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Music, kindness and poetry inspire a ‘hope-filled life’

Father Daniel McMullin, director of the Cornell Roman Catholic Community, revealed his personal sources of hope and resilience, despite crushing disappointments and setbacks, in his talk at the first Soup & Hope event of the year, Jan. 16 in Sage Chapel.

Father Daniel McMullin, director of the Cornell Roman Catholic Community.

“Hope, as far as I understand it, is not just the result of professional therapy or spiritual direction, or even my personal discipline of prayer, although these have been absolutely necessary practices for me,” he said.

After saying he felt “extraordinarily at home standing behind this pulpit,” having spent most Sundays preaching to Catholic students and others for the past 15 years, McMullin illustrated how he came to be a “hope-filled man,” presenting “three rather difficult scenarios” of hopelessness from his life.

First, he recounted growing up in the small two-bedroom South Minneapolis house he shared with his parents, grandmother and six younger siblings, where his father’s alcoholism and verbal cruelty were constants. “Hope seemed rather unlikely until college,” McMullin said.

He attended a university run by monks and joined the order after his junior year. “I loved the monastic life; I still do,” he said. But there he was victimized by sexual predators who demanded his silence.

The third scenario happened in central New York nine years later, after McMullin was appointed pastor of a church in Rochester. “I knew this would not be an easy assignment,” he said. “The previous pastor had been there for 20 years, [and] he was deeply loved.”

After Pope John Paul II demanded that pastor’s removal, “the transition created an explosion” that made national and international headlines, McMullin said. “My first year there was filled with some of the most shocking experiences of my life,” he said. “Hate mail, addressed to me, began to arrive almost daily … people regularly booed while I preached.” He later learned of death threats made against him.

“Hope seemed unlikely here as well,” he said. “If I only wanted sympathy from you, I suppose I could stop right now and sit down. … For me, hope is a conscious decision. A very deliberate choice. It is a resolution I make daily to find meaning where meaning seems elusive, and joy where joy seems unlikely. And I learned this very early on in my life.”

He said it has been “surprising even to me that I choose compassion rather than vindication.”

“Choosing hope minimized for me the impact of my dad’s alcoholism,” he said. “Choosing hope helped me recover my own sense of worth and self-possession, even after sexual manipulation and abuse; and choosing hope reminded me that I need not remain among people whose accusations and intense anger and bitter disappointment were not designed by me.”

“Three things paved the way for living a hope-filled life; three gifts that I continue to choose,” which he called ‘hope sources.’”

The first, he said, is music. “You cannot imagine what I felt when I realized that I could sing – and sing pretty well. Music provided the beauty which was missing in my home.”

The music of Bach, Fauré, Vaughan Williams, Purcell and other composers provided him with “beautiful texts that actually shielded my heart from insult and disappointment.”

He then sang “An die Musik,” filling the chapel with “one of Schubert’s most delicate songs … it’s written as a thanksgiving to music’s gift.”

McMullin also found hope in two colleagues “who knew that I was deeply disappointed by my monastic community. These two women guided me, through the aftermath of abuse, to the joy of self-discovery and self-acceptance, for an entire year until I was able to leave the monastery. … Their kindness rekindled my hope and prepared me for a musical and academic career beyond the monastery and beyond Minnesota.”

His third hope source, he said, “I only discovered after I turned 50. I discovered poetry. Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, and Ted Kooser and John O’Donohue and Thomas Lynch, and Hafiz and Rumi. Poetry was already there in the music of my youth. But it emerged most powerfully during my years as a pastor, and since.”

McMullin ended his talk by reading “A Golden Compass” by Hafiz, “who reminds me that after all is said and done, my choice to be hopeful is ultimately grounded in the unshakable belief that all people are good. And all that is good emerges from God.”

The next Soup & Hope, Jan. 30 at noon in Sage Chapel, features Sue Mann, MBA ’03, MMH ’04, founder of Sansu Rising. The free series is sponsored by Cornell United Religious Work, Student and Campus Life, Cornell Health and Cornell Dining.

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Abby Butler