There is an old Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we are cursed indeed. Though many have suffered grievously from this virus, you, graduating seniors, whether from high school or college, make up your own category of sufferers. Who could have imagined it would end this way? Some of you are perhaps nineteen years old, the age St. Joan of Arc was when she “graduated” from prison in the month of May. After fighting hard for the glory of God and country, she probably didn’t expect her adventure to end the way it did either—as the victim of a world gone mad. “Interesting” is probably not the word that comes to mind.
You have my sincere sympathy. I know how important and profound a graduation can be. I graduated from small, Catholic schools with vibrant communities. I remember graduating from high school, feeling as though the world was over, as I gripped the shoulders of my classmates—some of my best friends to this day—and sang “The Parting Glass.” It was a moment that had a deep impact on me. After four wonderful years at college, I packed up my ragged books feeling dead inside and, interestingly enough, spent a night with my parents at the nearby house of a distant relative who had just died. I remember trying to sleep on a couch in that dark house and seeing the old woman’s body, glowing like the moon on a cold night, in the room across from me where my mother kept vigil. I felt deeply sad—not for her, but for me, of course. My sense of loss was weirdly augmented in that house of death, but at least it was accompanied by a sense of accomplishment. You may not have that same mixed sense of accomplishment and loss—you may only have loss—a harder lesson, but no less valuable, perhaps even more valuable, all things considered.
Make no bones about it, you seniors have suffered a sudden tragedy, with friends and endeavors that seemingly vanished overnight with a “zoom.” Your graduation is here, and yet you don’t have what you wanted, whereas, what you do have is, perhaps, more of a life-changing experience than most graduations offer. At least it is more lifelike. And that is where it gets a little interesting. If your graduation should signalize or cement anything, it is your readiness for life with all its twists and turns. Many of you may feel your graduation motto is de profundis clamavi, crying out from the depths, instead of the classic motto of duc in altum, put out into the deep. What can you do? Sharpen your sense of humor. It is the best defense against the inevitable sadness in life. As Æneas said to his men after their shipwreck, “Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear. A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.” An interesting thought to bear in mind.
I would like to share a little story with you that may give you something to consider as you accept the hard reality of not being able to be with your friends and classmates to celebrate a joyful conclusion and culmination of your education. This story tells of an exchange I had with an old friend of mine, who died a sudden death shortly afterwards. It was at a rugby game, close to graduation at the high school his son attended and where I teach. We were standing on the windswept sideline together as we watched the match and he mused about the future, as he would do. Towards the end of the game, he said, “I have to head to my daughter’s beauty pageant now.” I said, “You’re going from a rugby match to a beauty pageant? That’s quite a transition.” “There’s really not much difference,” he said. “One just has more lipstick.” Then he said something to this effect, “Life is tough, like rugby, and strange, like a pageant, but, as Plato or someone said somewhere, if you’re not happy with what you have, you won’t be happy with what you want.” He shook my hand and walked away. I never spoke with him again. But I will never forget his last words to me.
They are words that resonate with a real education—and your education is being put to the test with a particular immediacy and intensity. This may not seem very interesting given the pain you are experiencing, but part of the challenge is to see what is interesting in this painful experience. To find philosophical happiness in even this is a mark of wisdom and holiness. Such happiness cannot be taught but it can be the result of good teaching—as Oscar Wilde said, “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “The happy life is this—to rejoice to thee, in thee, and for thee.” Rejoice and be glad. Strive to be happy even today, even now. Even this may one day, perhaps, be a joy to remember. St. Thomas Aquinas called happiness the end of life; still, there are ends in life. Again, from Æneas to his comrades: “Even here, the world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.” Though loss is inescapable, there is also a sense in which things do not change or even diminish—in the heart of Christ, all things are made new. “Dismiss your fears,” Æneas concludes, and so should we.
May 26 is the feast of St. Philip Neri, a man of excellent humor who used to say, “Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.” If you’re not happy with what you have, you won’t be happy with what you want. You went to school to learn how to become saints. And it has ended not with a bang, but a whimper. You are the forgotten class, the class of plague and circumstance, the class that graduated without a graduation. But in losing those worldly trappings you have the opportunity to become small enough to give Christ room to dwell in you.
Embrace your littleness, your Covid obscurity, and let Christ do good things with you. If He was bold enough to become so little to accomplish great things, we must do likewise. Live your life and be happy with what you have. Get up in the morning. Say your prayers. Go to work and to class and to Mass. Be merry, but not flashy. Be joyful, but not wild. Be polite, but not prudish. Put your lamps on lamp stands, remembering always Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory.”
Lift up your hearts, my friends. Be happy with what you have. And know that your efforts to be good in a world gone mad—to go to college, to get a job, to make friends, to fall in love, to get married, to raise a family, to do any such ordinary thing—may make you another St. Joan or St. Philip. You have not had the recognition and the celebration you deserved, but that loss taken well will be a strong sign of the quality of your education as you strike out into the wasteland to build in the chaff and ruin of the times, daring to be normal when all is abnormal, unafraid to be good when it is dangerous to be so, and proud to be and do what God intended you to be and do. Congratulations on the occasion of your interesting graduation.
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
Photo courtesy of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.