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Sister Peggy O’Neill commencement address



MAY 4, 2013


I am honored and humbled by your President Rodney Smolla and the Administration of your university that they would ask me to address you. And I am deeply grateful for their affirmation of my many years of living and loving as a sister of charity, the last 25 of them in a tiny, wounded country, El Salvador, where my heart has been broken open to love more . . . place where I continue to get glimpses of the Promised land . . . a place where I have been mid-wived by a people whose deep faith and vibrant hope continue to nourish and astound me. They have transformed my life and helped me to return to myself. Together we imagine a circle of compassion with no one standing outside of it.

This is not my first time in South Carolina. Every two years my O´Neill clan visits the Isle of Palms for the best family reunions. We love your beaches, your hospitality, and the huge homes that can fit super large families. The last gathering was an invasion of 78 of us, ages 4 months to 81 years old! So when I think South Carolina I think fun. Maybe you do the same!

This is my first time at Furman, but so many of you, faculty and students, have visited El Salvador, served us, learned our story, and allowed yourselves to be touched by the memories of our martyrs, by our determination not to let our fears overcome us, and never to be without hope. Yes, even before this honor today I have felt part of the Furman family.

You look so happy, all of you — distinguished guests, students, parents, grandparents, lovers and friends of the graduates! I know you are ready to celebrate . . . and you graduates, not just tonight but maybe all summer! Yes, there are many things that give us joy today. So I won’t keep you here too long.

You will walk out of here today with only one thing that no one else has. There will be hundreds of people with the same degree, and there will be thousands doing what you plan to do for a living. But my friends, you will be the only person alive who has the sole custody of your own life. Your own entire life. Not just your work life, not just your stock portfolios, your bank account, or the life of your mind. I am talking about the life of your heart, the life of your soul. I am talking about your deepest center.

People don´t talk about the soul much anymore, because it is easier to craft a resume than it is to craft your spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort when you are sad or lonely or you get news of a lump on your breast.

You can Google for an answer, you can Google for a mate or for a career, but you can´t Google to find out what´s in your own heart — the passion that lifts you upward. You have to listen to what is inside yourself and discover your own fire. Not only do you need your own fire, but so does the whole world.

Let´s get started. Let me share a few things that we can marinate in briefly.

If the size of your dreams does not scare you, know that THEY ARE NOT BIG ENOUGH. So my dear friends, let´s take a few minutes to dream big.

Imagine this old nun, named Peggy, wants to invite you — no, I want to challenge you, dare you really — to GET A LIFE! And I want to dare you to be Mid-wives! (OK, Mid-husbands)

Get a life, a real life. Remember: Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat!

A real life — not just the manic pursuit of the next promotion, the larger house, the greener lawn, the bigger paycheck. Listen, graduates, I am sure no one ever said on his or her deathbed, “Oh, I should have spent more time at the office.”

Get a life where you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure. It is hard work. Every time you look at your diploma, remember you are still a student learning to treasure your connections to others. So pick up the phone, kiss your Mom, hug your Dad, write a letter, learn the richness of pregnant silence when you are with a lover. Get a life in which you are generous. Give yourself away.

Get a life where you see the real, the within-ness of everything, where you take risks, make mistakes — in fact make interesting mistakes. A life where you are always like a bride married to amazement, or a bridegroom taking the world into your arms each day. Yes, feel the life force within you, and within the full moon, the butterfly, the raging river, your newborn. Check out the fuzz on her ear. Marvel at his tiny fingernails. Yes, get to see and meet the within-ness of everything — your lover, yourself, your wisdom sources, the holy books, the pain, the suffering, the lethal absence of hope, the wars, the poverty — really see and touch the within-ness of everything.

Chet Raymo is a Professor Emeritus in physics at Stone Hill College in Massachusetts. In his book, Honey from a Stone, he says, and I paraphrase, “All our knowledge is but a tiny island in the sea of mystery, and we must extend the shores of that island so that more mystery can lap up on the beaches.” We must keep asking the questions — keep searching, keep discovering, keep staring. The beauty of the unconscious is that it knows a great deal, but it does know that there is still more, and that all words will fall short.

Yes, be willing to take a long, loving look at the real, to look and really see the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. Remember: What we grasp gives us knowledge; what we let grasp us gives us wisdom. Get a life. In fact, pig out on life. This is not a dress rehearsal.

I also invite you — dare you — to be mid-wives, to assist at the birthing of a world long emerging but clearly off course. Lend your hands and heart and reshape how this planet is cared for, how it can continue to support life, how we can truly recognize our connectedness to each other and all life. I dare you to be mid-wives of solidaridad: solidarity.

Will you midwife economic systems that are built more on solidaridad?

What response does seeing human suffering demand of us? Will we awaken to the perceptions of scandals? The scandal of hunger, the scandal of planned lack of education, excessive violence, the corruption and impunity of so many institutions? If we do not perceive the scandals, we will never act. We must see and feel the pain to want to do the changing, to be a part of the new birthing.

