath audible. In the same way, contemplative stillness turns us away from everyday clamor but allows us to hear the subtle in our own lives.” When I began experimenting with meditation as a teenager, I was typically ambivalent. Meditation felt good, but it was also very hard to remain attentive and undistracted. In fact, I gave it up for years. Unlike David, who turned to meditation after suffering rejection and betrayal, I was not broken or desperate enough to keep to a practice. Only after studying and contemplating religious scriptures and gaining a stronger connection to the extraordinary world of spirit did I resume a regular practice.
The Rig Veda, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, paints a picture of the human metaphysical condition-some would say dilemma-in the story of two birds. The dearest of friends, the birds sit on branches of the same tree. One is incessantly occupied with pecking and eating the fruits dangling there. By these acts of destruction and consumption, the bird participates in the process of dying and living. The other bird simply witnesses and contemplates, uninvolved and unconcerned with consequences. Our nature is, like the first bird, taken up with the business of survival and material concerns. Yet, our nature is also spiritual; like the other bird, we must be in a different place to realize it.
Meditation removes us from the momentary, anxious world where we normally live and brings us to the timeless, serene world of the divinely empowered. Historically this experience was reserved for a select few-shamans, royalty, priestesses and priests, prophets, and acknowledged religious leaders.
Today, it is an open possibility. Meditation books and classes abound, and the Internet buzzes with discussion groups. People can choose from a variety of meditation instructions from Aboriginal to Zen. Dhyani Ywahoo, a Cherokee”wisdom-keeper “who teaches Native American and Buddhist meditation, extracts the essence: “Meditation practice … creates a still pool upon which your nature is reflected. As you continue, the emotions race less and less and the mind becomes transparent. Then begin to clarify channels within … that the sacred wisdom fire may manifest. Whether we refer to the inclusiveness of mind as Great Spirit, Buddha-mind, Christ-mind, Allah, or by another name, essentially there is one truth underlying … the undescribable.” This is the transformative potential of meditative practice. It centers the body in a state of restfulness and acceptance. It provides a breathing space from emotional disturbance. It allows goodwill and love to dwell again in our hearts. It clears the mind and opens receptive channels to universal wisdom and illumination.
The power of meditation is, blessedly, cumulative. Later in his life, David testified to this in Psalm 119, proclaiming: “O, how I love your teaching! … I know more … for your ways are my meditation.”
St. James Elementary School principal Felisa McDavid and her husband, Ray, were crushed when their son, Treylind, arrived stillborn.
Every year on her stillborn son’s birthday, Felisa McDavid blesses an unsuspecting mother and her newborn son with a gift bag full of baby items.
McDavid’s son, Treylind, was delivered on Sept. 26, 2001, in a hospital near Charleston, her hometown. McDavid and her husband, Ray, were crushed when he arrived stillborn.
“I had a couple of miscarriages before we conceived him,” says McDavid, now a Forestbrook resident. “Losing him left me very distraught, of course. And I was not able to conceive after that; I’ve not been able to have children.”
As she mourned the loss of her son, friends and family tiptoed around her wounded heart. She couldn’t bear to hear about other pregnancies or deliveries, attend baby showers or share in the joys of other mothers with newborns. She steeped in grief for years.
“It’s been quite a process to get to the point where I could even talk about it,” she says. “Even members of my family were reluctant to tell me about their pregnancies.”
The McDavids desperately wanted children after they married on June 20, 1998.
An educator with a love for youngsters, McDavid has worked with children for 28 years. She now serves as the principal at St. James Elementary School in Myrtle Beach.
After several miscarriages, the loss of Treylind following a full-term pregnancy left the couple bereaved and broken.
Felisa McDavid questioned how losing her son fit into God’s plan for her life. She asked God for direction on how to deal with the void and her feelings of hopelessness.
Although others in her situation might have chosen to adopt a child or give to charities, McDavid says she didn’t feel led in either of those directions.
