Great Commencement Speeches (Part III)

The third and final installment in our “Great Commencement Speeches” series is from my own graduation from Georgetown in 1985. The Rev. Royden B. Davis, S.J., longtime and much-loved Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, received an honorary degree and gave the address. I doubt there has been a single month of my life in which I have not thought about what he said that day.

Well, here we are. You the graduates where you always hoped to be, and you their parents and friends where you always expected them to be. And here am I where I neither hoped nor expected to be. All of which, I suppose, may be used as an occasion for reflection on the place of the expected and the unexpected in our lives, the hoped for and the unrealized. We hope for something and it is there or not, often according to seemingly whimsical forces or to the mysterious gods. We plan for what is to come and surprise! The “what” is not according to our plan. We must, however, continue to plan, for we are thinking human beings living in an often confusing world. I think what is suggested is that we must not overplan. We need space for breathing. The unplanned life may not be worth living, but it seems to me that the overly planned life which excludes what life may do to us is really no life at all.

From many years ago, from when I was in high school, an image comes to mind. My high school was Atlantic City Public High School which was graced with Mademoiselle Dowd – French teacher extraordinaire and at school dances, chaperone most precise. At these dances she would move gracefully among the dancing couples seeking those young men and women who danced too close to one another – or at least too close in her judgment. She would then admonish them to draw apart and thus, as she said, “leave room for the Holy Ghost.” Since then I have always chosen this expression as a suggestion that in any situation one should always leave room for the unexpected and the unforeseen. In order to do this we must employ the imagination. By the imagination I mean that affective response to the world which transcends calculation and logic. It is affective thinking which images for us what can be and what may be. With the imagination, then, we can learn to leave space for what may come by considering its possibility and its probability. If we do just that, then we may be more ready to accept a fresh incorporation of a new and unexpected reality into our lives. The imagination so tuned, so educated, offers alternatives, envisages acceptance as well as rejection. One gains thus through the imagination a freedom of action, and an ability to be ready for fresh choices. And after all, that is one of the attributes to mark maturity in men and women.

Imagination assures the seeking of means to clear one’s way to the continuing assertion of that freedom. When I was much younger, rather younger than you the graduates and a few years older than a college freshman, I went to war. The great war number II, the last “good war” as Studs Terkel calls it in his latest book. I went to Berlin at the war’s end and lost a kind of naïve innocence in the face of the near total destruction of a once mighty modern city. Streets were clogged with bricks in untidy piles two or three stories high, interlaced with twisted girders like knotted shoestrings which seemed to bind the bricks together. On one such street, I saw a corps of elderly women, hair stuffed under bandannas, hands gripping brooms or pulling small carts. These women imaginatively – some would say crazily, madly – were clearing the way brick by brick, neatly piling brick upon brick, sweeping light debris away with little brooms. And you know, by God, they did in time clear a path, a way through the destruction.

Use the example in dealing with yourselves. Let your imagination wrestle wittily and knowingly, step by step, piece by piece if need be, with the obstacles to your freedom. Then patiently, by God and under God, you – we – will be marked with the maturity of men and women.

Let our hearts, yours and mine, be schooled, educated in the services of others. Imagination in the services of others keeps us from self-contemplation in a lonely mirror and affirms each of us a place as one among many, not as one apart from the many who surround us. If we do not recognized the needs of others, seeing them as our brothers and sisters, if we do not persist in imaginatively seeking to meet those needs, who indeed will ever truly call us friend or brother, or sister or beloved? We become rather the sounding gongs of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or the faceless ones who dress in three pieces and carry empty cases.

I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy and know every hidden truth. I may have faith strong enough to move mountains, but if I have no love I am nothing. I may dole out all I possess or even give my body to be burned but if I have no love I am none the better.

Georgetown has taught me much in this regard. I have known and know now as you do, the goodness of great men and women on this faculty who tirelessly teach and challenge and study. Let me cite only one – Dr. Michael Foley in the history department – dead quite suddenly last spring, a year ago. But many of you will recall his loud, sometimes raucous voice. The laugh that challenged us administrators no less than you students to be better than we were. To live up to what we said we were, to become who we could be. Hard honesty was his in the imaginative service he rendered to others.

I have learned from you, the graduates, in all your four or two or three or maybe five years at Georgetown. I have known and know now as you do, the goodness and generosity which is among you. The laughter, the tears, and sometimes the anger have been shared. A recent graduate of the School of Foreign Service who served in a volunteer program in Nicaragua working among the poorest of the poor, wrote of his experiences there.

The vast majority of people in Nicaragua and in all the Third World till the soil. By working with these campesinos I have had a small taste of what their lives are like. I have seen how warm and generous are these people of the earth. I have also seen how highly these people cherish their friends, their family, and God. It is impossible not to see the gross and glaring injustices many of these people are forced to live with. Why are so many forced to live in hovels that would not be fit to house garden tools in the United States? Why must so many suffer from illness and physical defects that can be cured by modern medicine? Why must so many little kids have stomachs blown up like basketballs, not because they eat too much candy but because their bodies are full of worms? These facts that grasp the heart force the mind to search for remedies.

