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Monday, May 22, 2017

English Majors at Commencement

Graduating English majors played significant roles at the 2017 Commencement.  Maria McGeary was selected to give the invocation, Colin Lubner the benediction.  The speeches, in the words of one faculty member, were "lovely and complex."  Read the speeches below.

Our seniors also showed their creativity with awesome hat decorations!

Maria McGeary's Invocation:
Good morning family, friends, faculty, and distinguished guests. And to the class of 2017, congratulations!

It feels like just two days ago we were celebrating 100 days until graduation, packed into Ardmore Music Hall dancing the night away and praying that someone had made a huge mistake and done the math wrong. But no such luck, because here we all are.

Today is about looking forward. It’s about the futures we’ve all studied hard and planned for, and the parents, family, and faculty who believed we could make it to this stage. It’s about smiling for a few too many pictures and drinking enough Gatorade to make it through brunch without Grandma knowing that you were out all night. Don’t worry, Grandma, I was up all night writing this speech.

Today is also about looking back, and celebrating the last four years. In the spirit of that endeavor, I invite you all to think back to one of the first experiences we shared. No, not the awkward luau. I’m talking about ACS. Everyone walking out of here with a diploma today took the Augustine Culture Seminar. All of us too, read The Confessions of St. Augustine. Okay, maybe you didn’t read it cover to cover, but you read the important parts and skimmed the rest.

As we know, Augustine is the original wildcat, the guy who started it all way back in the years A.D. when they walked uphill both ways everywhere they went and knew a thing or two about hard work. It makes sense that graduates of an Augustinian University would be required to read his most important work. What makes a bit less sense, perhaps, is that our University is founded on the life and teachings of a man who spent his early years in the practice of advanced debauchery and related shenanigans.

Before writing this speech I went to the library to check out a copy of The Confessions, and I read it cover to cover. That’s a lie, I didn’t do that. I intended to, but I got there and it was much longer than I remembered, so I threw it back to freshman year and skimmed for the important parts.

The book certainly lives up to its title. St. Augustine was not a perfect man, and hardly on the yellow brick road to sainthood in his twenties. At one point he writes, “Lord, Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.” Prior to coming to Villanova, I did not know that this was a thing that you could do, pray, Lord, give me the strength to stop doing all of the things I know I shouldn’t be, but not for, say, another five or ten years.

I also didn’t know that ‘winningest’ was an actual word in the English language. And before revisiting The Confessions a few weeks ago, I had forgotten that it was a call to “take up and read,” that led Augustine to turn the corner. He was called to indulge in philosophy and theology, to convert to Catholicism, and to spend the rest of his life inspiring others to do the same.

Over the past four years we too have changed profoundly. Not one of us seated here today is the same person who rolled down Lancaster Avenue in late August, with matching Bed Bath and Beyond towels and palpable anticipation of what was to come. Since that day we’ve changed majors, veered down different career paths. We’ve been altered by friendships, classes, and conversations. We’ve changed the lives of others through service, travel, donation, and dialogue. We’ve made mistakes too, both big and small, and we’ve overcome them.

As I considered this I realized, it makes all the sense in the world that our school is founded on the life of an imperfect man and his profound transformation. What better model for the spirit of a University like Villanova than a man who bettered himself through the pursuit of truth, unity, and love, and was courageous enough to confess it to the world in words that still resonate with us today?

Augustine’s rocky road to sainthood may not make the front page of the campus brochure, but his call, Tolle Lege, does. Is that not the same call we answered four years ago? Take up and read. Take up and learn, change, grow.

Yes, we Wildcats know about change. We also know something about climbing lampposts, and that the Radnor Police have some of the finest looking horses this side of the Schuylkill River. But we’ve learned that change, ungrounded in our past, by tradition, by memories, is dangerous. As Augustine wrote, “The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” Without a foundation, we hurtle into the future without the touchstones to recall where we came from.

Long after this ceremony ends we will continue striving to become the people we want to be. Along the way we will become the people we were meant to be, and perhaps those two people will resemble each other. But the roots of who we are, are the people who raised us, the siblings, friends, professors, and mentors who bore witness to our successes and failures.
Our roots are here now, in the halls of the dorms, the steps of the church, the counters of Holy Grounds, and the bleachers of this hallowed Pavilion. Our touchstones are the books we read, the songs we sang, the people, places and ideas we fell in love with.

I am proud to have dug my roots here, with all of you. Ours is a University founded on the human capacity for remarkable change. Where all it takes is a good friend, a bone marrow match, a day of service, or 4.7 seconds and a great shot, to shake things up. And behind each of those seemingly small moments is hard work, perseverance, the support of community, and love of others. Our shared accomplishments, celebrated today, will remind us who we were as individuals, and who we became together.

