By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
We derive our words “graduate” and “graduation” from the Latin gradus, meaning “step” or “degree” (as in stages or metrics, not a pun connected to the granting of a diploma). The sense, of course, is that new graduates have taken a step forward and are moving up the ladder of achievement. The sunny buoyancy of parents (who probably paid too much for that piece of graduating paper) and the graduates themselves suggests that they have arrived at a goal, and are now equipped to scale ever more glorious heights of opportunity and success.
But what is the goal of any graduation, of any process involving the scaling of steps, in the context of a human life? All paces in space and time are finite, and no earthly aim provides rest, given the inexorable flow from one moment to the next. As soon as one commencement concludes, the degree earner turns to calculate the next step.
This is all fine and necessary, but it becomes tragic as the default thought-pattern for one’s life—that is, if a graduate so relentlessly looks for a next step that he or she fails to see a closed door at the top of the stairs.
There is, after all, a definite door limiting the number of steps you can take. A story heard from a friend will illustrate my point. An elderly man congratulated his grandson, who had just earned a college degree in finance, by peppering him with one simple question after every bland response about his plans. When the boy explained that he hoped to find a job in sales, the grandfather asked “And then?” Thinking that his grandfather wanted a detailed map of his career, the graduate cooked up an ideal life for himself on the spot: “Um…and then I’ll be promoted.” “And then?” “And then…I’ll get married, and become a CEO, and maybe have some kids.” “And then?” “Uh…and then I’ll retire with a big pension.” “And then?” The perplexed lad finally let out a flustered “Geez, Grandpa, what are you getting at?”
This was the moment Grandpa had been waiting for. “Then you will die. Death is the definitive door at the top of your stairs. And you must have that end in view as you take your steps. Those who try to sidestep it, or pretend they don’t see it, are miserable, even if they appear happy and carefree. So what will be written on the diploma of your life at your final graduation? That is the ‘And then?’ you should always be thinking about.”
A worthy source of inspiration encourages its readers to imagine life as a pilgrimage: to have a destination in mind that will allow the pilgrim to regard the necessary sacrifices to get there as worth the suffering, one that opens the door of death with a song of praise.
In the Old Testament, Psalms 120-134 are known as the “songs of ascents” or “songs of the steps”; in Latin, they are the Cantica graduum. The Israelites would sing them at various stages on their shared journey to the Jerusalem Temple, the dwelling place of the presence of God. They would mount the heights of Zion singing the Lord’s praises, desiring to reach their destination and offer their sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.
The Christian praying these brief but blessed psalms should think of the Temple on Mount Zion as a symbol of Heaven, the goal beyond the door of death opened by Christ, who surely prayed these very Psalms when he made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The lines of Psalm 134 should be the words found inscribed on the diploma of your life, suggesting that your life spent in joyful search of Christ has prepared you for an eternal graduation gift: “O come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord … May the Lord bless you from Zion, He who made Heaven and earth.”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.