That young man knew a world which many distort and despise and others ignore. So too, the hundreds of you who over four years have served the inner streets of this city by teaching the children, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and comforting the abused. And then there are the hundreds who acted as friends to one another on this campus, who comforted and tutored and cared for one another. All of these works are what I mean by the education of the heart. Seeking the ways and means for such service calls upon, and at the same time, teaches the imagination.

I have spoken thus far of the imagination and its education only as it relates to meeting the unexpected and the accidental in our lives. The imagination that sees the graceful movement of dance, that feels in stone and wood the very possibility of another shape, another form, that sees in color how one color may relate to another to project an image, that hears in the human voice and in the instruments of sound the ability to sing to the spirit and soothe the heart. That creative imagination is not unlike or unrelated to the imagination of whose education I speak. It is, indeed, the same. It is the same imagination which stimulates the scientist to see the possibilities in his research and allows him to go beyond the boundaries of the here and now. It is the imagination which frees our hearts and minds and offers us a freedom for choice. Albert Einstein, in an essay on science, once wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

My heart today is full of Georgetown and full of gratitude for all that I have found here and for all that it has expectedly and unexpectedly given me. I am not so blind as not to see its imperfections and its failures. For it is first and foremost a community of people, not a collection of buildings. Buildings indeed are necessary. They house our books, our classrooms, our laboratories. Their beauty of structure should stimulate our minds and imagination. They must not, however, stifle us. Harbin then may be slowly tilting its way to the ground; let it go. New South may be modeled after a high security prison; so be it. The ICC, according to some, may have the grace of a beached whale under glass heating pads; but how can this, if it were true, hold us back? For it is the people who make it all go together. And we the people, created equal as we are, can be both generous and selfish, weak and strong, fallible and wise. No one is free of sin and failure. No one is lacking in success. A deep inner success may be found even in the depth of disappointment. We knew this together for the fleeting moment when we applauded a winner at Lexington.

And now today we come to a moment of parting and separation. I will not tell you that the world out there is awaiting you expectantly. To tell you the truth, it probably doesn’t even know you are coming. I say, “Go anyway! Surprise the world! And quite possibly yourselves!”

I won’t tell you what the sad-eyed president in Doonesbury told the graduates. “These last four years should have been your freest. This University offered you a sanctuary, a place to experience process, to feel the present as you moved through it, to embrace both the joys and sorrows of moral and intellectual maturation. It needn’t have been just another way station.” Their angry replies were the eternal questions, “Why didn’t you tell us that before? Why wasn’t that in the catalogue?”

I tell you merely from the heart, this is your house. You have helped to build it. You are welcome here always. But if and when you return, do not be surprised that it has continued being built by others who have come after you. For it will never finish a-building.

Take with you this kindly admonition and prayer. An educated mind and heart be your constant work. A learning imagination your companion. The first puts you squarely, firmly, intelligently at the service of others. The second gives you a freedom that no one can take from you. Together they lead you with grace and faith to the very throne of God where his face may shine on you without ceasing.

The Lord bless you and guard you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord Lift us his countenance upon you and make you prosper.

Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.
May 29, 1985

2 Responses to “Great Commencement Speeches (Part III)”

  1. Mark Esswein Says:

    Thanks Mark, for posting this. Unlike you, sad to say, I had forgotten most of it. Re-reading the vignette of the elderly Berliners picking and stacking the bricks, brought it all back.

    As an aside, Fr. Davis was a longtime friend of my family. We still laugh about my interview with him when I transferred to Georgetown.

    The circumstances of my transfer were a bit unusual and I was required to meet with Fr. Davis in his office in White-Gravenor. I was a bit nervous and his office was more than a bit intimidating – leaded glass, ornate paneling and an enormous desk. Behind the desk sat Fr. Davis and with his quiet voice he put me immediately at ease. What we laugh about still, is the image of Fr. Davis at that desk and that I felt (even for a moment) the least bit intimidated.

  2. Greg Kalscheur, S.J. Says:

    I am also grateful to you, Mark, for posting Fr. Davis’ commencement address. The image of the German women imaginatively working to clear a new path through the destruction of Berlin has always stuck with me as well. To form students with well-schooled imaginations, and, perhaps more importantly, with imaginations always alive to being further schooled, may be at the heart of what Jesuit education at its best is all about. When I look at schools that strive to get high profile outside commencement speakers (and when I reflect on the flap here at BC over Condaleeza Rice last year), I’m always grateful that the commencement speaker at my own graduation was someone who knew what the heart of a Georgetown education was about and who knew what it was truly important for our hearts to hear as we moved forward in our lives.

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