It's the middle of finals week, so I'm up to my eyeballs in paper writing (and enjoying all the snow falling on Mother's Day...), but I did give a little reflection at the masses today, and since it was the last Sunday of the regular school year, I themed it around moving on. More once all the papers are out of the way and I have some time to think about something else...
I suppose it is appropriate that as we are saying farewell to one another, the gospel comes from what is called the “Farewell Discourse” of John’s Gospel. When we return in the fall, it will be a drastically new community – without some old friends, and with a good number of new ones, but one way or another, almost all of us will be away from this place for some time. In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Of course I hope you will be active in a community of faith this summer, but wherever you are, I hope that you remember the peace that Jesus is talking about. He says this in the context of facing his death, so he clearly doesn’t just mean that you are happy and content and smooth sailing. “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” “The world” for John has a very specific meaning – not the physical reality of the planet itself, and not the bodily realm as opposed to the spiritual, but a particular imagination – a vision of how life is supposed to operate. Let’s call it “the worldly” rather than “the world,” so you don’t think I’m saying the world itself is bad.
The worldly vision of peace is more or less about “success,” managing your life well enough to climb above the chaos, to make your life a comfortable and stable one. I presume we all came to SU or ESF for a reason – they have a good reputation, you are likely to get hired quickly and get a good salary, whatever. In brief, you thought it would help you to succeed, to make your life work for you. We have implicitly made a deal: we will make ourselves useful to the world by providing ourselves with valuable skills, and the world will make use of us, and in exchange it will make us more or less comfortable and safe and, we hope, happy. All of you, graduating or not, are already successful people by the sheer fact that you got into SU, ESF, wherever, and of course you are all the kinds of folks who will continue to do noteworthy things as captains of industry, businesspeople, politicians, thinkers, educators, health care providers and so on. Now, of course that’s fine, but I do hope you are getting more than job training in exchange for the sizeable amount of debt you are piling up, and that you expect more than that from your education – more than becoming well-paid operators. Certainly you know more stuff now than you did when you first arrived here, but have you become more genuinely human, in all of its glory and anguish and simplicity and complexity? Are you learning not only how to make a living, but how to live?
In a commencement address to the 1961 graduating class of Columbia University, his alma mater, Thomas Merton had the following to say about university education: “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.” (TMSM 365) Now again, don’t misunderstand me; please learn all you can and bring your gifts to the table. As one of my brothers once told me, “The world is an endless black hole of misery and suffering,” by which he meant that whatever gifts you have, the world needs them badly. What the world does NOT need, though, is more glory-hounds killing themselves to have their picture on the front page of the New York Times or to have someone else think that they are successful. We’ve got more than enough of that. But that’s all the peace that the worldly can give: this Promethean struggle to be successful in the eyes of a world that can at most see you as a useful instrument. I hope you hear the real violence operative in a world like that.
The peace that the world cannot give is based in seeing beyond instrumental value; those people who cannot be squeezed into an imagination based on usefulness are either invisible or dangerous – the elderly, disabled, undereducated, incarcerated, so on. We have come here every weekend this year hoping to challenge that imagination, to be at least a little dangerous – wasting perfectly good work time producing nothing, accomplishing nothing, and trying to align ourselves with the unsuccessful – with the broken body of Christ, the crucified people of our world. We know that the voice of relevance, success, efficiency, is at full volume wherever we go, and it’s alive and well in us too, but this year we as a community have been here to at least whisper something else, to not give the worldly the stage all to itself. Wherever you are going this summer, remember that whisper, hang onto it when the worldly is trying to shout it down. Stay connected with a community of friends who can keep tuning you in to that whisper and reminding you of the peace that is worthy of your life, the peace that the world(ly) cannot give.