Of all the rites of spring, commencement exercises are among the best. I have an aisle seat for this glorious graduation ceremony, joining hundreds of families and friends, kids dressed too well for their comfort, flower bouquets ready for joyous presentation.
The music swells and the procession begins. Banners emblazoned with heraldic symbols and Latin aspirations lead the parade, followed by a blur of black robes with splashes of white and vermillion. (Why do I feel like I’m in church?) After the graduates come two-by-two, discretely grinning, waving to loved ones, the faculty bring up the rear like shepherds of the giddy flock in front of them. They hardly smile, robed in the wildest regalia, orange and purple and saffron robes with velvet slashes on their billowing sleeves. Hoods of lemon, apricot, burgundy, scarlet, pink, topped with caps, tasseled tams and some hats that seem straight out of Seuss. Regaled by regalia.
Despite the fact that everything about this ceremony shouts a magnificent climax, the speaker always reminds us that commencements are about beginnings. Some of the advanced degree recipients are older, but most of these graduates are young. They are just getting started, ready to set the world on its ear. Their earnest energy is so endearing—every time I attend one of these affairs I want to put on a robe and march with these beginners. Make a new start, take on some great challenge. Counting high school, I’ve done it four times, but every time of course the newness fades. The calling becomes fainter. The path runs through thickets.
“Always, we begin again,” wrote St. Benedict in his Rule for contemplative life. In other words, commencement every day. I lean on this wisdom whenever I feel I’ve lost my way, made a mess of things, need a do-over. It reminds me, too, that what matters most in life are the things we do every day, over and over. How we get up—in what spirit we begin the day. How we eat and drink, how we breathe, how we speak to the people who see us in our pajamas. What little things we do with great care and love. What sacrifices we make for the weak or the needy. How much we encourage others. How readily we laugh and how often we fall silent.
Taken together, these are the things that make for greatness. As much as I think I want to robe up and march to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” I don’t really. What I want, what I need is a daily commencement, a conscious stepping into life, always beginning again.