Earlier in May, I spoke to 18 seniors at the Gold Cord Dinner for St. Mary's High School. Here are some of the thoughts I shared:
Forty years ago, I was exactly where you are today. I was graduating from St. Mary's. It was 1974. No, we didn't have to worry about dinosaurs on our way to school. They were nearly extinct, just a few back in the slough.
To you students the 40 years that separates us looks like a big, long stretch of time. When I look back at that same span of time, it seems very short, brief. That's called perspective, and it constantly changes as you find yourself standing in new places.
Part of me is jealous that, God willing, you have 40 more years of amazing life on this Earth. But then I got to see some neat stuff, too. I got to see men land on the moon. We haven't been back since 1972, but I assume you'll see that again in your lifetime. I also saw the Vikings in a Super Bowl. I don't know if we'll ever see that again.
I called the time we have on this Earth "amazing," and it truly is. But it will only amaze if you are paying attention. I'd encourage you to stay curious. You were insatiably curious as little children; that is put into your brains at your birth. As we age, it is up to us to hone that, to develop that. Or to lose that.
I remember when my son was small, we stepped outside one morning and he stopped and stood still. I thought something was wrong. Then he said simply, "I hear birds." And there were birds, singing away, a beautiful sound. I didn't even hear them until Ezra stopped me. I needed a two-year old to point out the obvious.
I knew an old nun at St. Benedict's, Sr. Margretta, who told me that she could never understand boredom and would not tolerate it in her students. You will never read every great book. You will never know how everything works. You will never see every place. You yourself will never be the way you are right now, this age, with these experiences ever again. Each moment in your life is unique.
There are things that will dull your curiosity. There are obvious ones: alcohol, drugs, pornography. Then there are less obvious ones, things like television. Coming home each night and plopping in front of the TV says, "Here is my brain, you can have it for four hours." Don't give away your brain. You need it to hear the birds.
Next, I want to encourage you to be appreciative. Your parents may not be able to afford the most expensive private college. But none of you has ever been truly hungry, none of you has been cold because your family couldn't afford heating oil. All of you have phones that connect you with the world, all of you have a car you can use. I could go on.
You have these because your parents worked hard and cared. Great-great-grandparents you'll never know took tremendous risks to come to America, with the hope that their families would be better off. This school was built by generations who came before and sacrificed so that it would be here for you. Be thankful.
I love St. Mary's and Sleepy Eye. Are they perfect places? No, in this world, there are hurts and pain. Sprains and bruises aren't the worst hurts, though. Those come from people, often people who are close to you. Please, be forgiving.
I know people my age that won't come back to a reunion because of hurts they felt way back in high school. I am not so far removed from high school to know that it isn't all fun and games; it can be tough navigating these years. You had classmates who offended you, parents who didn't understand, teachers who could be rude.
Realize that your classmates were struggling with the same stuff you were, and sometimes things were said the wrong way. Realize that your parents and teachers were trying to do the best they could, and sometimes things came out wrong from them, too. It might take time, but I'd encourage you to let those hurts go.
I'm not talking about big hurts that cross into abuse. I pray none of you face those. But for the small ones that are part of all our experiences, the times you experienced pettiness, selfishness, or meanness, be forgiving. Don't let those fester in you. Let it go.
I want to end with this. Your parents have given you something more valuable than a phone or a car. That is the faith you have grown in. Don't let that go easily.
Out there in the big world, Christians are not always encouraged in their faith walk. Often it goes beyond that to outright contempt. A student from here told me about their first semester of college and a professor who openly made fun of Christians and the bible. Anti-Christian belief is easy to find on television, in lyrics, books, anywhere really.
I know it is part of your age to question the beliefs of your parents. That's normal, and you need to find the adult you. But don't give up this faith lightly. There are 2,000 years of saints and writers and prayers and hymns; take time to explore that. Here, we've just given you a small slice of what the church has to offer. Perhaps Ignatius or Aquinas can speak to your heart from the last millennium, or Dorothy Day or Thomas Berry from the last century. Every doubt, every question you have, every crisis you face, someone has stood in that spot before.
Last March, all of us in Sleepy Eye had a harsh lesson about the fragileness of this life. The four young men who died were as ready to set forth on their adult lives as you are tonight. It reminds us that as amazing as this life is here, it is built on shifting sands. I pray you have a foundation of faith as you go into the world.
I want to put a little pressure on you tonight; you are the best students from one of the best schools with a strong church and community backing that up. You are among the most gifted young people we have. Do we expect big things from you? You bet we do.
By big things I don't mean curing cancer or becoming president. Maybe one of you will, but by "big things" I mean make a difference wherever you are, make the Earth a better place because you were here. Wherever you end up, this little town claims you. Make us proud.