May 28, 2010

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Family life is one commencement after another

Sean GallagherAccording to the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, the first definition of the word “commencement” is “a beginning; a start.”

Only in the word’s second meaning does it refer to “a ceremony at which academic degrees or diplomas are conferred.”

This is the time of year when schools at all levels schedule commencement ceremonies—events that fill graduates, their friends and family members with joy.

But that joy is rooted largely in the accomplishment that the graduates have made in bringing many years of hard work and study to a successful end.

The fact that the graduation ceremony has thus traditionally been called a “commencement” is curious.

This title suggests that a graduation ceremony is a “liminal” moment. “Liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” when means “doorway” or “threshold.”

A liminal moment is thus one when a person, in a sense, leaves one room and enters another.

A commencement ceremony is a moment when a graduate leaves one room of his or her life and enters another.

We rightly give a lot of attention to this when children finish grade school and, more so, when teenagers and young adults graduate from high school and college.

At each moment, families and friends celebrate accomplishments rooted in the past and look forward to a future filled with hope.

But you know what? Family life is filled with scores of such moments in which we leave one room and enter a new one, when we bring one part of our life to an end and “commence” another.

Some of these liminal moments—such as weddings and the birth of children—are great beginnings indeed that are filled with their own ways of celebrating.

But others are a good bit smaller and might pass us by if we don’t keep a close watch.

Yes, there is the wedding. Then there is the day when a bride and groom come home to live together for the first time.

Yes, there is the birth of a baby. Then there are the moments of bringing the infant home for the first time, seeing him or her smile for the first time, crawl for the first time, and walk for the first time. Later, there is the day when the child will go to school for the first time, a day which will hopefully lead to a happy commencement years later.

In all of these and in so many more commencements in family life, spouses and parents should try to step back for a moment and allow the enormity of our God-given vocation to wash over us.

Those called to marriage are called to embody in their everyday lives what St. Paul called a “great mystery,” the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church (Eph 5:32).

And those blessed to become parents have been given the awesome task of caring for an immortal soul.

It is only through grace that parents can mold and shape our children through their many commencements to the point where they come to know and embrace with joy their own vocation.

We should also remember that all of the commencements in our lives and those of our children are directing us toward the greatest commencement of all—when we cross the ultimate threshold into eternal life. †

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