Instead, she was pulled somewhere else – to the hospital where she’d lost her son.
“I wanted to know what I could do about this void,” she says. “I’m always trying to give back, and I’ve always loved children.
“God spoke to my heart. He wanted me to revisit the hospital where I’d lost my child. While I was there, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to give something to one of these children?’”
As difficult as it was to walk into the nursery that first time since losing her son two years before, McDavid knew it was exactly where she needed to begin healing.
On the third anniversary of her son’s death, McDavid brought a gift bag to the hospital and gave it to a woman who had given birth the day before.
“We talked and I shared with her my experience,” McDavid says. “I had the gift in my hand. I asked her if she’d receive the gift. She said, ‘Yes, and thank you.’ I cried. She cried.”
A ministry was born.
The following year, McDavid, who moved to Horry County in 2003, reached out to the team at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital to tell her story and explain her interest in continuing her work at the hospital.
“They just received me so well,” she says. “The nursing team made me feel good about what I was doing.”
Her visit in September 2019 marked the 14th year McDavid has stopped by Tidelands Waccamaw on the anniversary of her son’s stillbirth to deliver a gift bag filled with rattles, bibs, onesies, stuffed toys and other items.
Every bag also contains an inspirational message from McDavid about the loss of her son and how the gift bag is a way to honor his memory by blessing another child.
Susan Follrod, a charge nurse at Tidelands Waccamaw, works with McDavid and the hospital’s labor and delivery team to arrange the gift deliveries year after year. Follrod also knows McDavid in her role as principal at St. James Elementary, where Follrod’s children attend school.
“It demonstrates that tremendous good can come from tremendous loss.”
“I am amazed and humbled by Felisa and her faith, as well as the way she turned a tragedy into a blessing for others,” Follrod says. “It’s truly inspiring. I feel very fortunate knowing her, and how lucky the students, parents and staff of St. James Elementary are to have her as their principal.”
Shelly Laird, director of women and children’s services at Tidelands Health, says McDavid’s efforts speak to the resiliency of the human spirit and helps raise awareness about the tremendous impact of losing a child.
“I was touched to hear about it,” Laird says. “It demonstrates that tremendous good can come from tremendous loss.”
One mother’s loss is another mother’s blessing
For McDavid, the most rewarding part of her mission is the opportunity to meet the mother and infant who will receive her gift bag.
“There’s a connection I make to each child every year, and I pray for them on that day,” she says.
McDavid believes God allowed her loss so she could minister to others experiencing the pain she knows all too well. When a friend lost her child a few years ago, McDavid used her experience to offer comfort and support.
“I know the Lord does things for a reason,” she says. “I’ve gone through this process so I can help others. It truly makes me feel good that I can bless another mother.
“And actually, it blesses me more than I can ever bless them.”
For years, my husband would say after we returned from the church, “I thought the sermon was good.” To that, I would reply, “I didn’t hear the sermon, as usual.”
As a person with a severe to profound hearing loss, I nearly left the church out of frustration and anger. In addition to hymns, spoken readings and testimonies, Christian worship focuses on the spoken word. As scripture says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
I am not alone in feeling discouraged by so much focus on the word of God and spoken words in the Christian tradition. Many people with hearing loss leave or disengage from their Christian faith.
But that doesn’t have to happen. As a theologian, I study how adults with hearing loss worldwide engage with their Christian faith through unique forms of worship and contemplative prayer, and I have found examples of holy people who experienced hearing loss.
Alienated in churches
One popular deaf Christian organization, Silent Blessings Deaf Ministries, estimates that as many as 4% of Christians worldwide are profoundly deaf. That number doesn’t include the people who have milder hearing loss, or older adults who experience hearing loss later in life. About 13% of Americans experience some hearing loss, which can affect their ability to participate in worship.
