Franciscan School of Theology 2017 Commencement Address by Darleen Pryds, Ph.D.
Thank you for this invitation you have extended to me today to offer this reflection at your commencement ceremony. I am touched and honored to be asked to speak today. On behalf of the entire faculty of the Franciscan School of Theology I offer warm congratulations on your achievement in completing all the requirements for your master’s degrees.
I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on this charge that Father David Gaa as the Franciscan Provincial conferred on you. As graduates of this school now holding Master’s degrees you have been charged with all the privileges attached to these degrees.
I want to ask you a pointed question: What do you think these privilege entail? And what will you do with them?
By definition, “privilege” means a right or prerogative granted as a benefit, advantage, or favor, especially from holding an office or having a particular station in life. In your case having a new degree. With the advantages and benefits that come with a Master’s degree, many opportunities may very well come to you now–opportunities that may lead to success, upward mobility, honor, and respect. And yet the Franciscan understanding of privilege is nuanced in a way that all these things– success, upward mobility, and the rest—are quite different from how much of the world defines them.
Within the Franciscan family, among the friars, the sisters, and the laity, privilege is couched in a particular understanding of poverty. This poverty goes beyond the material poverty and the poverty of resources that I know you have experienced and I know you witnessed during your time at FST. But poverty means more than a classroom without whiteboard markers that work—although you likely experienced that. Poverty means even more than the personal stewardship many of you nurtured in order to juggle bills with stagnant income. And it even means more than taking a vow of poverty that is announced to the world by wearing a habit.
This privilege of poverty –this privilege that Francis and Clare and so many laity have dedicated their lives to–rests in a foundation of humility that warrants our careful consideration today:
–today in the midst of this ceremony that is taking place in this beautiful historic mission church where conversion to the Christian faith has occurred in both peaceful and complex ways.
–today in the midst of this ceremony for which some of us wear academic robes which are vestiges of medieval academic and clerical privilege that have allowed scholars–prestige and legal immunities in university towns for centuries.
This ceremony offers a threshold for you to choose the kinds of privileges you are going to accept as a result of the years of study you have completed. There is a range of meaning that can be brought to our understanding of “privilege.” That range extends on one extreme to mean a self-indulgent acceptance of honor and compensations that can often seduce people into a sense of entitlement. On the other extreme, there can be an exaggerated sense of humility that rests in timidity—either real or feigned—that expresses privileges with fear and self-consciousness. Neither extreme characterizes the Franciscan sense of privilege. While this Franciscan sense of privilege is simple, it is not all that easy to live. It is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the Wolf of Gubbio.
The story goes something like this: The people of the town of Gubbio were terrorized by a wolf who lived in the woods surrounding the town. The wolf had started sneaking into the town, first attacking sheep…then audaciously attacking a small child…and then, even attacking adults. The people became enraged. They panicked and sought revenge. They wanted to fight for the right to take evening strolls again without fear of attack…to live in peace. Their efforts to hunt down the wolf failed, however. Since several of them had met Francis, the poor man from Assisi, they sent for him, in the hopes that he could mediate the situation.
When Francis arrived at the town, his first course of action was to listen deeply to the people. He stood in their midst and listened to their accounts of the vicious attacks of the wolf. He let their anger and fear and frustration and rage rush over him. Then he wandered into the woods in search of the wolf. At their first encounter, the wolf bared his teeth and prepared to attack. Francis sat down on the ground and made it known that he would like to talk with the wolf. After some much time of getting used to one another, the wolf finally approached and listened to what Francis had to say.
Francis asked the wolf why he was causing so much fear in the town. The wolf responded, “I didn’t know I was causing fear.”Francis asked the wolf why he was instigating so much rage in the people. The wolf responded, “I didn’t know I was instigating rage.” Francis asked the wolf, “What are you trying to do, then?” The wolf responded, “I just want to eat. I am so hungry….my pack has abandoned me and I see no other way to find food than in the town.”
Francis considered the plight of the wolf and understood his predicament. Francis then proposed a solution: what if the people of the town fed you. Would you stop attacking them? The wolf considered the proposal and agreed to Francis’ solution. Francis walked back to Gubbio with the wolf heeling by his side. He brokered a deal with the townspeople who after some reservation, agreed to feed the wolf. The people marveled and asked how Francis had tamed the wolf. And he said, “Oh, I merely brought myself to the wolf to listen and understand his situation. Who I tamed was you.”
In this story we see Francis navigating through the anxiety and anger of the townspeople, not being swayed by their gossipy stories of the terrorizing, vicious outsider. Instead Francis listened to the villagers’ complaints. He asked them questions in order to understand their fears. He stood as witness to their anger, pain, and suffering.
Similarly, as he encountered the wolf, he could have brought with him all the fear and anxiety the people had vented; he could have been tense and prepared to defend himself by carrying a weapon or he could have been timid and fearfully approached the wolf. But he did neither. He brought his full self in front of the wolf, without trepidation or revenge; without timidity or rage. Instead filled with compassion—that capacity to be with suffering—he opened his heart, laid himself open and vulnerable, and sought to understand, rather than judge.
Compassion is at the heart of Franciscan privilege: presence with suffering, presence with those you disagree with you.This is the privilege your degree confers on you. This is not a stance of meekness. No, the Franciscan way shows us we must be bold enough to walk up to someone who is different from us and with an open heart to be curious to understand.
The education you have pursued here at the Franciscan School of Theology has challenged you to cultivate a curiosity—not only of the intellect, but also of the heart. And contrary to what many think, this curiosity of both intellect and heart requires great boldness… the boldness to be present to those different from us, the boldness to be present to our very selves. And this is where so many of us get caught up in this Franciscan understanding of poverty. We have so few models of real humility, real poverty that we may think that Francis must have been very timid when he approached the wolf.
But we misrepresent and get confused if we think being Franciscan is about playing small.
A humility and a poverty that stems from playing small out of timidity? That is a caricature of this Franciscan privilege of poverty; this Franciscan privilege of compassion.
In fact it takes much courage to be ourselves—to be vulnerable to misunderstanding and critique by exposing our hearts. It takes much courage to encounter others who are different from ourselves when we are this vulnerable. All around us in the world, we are told to be afraid of this kind of vulnerability and to defend ourselves. We may very well be tempted to run away from the work that is ours to do.
But here the wise words of Marianne Williamson force us to rethink any tendency we might have to shrink from the responsibilities we have from the privileges we have earned.
She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be [intelligent, gifted, competent and even expert?] Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God—Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in every one of us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (adapted from Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love, pp. 190-191.)
Graduates, this light is at the heart of compassion. Your education here has taught you that the most important privilege that your Franciscan degree carries is that of compassion.
Hold that privilege close to your heart. Practice it and cultivate it because this most of all is what our world needs from you. God bless you on your journey.
Given at the Franciscan School of Theology, Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California. May 20, 2017. Darlene Pryds Ph. D. is Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality and History at FST.