Memory and Faith

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I just graduated yesterday from the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education program. These past two years have been, by far, the most challenging experience of my life. But I’ve been having trouble thinking about it all, or making sense of what has happened to me. Yet graduations are times for memory and telling people all the wonderful things you have learned and all the amazing ways you have changed.

During our commencement retreat this past week, Father Lou DelFra, our ACE chaplain, gave us a beautiful homily to help us process our experience. For our retreat, he chose one of my favorite Gospel readings, the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus.

So my thoughts here are largely inspired by Father Lou’s words and a few passages from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei.

As you know, the two bewildered disciples are leaving Jerusalem, overcome by the horrific events they have just experienced. The Lord was crucified. All of their hopes have been dashed. They are struggling to interpret their experience of the past three years with Jesus. When the Lord, whom they do not recognize, begins walking with them, they are shocked to discover that He hasn’t heard the latest news. He begins to interpret these events for them in terms of the Scriptures, and, fascinated, they beg him to stay with them for the night. Yet they only finally recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.”

Father Lou reminded all of us that our experience on retreat, which involved the famous ACE “paired walks,” was very much like that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We were likewise trying to make sense of all that we have experienced, and perhaps we were having some trouble doing that.

ImageBecause for every triumphant teaching story I can tell you, there are a dozen more that do not involve visible triumph. For every miracle I saw, there were a dozen more crucifixions that had no apparent resurrection. Let’s be real here. One of my students was involved in some kind of attempted murder, and is on the run, and I still don’t know what happened to him. There was another I struggled with my entire first year, who suffered terribly from psychological challenges, whom I was never really able to reach and who is gone now. I don’t know what will happen to her either. There are kids who failed my class and who, despite my efforts, did not really seem to improve over the two years. And then there are the kids I know I did not try hard enough with, who slipped through the cracks.

As much as graduation is about our accomplishments in ACE, and the stories we love to tell each other, and the students we love to remember, it’s also about all the failures and the situations we would rather not recall.

But Father Lou’s message to us was simple—don’t be afraid to remember them. Don’t be afraid, over these next weeks, months, and years, to try to make sense of it all. Father Lou seemed strangely confident that we would find Christ there if we looked for Him—that we would see He had been walking with us the whole time, even when our “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

I love that in Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict’s) encyclical, they express how closely tied together faith and memory are:

Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (9, Ch 1)

Faith as memory is therefore linked to hope that sheds “light on the path to be taken.” Father Lou, as well, seemed to suggest that if we had the courage to remember our experiences—all of them, the good and the bad—that we would find Him there and He would tell us where to go next.

ImageThe two disciples on the road to Emmaus tried to remember and understand. In the Eucharist, their eyes were opened and Christ showed them the real meaning of what had happened—and thus they were able to run back to Jerusalem to share their memories with the others. And the Church has been doing this ever since. She shares her memory of Jesus with us, and because Jesus gave her the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist (“do this in memory of me”), we can trust her memory of Him.

Obviously my thoughts are still forming on all of this, so I’ll just end with the beautiful words of the encyclical that I recognize not only as applying to the universal faith, but to my own personal faith that He has been there with me in ACE—even if I still cannot recognize Him.

Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church. The Church is a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith. Saint John brings this out in his Gospel by closely uniting faith and memory and associating both with the working of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus says, “will remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The love which is the Holy Spirit and which dwells in the Church unites every age and makes us contemporaries of Jesus, thus guiding us along our pilgrimage of faith. (38)

Graduation and the Final Exam Question

Some years ago a friend of mine described to me a concept that I immediately loathed: he called it “graduating from people.”

I hated it because my worst fear was (and probably still is) the fear of being left behind by those I love. “You can’t graduate from people!” I protested. “People aren’t like subjects or classes that you can master on a final exam! You can never graduate from a human being.” The concept was clearly utilitarian, narrow, immature. “People aren’t topics to be learned, papers to be written, puzzles to figure out.” I thought about how so many former subjects I have “graduated from” seemed to me. “You don’t just squeeze all the learning you can out of a person and then in a couple of years forget him! It’s not like you can earn a ‘grade’ on a friendship, or even worse assign a grade to one!”

from the last chapter of The Last Battle

Didn’t C. S. Lewis say something about how we are always surrounded by immortal souls, destined for the glory of God? Eventually it would be like my favorite scene in The Last Battle, where—once again, from Lucy’s eyes—we meet all those we ever loved or ever knew or ever loved us or even the ones we did not know, but met fleetingly. There certainly wouldn’t be diplomas or report cards.