A 1997 National Council of Churches document on deafness describes the frustrations of people with conventional church services that emphasize spoken words. One woman who lost some hearing later in life said: “I was very active in the church, taught Sunday School for many years and served on the boards of various women’s groups. But then I started to lose my hearing and stopped understanding what was going on. I became very depressed and isolated. I don’t go to church any more.”
The biblical stories recounted in some scriptures also can feel alienating to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, according to theologian Wayne Morris.
In his 2008 book on deaf Christianity, Morris describes, as an example, how the story of Moses and the burning bush might be received in a deaf congregation. In it, Moses covers his eyes when he encounters God in the burning bush. Yet no person with deafness could stand to cover their eyes: Sight is what enables hearing-impaired people to navigate the world.
Other scriptures even name hearing loss as indicating separation from God. In Psalm 58:3-4, God’s chosen people of Israel are compared negatively to a deaf person. “The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ears.”
As a result of the challenges they face in churches that emphasize spoken words, deaf people might choose worship services led by deaf pastors, or hearing churches whose worship styles engage all five senses of the body rather than focusing on hearing alone.
A hearing church that adds a signing interpreter but that maintains reliance on spoken words isn’t necessarily being welcoming. This can make people with hearing loss feel like they need to be “fixed,” or “made able” to attend hearing worship.
A deaf worship service includes not only the deaf, but those who appreciate a worship that involves more than just the sense of hearing.
During a deaf worship service, praying happens with open eyes and with lots of signing. Hands are often raised up to sign a joyful “alleluia” to God. In fact, the whole congregation creates a mosaic of gestures that praise God. Silence is not required in order to hear the pastor speaking from pulpit.
People with hearing loss may find access to faith in the Christian tradition of silence, too.
The 20th-century monk Thomas Merton, who is known for his contemplative and mystical spirit, once observed the ways words can even divide people from God.
“When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other people, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality,” he wrote in 1956.
Some deaf Christians see not hearing as a gift from God.
“He has created me with ears that hear what people REALLY say, for in my intensity to hear I listen not just with mechanically assisted hearing,” the deaf pastor Elizabeth von Trapp Walker said in a 1999 interview whether disability could be a gift from God. “I listen with my whole body. My eyes see the joy, pain and sorrow sometimes hidden in the words as the ears of my heart listen and read the body language of the speaker.”
For Christians like von Trapp and Merton, silence can enable a person be a better witness to the world around them.
The Catholic Church recognizes some saints who were deaf.
Saint Teresa de Cartagena, a nun who lived in 15th-century Spain, lost her hearing in childhood. She wrote “Grove of the Infirm,” a book about disability and faith, sometime between 1450 and 1460. Teresa writes of her deafness as a great good because it leads her toward God. “God has placed such cloisters on my hearing” so that she can “maintain complete silence in order to better understand” an inner spiritual life with God.
The 16th-century Saint Teresa of Avila similarly found her tinnitus – a ringing in the ears often associated with hearing loss – “no hindrance either to my prayer or to what I am saying now, but the tranquility and love in my soul are quite unaffected, and so are its desires and clearness of mind.”
An Italian woman, Benedetta Bianchi Porro, was recently declared blessed, a step before being named a saint, on Sept. 14, 2019. Porro experienced progressive deafness beginning at age 15 as a result of polio.
She sought healing in 1963 for deafness, along with other conditions associated with the disease, at Lourdes, a shrine in France that people visit in hopes of being healed of various diseases. While there, she wrote a letter to friend saying that she had received a miracle – not of recovery from deafness but of an understanding of the “richness of my condition.”
Porro isn’t the only Christian to learn that being deaf can deepen one’s faith. For me, finding a worship service that emphasizes all five senses and discovering that the silence I live because I am deaf has helped me embrace Christianity instead of leaving it behind.
Rather than fixing hearing loss or seeing deafness as a sign of God’s disfavor, the faith of deaf and hard-of-hearing Christians brings new understandings about God to the world.