Graduation is fast bearing in on us, a time of solemn language and ritual. Both MaryAnn Baenninger and I play official roles at commencement and we speak accordingly. Tonight my remarks are intended to be more personal than that. Graduation is in important achievement in a person's life, a step on a trajectory whose outline is often best understood in hindsight. The feelings surrounding graduation are always ambivalent -- a sense of accomplishment contends with uncertainty about what lies ahead, celebration of a long-yearned for goal alternates with sadness that day-to-day life with classmates and friends will never quite be the same, no matter how much effort one puts into staying in touch. Graduation is an intensely social experience, one that is shared with others at every turn, but it is experienced by individuals, each one of whom experiences uncertainty and loss that is difficult to reckon with or describe.
This is true for all Saint John's and St. Ben's graduates and I expect it is true as well for GLBT students. For some, who have struggled to come to terms with their sexual identity or do not yet have the confidence to share that identity with others, graduation can be doubly ambivalent -- a sense of new beginnings can contend with a deep unease about life itself; leaving these campuses can highlight a sense that there may be no place where one belongs. Now those of you attending here tonight are not blind to your sexual identity and you are well-experienced in the courage it takes to "come out" as well as the deep solidarity that one discovers in the process. But lack of welcome from others, experiences of stereotype and judgment rather than openness and understanding, instances of outright hostility (even if they have been few) - all these take a toll and have to be reckoned with as one moves from being a student to being an alumna of CSB, an alumnus of SJU.
I am here tonight to congratulate you on the educational growth you have achieved here at CSB and SJU. I have three wishes for you. I'll call them prayers.
The first is prompted by a book called The Culture of Desire (1994) by Frank Browning. In it the author writes that "unlike the 90 percent of humans who apparently take their desires and biological responses to be universal and therefore find no cause to examine their own sexual orientation, the homosexual person experiences fate as a constant companion that almost inescapably provokes a profound examination of identity."[i] Knowing who you are is great strength. When I was in graduate school I came across the 16th century English humanist, John Colet. He was a very careful reader, who carried on a running commentary in the margins of the books he read. Once as Colet was very carefully reading a newly printed philosophy book, a passage stopped him dead in his tracks. Next to it, in the margin, he wrote this in tiny letters:
Know that you are a golden soul.
Have proper respect for yourself.
[Each woman and] man is like a star wrapped in a cloud.[ii]
That is my first prayer for you, that your sense of your inestimable value as persons has grown strong these last years and that it continues on in the depths of your hearts, all the days of your lives. "Know...:
My second prayer comes from reading Rabbi Michael Lerner's book, Spirit Matters (2000) several years ago, a book that is deeply congruent with the Benedictine values that shape education at CSB/SJU. Rabbi Lerner writes of an "objective, universally applicable 'master narrative' that all human beings are precious and sacred, deserving of respect and love, entitled to the fullest opportunities to develop their intellectual and creative capacities, and entitled to be supported in freely choosing and shaping their own life paths." Language like that is deeply resonant with the Rule of St. Benedict and shapes the ethos of our campuses, at their best. Lerner urges that "our teachers be judged on how successful they are at generating students who can respond to the universe, each other, and their own bodies with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the miracles that are daily with us." The education we offer on these campuses is meant to move from deeply held communal values to personal self-discovery to transformative action on behalf of others. Generations of graduates of our two colleges have taken "awe, wonder and radical amazement" with them as the greatest treasures of their time here, recognizing in Lerner's words that "every aspect of reality can be fundamentally healed and transformed, and that each of us is the agent of that transformation."[iii]
My second prayer for you is that the self-understanding you have put such effort into cultivating bears fruit for others. What you have experienced as a gift, even if it has had painful dimensions, give as a gift to others. There is an immense reservoir of courage and compassion in your hearts and you can make that available for the common good.
My third prayer isn't really a prayer at all, but a poem by the 14th century Sufi mystic, Hafiz - which I guess is the next best thing to a prayer:
We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear,
That might not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.
Run like hell my dear,
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
"O please, O please,
Come out and play."
For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and
Hafiz! ... Congratulations to all of you, dear friends. And God bless!
Dietrich Reinhart, OSB
Saint John's University
[ii] Comments in margin of Ficino's Epistolae, 1495
[iii] Ibid, 259, 243, 260.
[iv]The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master, trans. by Daniel Ladinsky (1999), 28.