In the late sixteenth century, the English farewell “God be with you” gave way to an abbreviated “goodbye.” But the power behind the word remains in the good. Good-bye. May your bye-and-byes – your future days and years – be good. May you yourself be good; may you grow into a good human being and live a good life. In the words of songwriter Noah Gundersen, may you blossom like a flower; may you go dancing through the air.
We often perceive change as death, as my friend Peter reminded me a few weeks ago, and I have been grieving the death of this season. The first time I cried about graduation, it took me by surprise. I was sitting in my professor’s tiny office for our final Poetry Hour, looking at Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.” I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement, we read. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
That much we understood.
I didn’t want to end up simply having visited this place, either, which is what makes the grief that much more acute. I explored it, exulted in it, argued with it, pondered it. I loved this place. For four years, it was my home.
My professor handed me a card as we finished the discussion. Inside I found Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem I thought I knew through and through but discovered I knew not at all. We read it together my sophomore year, mining it for the treasures we missed in our high school classes, musing on the truth that there are no split-second decisions. Every large decision is simply the aggregate of all the small decisions one has made before one faces the moment of crisis. We decide who we become in the tiny choices we barely knew we were making. The questions of how to live and who to be are in the ordinary and the everyday.
And these questions of how to live and who to be are the questions I was encouraged to unravel over the past four years, presented in so many forms: the poetry of Hopkins, the philosophy of Plato, the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, the Mozart operas and the Arvo Part choral works. My sophomore year, the dean of the Honors College gave a convocation address entitled “In Defense of God’s Glory,” admonishing us to recognize the holiness in each of our respective disciplines, in all of creation. He besought us to see the handiwork of God in genetic sequences and the statistical analyses, in our internships at drop-in centers in Kensington and our music practice. In light of what we know, how shall we live?
After I left my professor’s office, I sat in my car and sobbed.
Four days later, I stood before the members of my graduating cohort at the Honors College senior banquet and read two Mary Oliver poems to them, “Messenger” and, for the second time, “When Death Comes.” My voice shaking, I struggled to speak about not speaking: Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
I finished reading the poems and looked out. There they all were, the people I’ve come to love so dearly, looking back at me. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than for them to flourish. It didn’t matter if I saw them again; it didn’t matter if we were in the same place. I just wanted them to unleash themselves onto the world and be the forces of good I knew them to be, to live lives of faith, hope, and love. A few unprepared words escaped me, an inarticulate tumble about how much they meant to me and what a privilege it has been to learn from and alongside them. Whatever it was, it was a paltry thank-you for a gift beyond measure.
Gratitude is a strange thing; even stranger is this concoction of gratitude and grief that I feel here, now, as I prepare to leave this place in five days’ time. I don’t know how to express my gratitude for the gift of these four years, and I am terrible at saying goodbye, so I will say only this: to my cohort, to the community of the Templeton Honors College and Eastern University, to all my loved ones in Pennsylvania, God be with you.
God be in your head, and in your understanding. God be in your eyes, and in your looking. God be in your mouth, and in your speaking. God be in your hearts, and in your thinking.
God be at our ends, and in our departing.
Thank you for living into your calling, and for being the head, eyes, mouth, and heart of Christ to me.
I love you, and I will miss you.