Each year around this time, connoisseurs of the commencement speech enjoy a wealth of new material from prominent citizens all over the country. It’s evident from popular culture that I am not alone in my enthusiasm for the genre. I have long been aware, however, that commencement speeches are more popular among the generation that delivers them than they are among those who are commencing. I know this because in my twenties I used to say, without exaggeration, that I thought about the commencement address from my 1985 graduation from Georgetown every day, and the amazed reactions of my friends quickly taught me that this is very unusual. I’m now old enough not to remember what I think about every day, but I still think about that commencement address quite a lot. It has provided me with the closest thing I have to a motto.
The speaker was Fr. Royden B. Davis, S.J., and this was such a surprising choice that I can only regard it now as a great stroke of luck for us, the graduates. Fr. Davis was the retiring dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, retiring in two senses. That is, Fr. Davis had recently announced that he would retire as dean, something he eventually did a few years later. But he was retiring also in the sense that he was an extraordinarily quiet and self-effacing man. So while President Reagan was at the U.S. Naval Academy and Reagan’s Chief of Staff was at Penn; while Stanford had New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Yale had Senator Paul Tsongas; while Notre Dame had a foreign head of state in the middle of a protracted civil war; we had our own dean on the eve of his retirement. It was the polar opposite of a flashy choice.
On our big day, the one on which everyone in attendance had fastened such extravagant expectations for so long, Fr. Davis invited us to reflect “on the place of the expected and the unexpected in our lives, the hoped for and the unrealized.” The kernel he offered was this story from his high school years, which would have been in the 1930s:
From many years ago, from when I was in high school, an image comes to mind. My high school was Atlantic City Public High School which was graced with Mademoiselle Dowd—French teacher extraordinaire and, at school dances, chaperone most precise. At these dances she would move gracefully among the dancing couples seeking those young men and women who danced too close to one another—or at least too close in her judgment. She would then admonish them to draw apart and thus, as she said, “leave room for the Holy Ghost.” Since then I have always chosen this expression as a suggestion that in any situation one should always leave room for the unexpected and the unforeseen.
And here I must note another piece of remarkable good fortune: although I barely knew Fr. Davis, I knew exactly what he meant about “the unexpected and the unforeseen,” because we had discussed it in his office the previous year. An assignment in my journalism class had been to interview a total stranger, and for me, Fr. Davis qualified. Naturally, I had learned quite a few biographical facts about Fr. Davis in that interview, but what I remembered most was Fr. Davis’s reminiscence that it seemed to him as if every really important event in his life had been not only unforeseen but unforeseeable. He had told me in that interview the same story about Mlle. Dowd, and he had told me how he had been leaving room for the Holy Spirit (the English rendering we now prefer) all his life. He hadn’t planned to be a soldier, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he was off to fight in Europe. He hadn’t planned to be a priest, but he discerned that vocation while studying at Georgetown after the war, and he joined the Society of Jesus in 1950. Many Jesuits wind up in education, of course, but it was hardly foreseeable that Fr. Davis would find himself appointed as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at age 43. Serving in that role across several decades, he would become the dean who integrated women into the College for the first time, and the dean who presided over the turbulent years of antiwar protests.
Such a life seemed to me then quite extraordinary, because it was so different from the way a new graduate of the mid-1980s was inclined to imagine his future. We weren’t like the hippies; we had plans. We pursued careers. We expected what we expected—exactly the attitude Fr. Davis was trying gently to correct. He urged us to rely less on planning than on “imagination …that affective response to the world which transcends calculation and logic.” By remaining always alert to new and unexpected developments, and always ready to adjust our course to take account of the new reality, “[o]ne gains thus through the imagination a freedom of action, and an ability to be ready for fresh choices. And after all, that is one of the attributes to mark maturity in men and women.”
We hope for something and it is there or not, often according to seemingly whimsical forces or to the mysterious gods. We plan for what is to come and surprise! The “what” is not according to our plan. We must, however, continue to plan, for we are thinking human beings living in an often confusing world. I think what is suggested is that we must not overplan. We need space for breathing. The unplanned life may not be worth living, but it seems to me that the overly planned life which excludes what life may do to us is really no life at all.
This perspective was so far from my own predilections in 1985 that I’m a little surprised I even heard it correctly. But nearly forty years later, I particularly notice Fr. Davis’s observation that the development of the moral imagination in this way is a mark of maturity. Eventually, I think most of us learn that a life well lived demands this attitude. I adopted Fr. Davis’s motto quite intentionally back then, possibly because I needed so badly to correct a tendency to overplan. And now, lo and behold, I have my own version of Fr. Davis’s retrospective about the unplanned and the unexpected. Seemingly accidental events brought me, an agnostic ex-Protestant kid, from Ohio to Georgetown to hear Fr. Davis that day. A few years later, a reading assignment from an atheist law professor transformed my worldview, and subsequent conversations with a close Catholic friend effected my conversion. Decades later, some unusual and unexpected vocational decisions led me to the faculty of The Heights, where I find myself passing along what Fr. Davis told us all those years ago. Paradoxically, my story is typical in its uniqueness. I suspect that for most of us, by the time we are undeniably mature (if not excessively so), it is obvious in retrospect that life has given us so many more choices, so many more opportunities, than we ever bargained for.
But leaving room for the Holy Spirit isn’t just drifting along; it requires not only detachment from our plans but also commitment to respond to the unplanned and unexpected in the Holy Spirit. We believe God calls us through the Holy Spirit to respond to the unexpected not just with equanimity but with love, and often with courage. As Fr. Davis put it, “Imagination in the service of others keeps us from self-contemplation in a lonely mirror and affirms each of us a place as one among many, not as one apart from the many who surround us.” We look for ways to be of service, of course—but ways to be of service also look for us. They find us not only in distant places or among strangers but, even more frequently, in our own neighborhoods, schools, and families. We should welcome the experience of being thus found.
Leaving room for the Holy Spirit also requires a sort of patient watchfulness about how others will respond to us. We cannot be sure our beneficent intentions will always be welcome, nor even that they will always be correct. We certainly cannot insist on gratitude; in fact, parents and teachers should probably plan on some militant ingratitude and treat the opposite result as an unexpected boon when it happens. When we overstep our bounds, possibly in a superfluity of helpfulness, we may even need to seek the forgiveness of those whom we were trying to help. And indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the first effect” of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the forgiveness of sins (CCC 733-34).
It is tempting, for me at least, to think of all this as a type of activity. Leave room! Imagine! Serve others with love and courage! Watch patiently! And yet it seems to me an overly activist stance toward the world is almost the opposite of leaving room for the Holy Spirit. What we want is to be open to the Spirit’s promptings toward transcendence; to be available for futures more marvelous than we have previously imagined. Our ideal is not just to serve others, but to learn from them—and in particular, to learn how to love them better. Our model, I think, is not our Lord on the road to Calvary, but his disciples on the road to Emmaus.
I think Fr. Davis would like the road metaphor. It emphasizes where we are heading rather than where we have been, and reminds us of how dependent we are upon God and upon each other for guidance along the way. There are of course many different roads we can travel in life, and even when we have a clear idea of our ultimate destination we do not always know which direction to turn, let alone what lies around the blind curve ahead. Leaving room for the Holy Spirit means not that no road is better than another, but that there is no point from which we could truly say, “You can’t get there from here.”