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Two nuggets for the commencement season

It is commencement season and I am collecting my thoughts for upcoming speeches. Because of space, let me share two of five nuggets harvested from experiences that span both professional setbacks and achievements as well as personal joys and losses.

First, it is good to make plans and set goals. Use these as markers for growth and for developing gifts, which are God-given.

Honor the goals with our best efforts and demonstrate that we can stand behind our priorities. If we do not respect ourselves, why would others? Having acknowledged the above, I also think it is very important to be open to surprises, detours and discoveries about ourselves.

Many young people and their parents agonize rather early, sometimes even in elementary school, over the distinguishing accomplishments needed for the best colleges, selection of the optimal majors, accessorizing with the right service engagements, and eventually landing promising career starts.

Believe me, who has spent most of my career in academia, such zeal and preoccupations are overplayed, out of proportion and neither necessary nor sufficient.

Gut wrenching rejection letters are exactly that: gut wrenching. But these also are growth triggers that help us develop resiliency, a new imagination about ourselves and what is out there, and a willingness to engage the unplanned.

We have to leave room for the Holy Spirit to whom we can turn when the paths for our plans seem to come to an abrupt end. Many people would readily offer that their lives took off because of the unplanned directions, from push and pull, that eventually gave them deep satisfaction.

Make plans, honor them with commitment, but also know that in setbacks we encounter the invitation of the Holy Spirit who always leads us to something more deserving of our gifts and calling.

Second, holiness is lived out in relationships. Relationships ultimately define our character, treasures and salvation. God is in everyone, so the manner we relate to people is how we relate to God.

In our relationships, we build and demonstrate our integrity that start in daily instances of keeping promises. For many students, this requires honoring prior commitments when "something better" comes along, catching up when we say we will catch up, giving proper credit to others or doing our part in team projects with quality and punctual outputs.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that, short of the Eucharist, the holiest object we behold is the person next to us. When God promises that he would not leave us orphans, he sends us each other. It took me awhile to realize that we are God's answers to each other's prayer.

A friend who completed a successful career told me that in retirement she would like to work hard on her salvation. Later, she revised her goal by noting that it is not enough just to work on her own salvation, as we must work for everyone to get to heaven.  

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr suggests that only in community can we bear the weight of God's glory and the burden of sin. He also makes it clear that if we are holy alone, we are not holy at all.

Friends and family are special gifts because of our intimacy with them and access to them. Their devotion is a glimpse of God's goodness and generosity, and a reminder of how we, with failings, are loved beyond the futile attempts to be perfect or deserving.

Indeed, take a second look at each person you meet, as you will be meeting God in person.

Woo is distinguished president's fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019