Yesterday I watched my oldest son graduate, after four years of hard work and amazing experiences, from Providence College. Virtually. We watched from laptops in our living room, and chatted with moms of his housemates via text, while the students watched in smallish groups from their backyards and front porches.
It was poignant. So many important rituals and celebrations have been disrupted or missed, and I won't deny I was sad that we didn't have the opportunity to celebrate this milestone together, in a big way. Social psychologist, Shira Gabriel, says that rituals give us "a feeling of going beyond the ordinary—of having a moment that transcends that, turning events into something special and meaningful.” She describes them as "choreographed events that produce an emotionally laden experience—create a feeling of unity and sacredness that bonds us together with others."
Graduation wasn't what we thought it would look like, to be sure, but we still found some sacredness. As we all continue to navigate our amended rituals or celebrations, we might all look for the sacredness. For this celebration, it came from Providence College's President, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., in his commencement comments. I think they are worth sharing, particularly his thoughts on grief and gratitude, which especially resonated. (These comments are transcribed, not an official transcript.)
Congratulations to the Class of 2020. You have achieved a Providence College degree under extraordinary circumstances. That is quite an accomplishment. But let me begin with the obvious. We are all dealing with loss during this Corona virus era. You have lost your final and culminating experience of a normal senior year at Providence College, and many other things in your life, as well.
Grief is the pain that we feel when we lose something we care about. And it is normal. There would be something wrong with you right now if you were not grieving. The extremes to be avoided with grief are denial and paralysis. What I want to urge you to do instead is try to discover some meaning in your experience of loss so that you can move forward. Grief can help us sharpen our understanding of what matters to us. Of what we may have taken for granted and what we may need to change in our lives as we come to understand what loss has to teach us.
One thing that grief can lead to is gratitude because we know that we will no longer take for granted all the normal blessings in our lives. Just think of the things that you have lost that you will see in a new light when you emerge from the pandemic. Your classmates, your teachers, health, a sense of community, worshipping God together, restaurants, handshakes, hugs, spring sports, and the list goes on and on. Take this time to literally count your blessing and be grateful.
Loss can teach gratitude and so can a recognition of all the good that is going on around us. If you need help with that, start watching John Krasinski’s Some Good News videos. Practicing gratitude is a way to find where God is active in our lives even when things are difficult. If grief and gratitude can help us clarify what matters to us, then it can help us find courage in a time of rampant fear and anxiety.
I hope you learned from your study of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that the virtue of courage is not the absence of fear but rather the ability to see clearly what is worth choosing and what is worth doing despite feeling afraid. We do not need to be fearless, rather to trust that by the grace of God we will find a way to pursue what is right and good despite our fears. We see it all around us. In the brave people who are on the front lines of the pandemic. You have that in you too. We educated you to be courageous.
Let me close with a story I read recently. It is from a novel from Abraham Verghese, entitled Cutting for Stone. The protagonist of the story eventually becomes an accomplished surgeon, but there is a crucial time in his youth where he faces a crossroad as he tries to figure out what he is meant to do with his life. He has a conversation with his mentor and asks her what to do. She asks him, “what is the hardest thing you could possibly do?” He squirms and asks, “why must I do what is hardest?” She replies: “Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play. Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for Three Blind Mice when you can play the Gloria?”
This is a time that calls for all of us to do the hardest thing we can do with gratitude and fortitude. God made each of you a unique instrument. Find and play the Gloria in your life. It is for that God brought you to Providence College and it is for that we educated you. So, stay safe, take care of each other and may God bless us until we united again.
Congratulations to all the members of the Class of 2020, and to all the parents and family members who helped them reach this awesome milestone. I see you, I'm sorry you got shortchanged on the celebration, and I wish you all good things in the adventures ahead.
Maybe not the Gloria Father Shanley had in mind, but you gotta love where it takes you. It always delivers.