Graduation Day and Pentecost

A week ago I was privileged to attend my youngest brother’s high school graduation. That day and the days surrounding it were filled with joy. My wife and I had surreptitiously made our way from Boston to Cleveland in order to surprise Owen for the occasion. On the morning of graduation, he opened up his bedroom door to see me standing there. “Happy graduation day, Owen!” I exclaimed. He grabbed a tuft of his blonde hair and jerked backward in surprise. “Wow…wow!” was all he could get out for the first moment.

The commencement ceremony itself was a splendid affair. We entered Cleveland’s State Theater to the harmonious sounds of the school orchestra. At the appointed time, the red velvet curtain rose to reveal 350 young men smartly dressed in blue blazers and the famous $50,000 ties (the blue and gold tie graduates receive after paying four years of tuition at this Jesuit high school). The principal, the salutatorian, and the valedictorian delivered some gracious words, the most memorable of which (in my mind) came in the form of the salutatorian’s litany of praise of his classmates’ virtues. Then, in orderly fashion, the young men walked across the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas as faculty members announced their names and the names of their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers who had done likewise in years past (as far back as 1894 in the case of my family). When the last student had received his diploma and snapped a selfie with the principal and president, the theater exploded in applause and the graduates spilled out into the street to celebrate with their families.

Later that afternoon I learned that the most memorable words of the day were written, not by the salutatorian who delivered them, but by my own brother. Owen, as a finalist for class valedictorian, had been asked to compose a commencement address, though he ultimately was not selected to deliver it. Sometime later, when the salutatorian confided to Owen that he didn’t know what to say in his own address, Owen offered to share his speech with him. This was one in a series of amazing revelations I recently learned about my brother, who, for all his accomplishments, seldom reports about them to others, even his own family. (My parents have often felt that other parents know more about their child’s accomplishments than they do.) This is Owen in a nutshell—humble as he is accomplished, selfless as he is beloved by others.

Witnessing this milestone and peering for a week’s time into Owen’s life, I found myself wondering how someone becomes such a wonderful person. My wonder was all the greater for knowing that my little brother’s journey has not been an easy one. The formative years of his childhood corresponded precisely with the stormiest period in my family’s history. Though it has not been easy for any of us, I fear that Owen has borne the burden disproportionately. While the eldest three children had all left home prior to this turbulent time, our ships well underway on their journey, his was only just leaving port… and heading straight into the maelstrom. Yet, in spite of it all, there he was on graduation day—happy and well-adjusted by any estimation, a leader among his peers, adored by friends and family, full of promise and poise.

How does such a wonder occur?

I found myself musing on the same question in a different context a week later as the Church celebrated the feast of Pentecost. This celebration commemorates a paradoxical moment in the Church’s history. The apostles were in the midst of a terrible storm. Only a short time before, they had been hiding in fear—perhaps as much of themselves and the betrayal they had committed as of their persecutors. Their leader in whom they had invested all their hopes had not only fallen short of their expectations but been brutally murdered in the sight of all. Their circle of friends that Jesus had gathered around himself had splintered in his hour of need. They had given up everything to follow this man and his vision of God’s reign, and now they were left with nothing.

But just when things seemed bleakest, a light shone forth in the darkness. Once again Jesus came into their midst and breathed his Spirit of peace upon them (Jn 21:21-22). He put their minds and hearts at ease, not by glossing over the damage that had been done, but by exposing his wounds to those who had cut him most deeply (Jn 21:20). Then, aware of their fallibility but also of their giftedness, the apostles went forth to set the world on fire with God’s love.

How does such a wonder occur?

You and I may never have the experience of tongues of flame descending upon us or of speaking in unknown languages, but each of us experiences a Pentecost of sorts in the messy details of everyday living. We all come from brokenness—from broken families, broken promises, broken hearts. Yet we are also called to wholeness, which is to say, holiness. We are called to bind up the wounds of the world—to be the first to forgive, to work for a society that gives all their due, to look for the good in the person whose views contradict our own. Impossible as this may seem at times, this call is no unfunded mandate. God gives us the grace to accomplish what is impossible for human beings alone, just as He did the apostles.

Pentecost was not a one-time affair. It happens every day in this world when people overlook the wrongs committed against them, when relationships are mended, when those who by all accounts should have failed succeed spectacularly. The Holy Spirit is alive and active in our world. For proof of that we often need look no further than the ones closest to us.