Saturday, December 19, 2015

An Open Letter to My Dear Former Students

Dear Former Students,

As Christmas approaches I have a few words especially for you. I speak here not only of those of you that I know well, but also the many familiar faces who never had me in class as a professor but saw me every so often on campus. We passed through important years together in the life of a growing school.

I want to say, first of all, "Thank you!"

It's beautiful to watch your lives mature after you graduate from college, to see the adventures, the work, the young families, and to continue on the path of life together as adults in solidarity.

I love your pictures: the places you live, your travels, the food you eat, and--of course--your kids. I can relate directly to kid craziness. Most of mine have gotten older, but it wasn't so long ago when they were all little. And, of course, I still have one that qualifies as a "little kid" and requires the attention of a little kid (though not nearly as much as when I started writing this blog over four years ago).

I also know that some of you are experiencing troubles, sorrows, frustration. Some marriages have led to separation. Children have been a source of many trials. People have grappled with various illnesses, including mental illness.

Some people have left the Church. I know that. You have found that the old inspiring speeches and the charge of "Instaurare Omnia in Christo" and even a solid (but by no means complete) education have been inadequate for the complexity of the world you now live in. And the questions of life are larger than you had realized.

I'm sorry, of course. At a college, we can only do the best we can with educating and building up a constructive environment. We teachers and administrators have our own idiosyncrasies and limits. We are sinners. Please forgive us.

But there is nothing in this world that can address the complexities and answer the questions that are not just intellectual but that constitute the depths of you as a person. Only Jesus can do that. The real Jesus: that tremendous Person who loves each of us with a wild and unpredictable love.

Sometimes when people "lose the faith," they are actually going through a phase of life in which what they're really "losing" are their own reductionist ideas. They are finding that it's not enough to know philosophy or theology as a collection of logically connected terms. It's not enough to have ideas about God. They are finding that they cannot live life with a mere conception of God, Christ, and the Church that is devoid of mystery, relationship, and the freedom of love.

We can become disoriented when we are stripped of our illusory images and false self-confidence. But we can also allow a space to open up within us where the Mysterious One who is beyond-all-things can really begin to speak. We can rediscover Jesus and what it means to belong to Him in the Church.

Dear students, we are all suffering in different ways. Maybe in school we teachers didn't appreciate that fact as well as we ought. I'm sorry on my own behalf. I had many sufferings in those days and yet I knew so little about compassion. I think I have learned a bit more since then.

The poor internet is not much. Just pictures and words, often ill-considered words. But I hope it at least reminds us that we are not alone.

You are not alone.

Whatever you're going through--whether things are going well or badly, whether your faith is strong or weak or gone entirely--the journey that you and I began to make together at a little college in Appalachia continues. We can still help each other.

Whatever may be the distractions of the internet, this possibility is one of its great benefits, and it is a special blessing for those of us who are united in Christ. To be able to pray for one another and share one another's joys and sorrows is a real grace.

And for those who have drifted away for whatever reason, or find themselves in darkness, please remember that we are still with you. I'm still here. I'm still your old professor, though I have no plans to lecture you. We're at a different place in life now. It's more important that I listen to you.

That is something I am always ready to do.