Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld’s uplifting speech to the graduating class of 2013
by The Rt. Rev. Robert HirschfeldBishop of New Hampshire, President of the Board of Trustees, WMS
I want to thank Head of School Tim Breen for inviting me to speak on this wonderful occasion. It is humbling to stand before you to share a few brief reflections as you, the graduating class of 2013, step from one stage of life to another. Soon you will walk away from this dedicated piece of ground, and you will have a piece of paper that signifies to the world, to your family, and to you, that you attended this place of learning, of growth, of soul-building, and that you are now ready for further study and new experiences beyond these halls and even beyond these hills.
So you get this piece of paper that I and Head of School Tim have both signed.
I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on this piece of paper called your diploma. My diploma is framed, and I keep it on the wall in my office. It was drizzling on my commencement day, and there’s a little,smudge of the ink on the signatures. I think of that smudge as representing all the trials, failures, rainy days that have sometimes brought an element of sorrow or stress, even on days of celebration and accomplishment.
I want to tell you, no one looks at it. No one. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one looks at any of the degrees I have. Nor do they look at the ordination certificates, including the one that says I was consecrated a bishop. No one looks at them. (Well, maybe my mother does when she visits, and when she does, I know she is proud, but it makes me kind of feel awkward. And I suspect there may be some of that awkwardness around here today, as your family and friends, teachers, swell with pride, or faint with relief, that you have made it to this day.)
Some folks don’t even bother framing these diplomas. They put them in a drawer, or on a shelf, and they gather dust. I wonder what you’ll do with yours. Do you know yet?
I ask because, as a religious and a spiritually minded person, I am interested in these things, and what they mean, what they signify. That may sounds odd. We usually think that religious people are supposed to show a kind of detachment to the world of things. Spiritual people are to be more focused on the world of the spirit, the unseen, the immaterial, the no-things of life. The best things in life are not things, right?
But we know that things represent more than meets the eye. In the branch of Christianity that I observe, things can often have what we call a sacramental quality. A sacrament is simply an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality or grace. A splash of water, a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, are the means by which we are connect to God’s abiding and never ending love for us. A ring on a finger means that we are bound to another, or to a whole community of brothers and sisters in love. I remember getting a letter for being on a varsity team and it meant more to me than just the letter in the alphabet.
This piece of paper you are about to get means so much more than the fact that you passed. It means so much more than the fact that you made the grade. It means you were here. You changed people here. There are relationships you had with friends, teachers, staff people, that meant something. I want to tell you that those changes you brought into peoples lives, for good or for ill, are holy. By that I mean that they will endure well beyond what you may have imagined. The relationships, the memories of these relationships, whether they were with close friends, mere acquaintances, or even opponents or rival, they remain alive even after you leave this place. They are holy, sacred, sacramental, because there is a Presence, a Being, a Life in which all of them took place here. I call that Presence ” God” but you may just call it Existence. In any case, it’s bigger and more beautiful and more enduring than we can imagine.
So this piece of paper cannot contain all those stories you hold within you about your time here. But your diploma will catch your eye someday, whether you frame it or put in a drawer. And when you look at it, remember not only the teachers, the kitchen staff, the coaches, the grounds crew, the deans, the dorm mates, remember also that all these people cared, and you cared, and that the concern you share was contained, held, took place in a field of concern that is always with you, not matter where you go, or what you do, or when you fail or succeed. This piece of paper is just paper, right? Yes, but it signifies your being here, and this is no small thing. In fact everything about the particular exchanges you had is unique, and will not be replicated.
You may be thinking that you were taught by your teachers. But let me tell you. Most likely, everyone of your teachers will remember you because you taught them how to teach, how to honor, how to rejoice, how to endure. That’s the beauty of a school that is this size, this intentional, this grounded in a least some spiritual tradition. To teach and to learn are sacred, life-giving vocations, and I hope that at least some of you will be called to its glories.
My wife is a teacher. And we are in the middle of a move from Massachusetts to be here now in New Hampshire. Moving is no fun, as you now know. In our garage are three huge boxes full of files, each with names of students from over ten years ago. She has not had contact with them, as far as I know. There are notes, copies of papers, drafts of papers. Stacks of these sheets of three ring lined note paper. I’m thinking, let’s just recycle them, through them out. Let’s simplify (also a spiritual and religious value.) But if I were to try, it would be like I has just attempted a heinous crime. These papers have a sacramental quality. They are a sign of an inward and spiritual grace which was this relationship, these particular contribution each made to a class discussion, even if it was an off hand, or off color joke. Without a doubt, you impressed someone here. And this paper we are about to hand you is a sacrament of that impression.
Do what you will with your diploma. Frame it. Store it. Keep it in your closet. It’s yours. It’s a piece of paper that has a sacramental quality. Otherwise why would we make such a big deal of your walking today from where you are sitting to here. You are participating in an ancient ritual that goes back thousands of years.
But I have a charge for you. A request. A final assignment. What I urge you to do is this. Before thus summer is out, take out another piece of paper. Make it a nice one. Thick, with a little texture perhaps. Find yourself a pen, a nice one. Write a letter. This summer. At least one. Not an email, not a text. Not a facebook message. A letter. Write it to a teacher or a staff member here. A grounds keeper. Someone who made your life here a little easier, a more significant. Start by saying something like: “ I was just remembering when you said…” Or I want to thank you for telling me those hard things you said to me… Or, I wish I could have said this to you when I was there but… Or I wonder if you might forgive me for being such a …”
Make a sacrament, make a thing, something that someone can open up and read and see your particular handwriting, the pressure of your pen on the paper. It will be a spiritual experience, that who knows, will probably lead to new spiritual experiences. Before you know it, this piece of paper you are about to receive will be the first in a lifetime of meaning, beauty, purpose, the sacred. You may find the Holy has been writing the mystery and wonder of your life all along.