I'm on retreat - but the column is not!
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 27 May 2010.
My dwelling, like a shepherd's tent, is struck down and borne away from me; You have folded up my life, like a weaver who severs the last thread. Is 38:12a
Clutching his mortar board in one hand, Matt dug in his pocket with the other and pulled out a quartet of keys, “I don’t need these anymore.” “Are you sure you don’t want to hang on to them a bit longer, just in case?” I wondered. “Nope!” came the firm response.
After six years as a graduate student in my research group, Matt was getting his Ph.D. in two days time. He’d submitted the final version of his dissertation, cleaned out his desk and was more than ready to head into the wide world. The keys were his last official connection to the college as a student. Though I’ve known for months that Matt would be leaving in May, this ending seemed too sudden, too abrupt.
My life is marked out by beginnings and endings. New students arrive, old students take their leave. For this time, short or long, our lives are woven together. I am the warp, they the weft, wending their way through the threads I — and God — have strung onto the loom for them. It’s no wonder that I feel the snip when the last thread is cut and they fold up their student days to tuck into their traveling bags. Or return their keys.
Graduation is meant to bind off the fabric neatly, so that it won’t fray, leaving behind the warped threads ready for the next length of cloth to be woven, for the next class to start anew. But the weaving of lives in this way does more than just produce a new graduate, it subtly alters the pattern warped onto the loom — I am changed, and so, too, the students that follow.
Teachers and students, apostles and elders, came and went in the early Church as well. We read tantalizing bits of the richly woven web of connections in Paul’s letters. In the last chapter of Colossians alone Paul names eleven different individuals and two communities, drawing them together through their connection to him. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul notes that as he now teaches the community, they once taught him. Each crossing of the strands makes the fabric of the community stronger, and each interweaving of lives affects them both.
I play Scrabble on Facebook these days with a student I taught in more than twenty years ago. Kitty taught English for many years (I gracefully and unfailingly lose to her), then became a student once again. Last week she fulfilled her long held dream, and became a physician. Today she told me that I had helped her a great deal in those long past days. I was touched and humbled that I made a difference, even a small one in her life. I’ve lost count, though, of the number of times I’ve passed on to other students what Kitty taught me about perspective and perseverance and patience.
When a group of sisters from the Order of the Visitation left to found a new monastery in France, St. Francis de Sales reassured them “Those who go, stay. Those who stay, go.” Once woven together and bound off, the threads are difficult to separate, like a chain of hands, one over the next. My students go, while I remain bound to the loom. They may have struck their tents and folded up their lives, but the threads of their days have left their mark on mine.
May you stand sure on your ground
And know that every grace you need
Will unfold before you
Like all the mornings of your life. — John O’Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us