Finding God at the Beach
Michael J. Graham, S.J.
I was vacationing at Bethany Beach on the Delaware shore recently when revelation suddenly struck. No, the Atlantic Ocean did not part, nor did the sun begin to spin in the sky.
It was more simple and ordinary than that, the way revelations typically occur in my life. The brother of our host came over to our beach chairs and introduced us to a friend accompanying him. When the friend learned that I was a Jesuit priest, he told me a wonderful story about a Jesuit priest at his alma mater who long ago gently put his arm around his neck and pulled him back to his senses, setting his feet squarely on the path to all his subsequent success. What was especially touching was that he recalled going back for a reunion and, at the closing banquet, was stunned to hear his mentor honored by speaker after speaker, all of whom told much the same story of rescue and gratitude.
And the revelatory moment of grace? It was a reminder that led to a prayer. It reminded me of stories like his that I have heard more often than I can count. Stories about my Jesuit predecessors here at Xavier, priests like Joe Peters or Peter Buschman or Tom Savage or Paul O’Connor.
If I had a nickel for every story a Xavier alum has told me about how one or another of these great men and their Jesuit colleagues spotted something in them, helped open up the world inside them so as to open up better the world around them—well, then, let’s just say that I would worry less than I do today about Xavier’s endowment.
It reminded me as well of stories I’ve heard others tell who never came to Xavier, but who experienced in their own way and at their own school an important Jesuit who spotted something special in them that no one else had seen before—and they themselves least of all—someone who pushed them when pushing was needed and listened patiently at other times. And nowadays, they look back in wonder and in gratitude.
But it also reminded me of similar stories I’ve heard Xavier alumni tell about people other than Jesuits—about Tom Hailstones and Paul Harkins, about Ray McCoy and Joe Bourgeois, about Sr. Mary Virginia Sullivan. These individuals likewise knew well that, at the heart of the educational enterprise, a student is waiting to be transformed. To change their lives is the name of the game, and that transformation is always an intensely personal event, for both parties.
But I suspect it works in other ways as well. Many alums can point to specific professors and say with great gratitude, “Were it not for them, I would not be who I am today.” My guess is that there is something to be said as well for a “tag team” approach—where it is less the overwhelming impact of a single individual upon a person’s life than it is the cumulative effect of committed people who care deeply, who together warp a student out of his or her small orbit and send them spinning into the bigger world with eyes and hearts open wide. The right word here, a little nudge there; this comment, that challenge. It all adds up.
But isn’t this a power we all have, no matter who we are, or where or what we do? Who knows but that the good word we can speak to a person—the loving challenge, the comforting assurance—is the very word that will do the trick for this particular person before us, at this particular time of their life? And who will speak it if we do not?
Which brought me to my prayer. Our new crop of freshman has arrived, new graduate students registered, a new academic year is off and running. We have much to do during the course of this year, as no one knows better than I who has been preparing and reviewing annual plans. But all of it will be for naught unless I do—unless we all do—that which is most important for us: To touch the minds and spirits and hearts of those glorious people who have come our way again this year by God’s abundant grace.
Funny, isn’t it, how a seemingly small moment and chance encounter on a beach on the Delaware shore can be such a revelatory moment. But then, graced moments like these are both where we find them and where God finds us as well. And they find us so that we can, in turn, better find ourselves, better find our way as servants in this world.
Wherever you have found yourself this summer, I pray that God’s grace may have found you as well.