Today we enter a world that is changing more rapidly than ever. The instability is terrifying, but it’s also nothing we can’t handle. Our hearts are restless, and we are ready for what comes next. The past four years with you at Villanova have been the greatest adventure. And now, class of 2017, it is time that we take up and find new lampposts to climb.

Thank you, and go Cats!

Colin Lubner's Benediction:
We’re nearly there, folks.  I’ll be brief.  Maybe.
But bear with me, okay?  For a moment.  Let me take our last few minutes together to talk about something that, by now, you’ve probably heard way too much about: change.
But let me start by talking about fire.
Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man, once said this.  “Give a man a fire, and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him, and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”
Terry Pratchett was also a very funny man.
A synonym, for setting afire, is to ignite.
Ignite—a verb. By the OED: To subject to the action of fire.  To heat to the point of combustion or chemical change.
To ignite: To heat.  To the point of combustion, or chemical change.
Villanova’s call-to-action, for those unaware, is to “ignite change.” Not in the short term.  Not to “ignite” for four years, then to cool off, to burn out. It is to “ignite,” period.  To ignite without period—with a beginning, perhaps, but no end. I say this because, on a day like this, it is tempting to talk about change in the past tense.  Graduation, from any institution, seems to entail a conclusion, a completeness. We have changed, the argument goes. Changed others, changed ourselves.  Now we are formed, we are forged.  Now, we may cooly reflect.
Now, we may chill.
I don’t buy that.
To be fair, though (and, confession time, parents, professors): We’ve been doing a lot of chilling, this past month.  A lot of talking.  Talk about nothing, mostly.  Talk about everything.  Something.  Something to make sense of these last four crazy years.  I’ve talked, at least, and I’ve listened.
What I have learned:
Generally, we were far poorer people our freshman years.
Generally, we were also, financially, far richer people.
I have learned how a campus might change, and change for the better.
The construction, on that middle bit, by Alumni—finished.  The parking garage—finished.
Bartley... somehow, it got even nicer.
The tunnel, to our West Campus—that’s changed.
Our American president has changed.  We have witnessed political change.
We have witnessed, in the arc-lights of the tunnel leading to our West Campus, violence.   We have also witnessed, in candlelight, union.
Villanova has changed, these four years, and the change has been deeper than mere masonry, than mere concrete.
And just as Villanova has changed, and settled into its change, so have we.  But this settling has been uneasy, incomplete. That’s the last thing I’ve learned from my chilling, my talking.  How very afraid many of us, myself included, are.
Another quote, I think, is overdue.  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”  It’s an appropriate  quote, for two reasons.  First is its meaning: It is a great change, graduating, and a sudden one, and difficult, in many ways, to many people here.
It is also appropriate because of Shelley’s age.  Nineteen, when she wrote that.  On a day like this, it is difficult to listen to a quote like that, and be okay with change.  To be okay with not being formed, not quite, not yet.
Change is frightening, isn’t it?
My grandfather could not be here today. That’s been a change, for me, these last few months.
When he was a boy, he and his mother lived in a tarpaper shack.  Right down the road, in fact, in Philadelphia. This shack—it was freezing in the winter, stagnant in the summer.  And he got sick of it, one day.  He was nineteen—the same age as Mary Shelley—and he changed.  He learned how to build a house.  He built his mother a house.  And he kept on changing.  He started a company that poured concrete.
His change, too, was concrete, and was deeper than concrete.
All without an education.  Without this.
He was nineteen.  And on a very literal level, he made it his job to keep people warm.
When we were nineteen, cozy and warm in Sullivan or Alumni or Fedigan, we were studying.  Chilling, when circumstances allowed it.  But mostly studying.
He was very proud of me, my grandfather.  Very impressed with my education, very impressed with this school.  He appreciated what an education is, and what it is not. An education is not a degree, a testament to what we have become.
Villanova has not made us into who we are.  What Villanova has given us is an environment in which we have become, and, more importantly, the tools to continue becoming.
He would have liked to be here today.  Very much.
But things change.
I am afraid, yes.
But mostly, I am excited. I am so, so excited.
I want no one—not one of us—to view this day as an ending.  It is an ending in other ways, yes, and an accomplishment, to be sure.  But please do not feel as if we are done becoming.  Be open to newness—within your communities, within your work.  Be open to the potential within yourself and within others.  Embrace these unfilled spaces.  Be excitable.   Excite.
I’ll quote one more person, one more time.  Neil Gaiman, who is a very wise man, once said that “the worst thing a speaker can do is go on too long.”  I agree.
To exit, then.
To excite, by the OED: To move up, stir, instigate, incite.
To excite, by the OED: To render an atom excited.
Fire, among other things, involves the excitation of atoms.
To excite, then.  Not by the OED, this time, but by Only Me: To ignite.
I am excited. I am very, very excited. You have excited me.
This school has excited me.
Villanova’s Class of 2017:
We exit.
Thank you.