Oh, those most quoted words of the Declaration of Independence! Would that it read: We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of . . . meaningfulness . . . the pursuit of truth . . . the pursuit of justice . . . and, oh yes, happiness will follow.

As Toni Morrison has remarked, personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, is more than a barren life. It is a trivial one. It is “looking good” instead of “doing good.” Think about a meaningful life, not just a comfortable one.

Are we ready to admit that we have trespassed on the fullness of Mystery, the Fullness of God by trying to lock God into a religion, a book, a gender? Will you try to mid-wife new metaphors for the creative energy and power that continue to invite us to renew the face of the earth? Graduates, use your creativity, which is a renewable source like love. Use it to find creative ways to nourish and sustain your spirits.

Will you mid-wife and swim in a spirituality birthed out of the awareness that we truly give praise when we build right relationships with people and all other species on this planet, and that sin is destroying right relationships? Who is our neighbor? The Good Samaritan? “Yes.” Salvadoran immigrants, the starving children in Darfur, the many women who endure violence? “Yes.” AND the whale, the sea turtle, the bees and the butterflies? Oh, how we have come to see the vastness of creation and its real connectedness, its real relatedness.

Will we deal with the myth of scarcity that pervades the west and, from where I live, I would say the north? We have been trained to believe in scarcity — not enough time, not enough money, not enough bandwidth. All of this so they can tell us we need more of everything, so we can buy more, have more.

We need to mid-wife a new way of rethinking scarcity, something Lynn Twist calls “The Greater Truth of Sufficiency.” Imagine a billion people go to bed hungry each night — billion, with a b — and there is enough food right now to feed us all. The truth is, we have enough grains to feed us all.

But on CNN I see people sleeping outside of stores selling the latest model of a smart phone — now, I guess, a smart watch. These people really believe they need to have it and right away. There may not be enough of them. Re-think scarcity.

Dare we think creatively? A nephew of mine recently wrote on Facebook that he thought every world leader, every politician, should have a baby on his or her lap when they are talking to each other, deciding our futures.

I asked the Ministry of Culture of El Salvador to give me the salaries of two soldiers to pay the salaries of two music teachers for my Peace Center. I promised them we would evaluate and see what worked better for gang prevention. Violins against violence makes more sense to me than guns against anything.

Don´t amputate your creativity, your ambitions, your possibilities. You must risk. So go peek around corners. Travel to stare at other cultures, other kinds of scarcities. Go to those places where there are palpable longings for justice and peace. Meet and befriend women who are willing to live each day to kill death and to die each day to give birth to peace.

Remember” Your minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open! Put your iPhones down once in a while and look into people´s faces. Take a moment. Stop to look up and around you. Pause and check in with yourself.

Create healing spaces for others who suffer from those of us who deny the scandals, those of us afraid to be mid-wives, to make real changes in the structures. It is one thing to take people down from their crosses, but we must ask ourselves: How am I complicit in building crosses for others? If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been alone in bed with a mosquito.

Adrienne Rich, the poet who died just a year ago, left us with these two haunting questions. She asks, “With whom do you cast your lot? From whence do you draw your strength? I suggest you write to your friends each month. Text them these two questions. Do it at least until you and they are 80 years old.

With whom do you cast your lot? From whence do you draw your strength?

So whose are you? To whom do you belong? If we are to mid-wife, to give birth to new ways of belonging and to change structures in this global world, we need buddies. Even Jesus needed a gang. I needed hundreds of sisters of charity, thousands of students, and now mi pueblo, the poor and resilient people of El Salvador.

Pay attention. Here is an invitation, an announcement. If you want a creative gap year — you know, if you don´t get a job or you are not sure what is next, maybe you are going to retire or take a sabbatical — our doors at Centro Arte para la Paz are always open to volunteers. You can belong to us as we try to create a culture of peace using the arts as the vehicle in a small town named Suchitoto, a place that was for so long a war zone. There are so many needs, so much trauma. Suchitoto can be one of those places where you discover your deepest center serving others. The people will break your heart open — and you will love them for it.

Soon I will be called an ancestor, but until then I want to continue to wonder, to struggle, and to grow. I don´t want to die before the last day of my life. I look at you today and each year at so many of my own students, and I know I can die with a smile on my face. I am convinced that you are ready to pick up and run with this gift of being human. You are ready to get a real life, you are ready to be mid-wives and help engage in what Joanna Macy calls “the Great Turning from Empire to Earth community.” Gratitude arises to be alive at this moment, when for all the darkness coming upon us, blessings abound. These blessings help us to stay alert and be steady.

Look — you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. What we carry with us are those moments of oneness — our connections with all that is alive, all that we have birthed and nourished and loved.

Anchor yourself in what is right, what is true, loving and kind. Blessings and congratulations.

Remember, call me if you are looking for a gap year or a sabbatical. I´ll pick you up at the airport.

Last updated February 22, 2016
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Clinton Colmenares
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