Words to Live By
Michael J. Graham, S.J.
Let me share a pet peeve of mine with you. As you might guess, my job requires that I attend various lunches, dinners and other events. And at those lunches, dinners and other events, someone is often called upon to say some words by way of blessing. And when they do, they often begin like this: “Let us place ourselves in the presence of God.” That really ticks me off. It really does. As if somehow, unless and until we bow our heads and furrow our brows, unless and until we settle into a kind of pious coma, we cannot be in God’s presence! As if we can ever be anywhere else, no matter where we are, than in God’s presence! As if God does not or cannot or will not say “Yes” to us unless and until we first say “Yes” to Him! As if….as if…well, you get the picture. That really ticks me off.
What is the world and what are our lives if not the great arena of God’s presence to us? It surrounds us like the sky. It’s the background against which everything we ever do occurs. God’s presence is as pervasive and yet as invisible as the air that surrounds us everywhere. There is indeed nowhere we can be other than in God’s presence!
But while that is true, it is likewise true that you and I can choose to live so as to make that truth more intensely and intensively true – that is, we can live in such a way that God’s presence is more radiant around us and within us. How do we do that? Not, curiously, just by bowing our heads or silencing our cellphones or in some other way trying to be somewhere other than where we are or someone other than who we are. Rather, you and I live more explicitly in God’s presence when we try to be as intensely, as intensively, and as deliberately as we can, who we already are. By inhabiting our lives as fully as we possibly can, by investing ourselves completely as the people we are, in the places we are, and with the people who are in those places with us, you and I come more perfectly to dwell in God, and God in us. For God’s solution to the future of the world really comes down to this: that each and every one of us here become the most alive, the most authentic versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. And if there is one prayer that I would make for all of you tonight on the eve of the day you graduate from Xavier, it is that this is what you will become in the coming years: the best versions of yourselves that you can possibly be, fully and completely invested in the lives that are yours. It’s what I hope most for you, and what I hope most that your time here at Xavier has aimed you clearly towards.
Your readings tonight surely agree with me in this hope! What is the reading from Isaiah if not a summons! It makes clear the plan before you, the plan for which (I hope) your experience here at Xavier has readied you. “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased.” Isaiah’s words, certainly, but aren’t they God’s words, really – as if God is introducing you to someone, standing right behind you and a little to the side, hugging you gently and patting you on the shoulder as He presents you to the world, His eyes brimming with pride. And this is the same God after all, “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spreads out the earth with its crops, who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk on it.” This same God who did all these things made you, grasped you, formed you, and sent you to Xavier so that now He can send you out into the world. How can you then not trust your life as a good thing and never fear it, never hold yourself back or distant or aloof from it, never waiting for another and better life to come along? Not that everything will go perfectly for you in the future, to be sure. Just ask your parents; how well they know! But even they can look at you now, their eyes brimming like God’s, and tell you truthfully and with all possible conviction that, in the end, it’s all good. Somehow, someway it’s always all good.
Which brings us to Paul and the Philippians. What words does Paul have for you on this night where the life you’ve had for these last few years is ending with no life yet in place to replace it? “Have no anxiety at all.” You go, Paul! And more: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen.” Doesn’t that rather raise a question: Just what have you learned and received and heard and seen? Like Isaiah, Paul captures well the hope of my heart for what your time at Xavier has been and what you have taken in here; that these years have poured into you – poured into you – “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,” whatever is excellent and worthy of praise. I know enough of you well enough to know how hard you have sought to drink in as much as you could, so that I can guess that the rest of you have as well. And if you have, then indeed you need have no anxiety at all about how your life will be or where your life will go or what your life will become, no need ever to hold it a safe arm’s length away, but invest yourself fully in it.
Which brings us to the musical, mystical words of John. As you know, passage after passage in the Gospel of John finds Jesus rhapsodizing lyrically over the nature of the relationship between Him and the Father. But in the passage we hear tonight, John’s Gospel takes a telling turn: Jesus welcomes into that relationship those who have become His friends. And isn’t this what Jesus now calls you, and therefore isn’t His relationship with the Father the intimacy into which He now welcomes you? To be sure, it has its command – that we love one another as He has loved us – but with that command comes the best guarantee there is of our being truly grounded in life, of having the right place from which to proceed, to act, to do whatever is before us, that to which we are called. Indeed, He has been readying you for this for some time, because “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you,” as He says. And isn’t that, therefore, why you’re here tonight at all? Why you came to Xavier in the first place? Why you majored in what you majored in, why you spent those nights with your friends that you spent, why you found yourselves becoming yourselves in all the hundred and one, the thousand and one, the million and one ways in which you became them?