Last summer, Scranton Preparatory School in Scranton, Pennsylvania, appointed a new president, Rev. Ryan Maher, S.J. But not so long ago, Fr. Maher was an associate dean at Georgetown University, advising students in both course selection and in life. I first met Fr. Maher as an undergraduate, while he was still at GU. He left DC and served elsewhere for a while (as Jesuits do) and returned to the Hilltop while I worked in residential ministry. Over the years, I heard many of his homilies and talks; some I clearly remember to this day. But more than anything else, I return again and again to the advice he once gave to graduating seniors. In a classic Jesuit style, Fr. Maher offered three points, suggesting that each senior should be sure to say three things before he or she graduates, and say them to any and all people necessary when there is an actual opportunity to do so. I repeat them here and offer my own commentary on why they might be important.
- Thank you. Recognizing and expressing gratitude is an inescapable thread of Ignatian spirituality. It is part of the Examen—the daily prayer of the Jesuits. The Examen asks us to be attentive to the ordinary graces of the day. And with G.K. Chesterton, we can maintain that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” And graduation gives students a moment to reflect on each and every person that helped him or her get to this point in life and to become the person he or she is. Friends and family certainly. Faculty and staff, hopefully. But being attentive to gratitude reminds us, Joseph Ratzinger writes, that our “own being is present in others as guilt or as grace,” and their being is present within us. “We are not just ourselves; or, more correctly, we are ourselves only as being in others, with others, and through others.” There is a power in recognizing this, in putting it into words and allowing others to hear that “we are who we are” only because of the grace we’ve come to know through others.
- I’m sorry. As intimately woven as our lives are with others, we cannot escape the real possibility of hurt. Whether intentionally or not, our decisions, words, and actions far too often cause pain in the lives of others. We do not give people the time and care that they need, we are not present to them in a way that recognizes their dignity, we get too caught up in our own desires and lives to notice and respond to what is going on in the lives of others. Soon, seniors will be departing campus, scattering themselves around different cities, states, and nations. The possibility of real reconciliation will be strained by distance and time. But as theologian James Alison notes, to seek reconciliation is a creative act. In apologizing for our “self-absorption in too small and identity, always defended over against some other person for group,” we can “start to discover that the other is not the obstacle in the way of [our] coming to be, but is what makes that coming-to-be possible.”
- I love you. Yes, this could mean finally gathering the courage to tell that particular friend that you do, in fact, have deep feelings. Fine. But I suspect that for many, there is a broader possibility for this third “last word.” Surrounded as we are with a cloud of assertions that we are not enough as we are, we look for any way to better ourselves (or to hide ourselves) so that we might come to be good enough. We need to hear that we are loved—that we are embraced and cherished for who we are and not for what we might be able to do. Philosopher Joseph Pieper observes that in saying, “I love you,” we proclaim to the other “How good that you exist!” Would that we could all hear this often… and have the courage and care to say it even more often.
In the end, as the last of the photos is taken, the final cap and gown are tossed aside, and the last car pulls out of the parking lot, it is my hope that each new alumna and alumnus might take a moment, breathe deeply, and leave campus having said “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you” to any and all those who graced his or her path over the past years. After all, it is no small thing to mediate God for another, no small thing to have another mediate God for us. It is no small thing to be able to pause for a moment, give attention to that love which is deeper to us than our own deepest part, and to be able to ask of recent moments, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”
Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.