Thinking about it now, for all of my philosophical moralizing at the time, my younger self was probably most afraid of an idea implicit but unsaid: People leaving. People changing irrevocably. People not needing me or wanting me anymore. People graduating from me.

Ironically, my greatest fear has now become an essential part of my chosen vocation.

The words of another friend of mine, “your vocation is where your deepest desire meets the world’s greatest need,” come to mind—only now they seem a little adjusted: “your deepest fear meets the world’s greatest desire” or something like that.

I say this because being a teacher means to love people, help them learn everything you can teach them and give them, and then to let them go. You want them to graduate from you. Year after year, over and over again.

I’m sitting here in my empty classroom, gazing at the empty desks and the bare walls and the remains of a Great Gatsby project in the corner. I know where all the kids sit and where most of my last year’s seniors sat, where the posters should be, where the books should be, where everything should be—especially the noise.

My classroom earlier this year.

But now they have all graduated from me. And it is good and right that they have. That’s my job. That’s their job.

The temptation when you’re an ACE teacher, I think, is to imagine yourself as a Mary Poppins or a Maria in “The Sound of Music” or a Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” or a Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love”… or as any of those iconic teachers who transform the lives of families or schools or disadvantaged children by their charisma and determination.  That’s the temptation. When really you are, most likely, a self absorbed, middle class Northern college graduate who is the real one in need of learning—the truly uneducated one, the truly poor one, the truly needy one. Whether the learning you so desperately require can come from a group of second graders who teach simplicity of heart or a pack of fifth graders who offer courses in chaos survival or a mob of eleventh graders who can give you a Masters degree in humility and pride-annihilation.

But at some point, graduation day comes. They graduate from you, and you graduate from them. And this type of graduating from people does not exclude love but rather, for a teacher, constitutes it.

And not in some idealistic or Romantic (as in Romanticism) way, either. I got some awkward hugs and hesitant “see you later, Ms. Shea”s and a few beautiful notes scribbled on the back of exam essays yesterday that made me cry. But there is no good way to say goodbye.

When I graduated from college two years ago, I walked around the campus and promised to keep in touch and finally left with my parents to go have lunch.

A little anti-climatic to say the least, for the great Epic Story that so many of us former Romers feel we are a part of at UD! And it feels the same way now.

In his convocation address to us, Dr. Roper warned us how it would be. I’ve been thinking about his words a lot as I approach my second graduation—from ACE, from Notre Dame… but most importantly from my kids here in Louisiana. And I actually think now that my friend’s idea of “graduating from people” is not wholly incompatible with Dr. Roper’s final address to us. In fact, like my friend, he described life and people in academic terms. He said there was one last final exam question we have to answer, which he posed to us as we sat all together as a class in the Church of the Incarnation for probably the last time:

Are you ready to die?

Now, I want to assure you that, proposed legislation in the Texas House aside, under this voluminous late-medieval guildsman’s ceremonial outfit, I’m not “packing”.

And I know what else you’re thinking:  “Sweet Holy Job, Roper, I know you Irishmen like to read the obituaries, but could you make this any more depressing?  It’s supposed to be a happy time, a celebration—we’re heading towards Commencement, a beginning, not… that.”  Well, I promise I’ll bring this back around; the nature of reality is, after all, comic.  I mean, you can’t hold back grace and comedy in a world where Michael Kelsey can become a multinational pick-up artist, right?

But in fact graduation, leaving UD, can have as much a sense of a little death as of new life; students often feel bereft, find themselves grieving, over losing daily contact with the immediate and close circle of friends, the great professors who are my colleagues, the wonderful, endless yack about texts and ideas.  (When I walked down the Mall after my own graduation too many years ago, a five-foot Cistercian, Father Chris Rabay, the Charity Week jailbreak expert long before Father Maguire assumed his mantle, asked me how I felt. I thought I felt great, but surprised myself by choking out, “It’ll be hard to leave this place.”  “Oh, we have a saying in Hungarian,” he responded: “‘Life is one long goodbye’.”)  And soon after graduation you will find that student loans, marriages, children, mortgages, careers, all involve daily dying to self.  I think it’s providential that this remarkable class ended its time at UD with the events of Holy Week so close to finals, so I’m going to ask you my final exam question, whether you like it or not.

Are you ready to die?

The entire education you have received here, if we look at it in one way, has had this question looming from the beginning.