by Michael J. Graham, S.J.
I have never been much for mountain climbing. I guess I’ve never really had much opportunity. Once, a couple of decades ago back in my 30’s, my uncle and I left Denver before dawn to climb Long’s Peak, a fearsome broken-tooth of a mountain that cuts high above the rest of the Continental Divide. Didn’t quite make it all the way to the top, but the view into the other side was worth the climb: a pristine Alpine valley, blanketed in snow in mid-July, glacial lakes glittering blue and brilliant. In Ireland, in my 40’s, a young friend and I were dissuaded from climbing Mt. Brandon, the tallest mountain in the Irish Southwest, by a gift shop proprietor we asked for directions. Do you see that, he asked, pointing out his window at the milk-white sky beyond. No, we said. That’s my point, he replied, for he was pointing directly at Mt. Brandon which we couldn’t see for the fog. Instead, he recommended a hike up a nearby hill, saying that, after all, a short climb up a small mountain you come back from is better any day than a long climb up a tall mountain that you don’t. Hard to argue with that advice! And indeed the view was lovely.
But even though I haven’t climbed many mountains in my time, I have stood on more than a few mountain tops just the same. Back when I became President in 2001, for example. Or when I was ordained before that, in 1988. Or even before that, when I decided to become a Jesuit in the first place, in 1976 (a harder mountain, that one, but a mountain just the same). All were moments life led up to on the one hand and then flowed away from on the other, and flowed away from forever different. Rather like the place where you now stand, a place, a peak, that will forever divide that which came before from that which now will follow.
Others have stood in their times on the same mountain top you now stand on in yours. Year upon year, I have been privileged to see it. Your attention is drawn in three directions at such a time – drawn back, drawn ahead, drawn around – and how good it is that you are joined tonight by special people to help you, especially in the looking back. Your Xavier friends, of course, and other members of the Xavier family. But it is your own families most of all who signal to you powerfully and profoundly all that has nurtured and sustained you to this point, for they are those from whom you have learned down deep the best lessons you will carry forward into your futures, carry them in your hearts forever.
It is to those futures that stretch before you, of course, that your attention also naturally goes tonight. But how different looking ahead is from looking back, lacking as it does the sharpness, the clarity, the distinctness of memory. Good indeed then to have these scriptures as lanterns on your mountain top, the better for you to make something of the lay of the land stretching out now below you, beyond you, and before you, in mist and in mystery.
A little background and context helps connect this passage from Deuteronomy to who we are and what we do tonight. It has been 40 years since Moses led Israel out of Egypt. And now with the desert and its desolation behind them, Moses addresses his people before they make the Promised Land their own. Imagine the scene: the tribes of Israel gather to hear Moses one final time, while behind Moses and beyond him, they see spreading out the land they will enter but he will not. And as a final gift to the people he has loved and led, Moses reminds them once more of what they know well enough already, that God has called them into covenant.
Like the Israelites, you too stand at the summit of a peak you have been climbing now for years, and climbing not just for the years you have been at Xavier, but climbing for however many years it is that you have lived. Like them, you look past those (like me) to whom your future does not belong, but who have walked with you until now nonetheless. And like them, you gaze ahead to the future that is yours, the land that is ahead of you, the country you were made for. It is a future, a land, a country you cannot yet clearly see – cannot see its possibilities or its potentials, cannot see its challenges or its heartaches, cannot see its triumphs or its joys. You cannot see clearly yet the people you will meet or the friends you will make or the families you will shape or the work you will do. You cannot see through all of this and so much more the people you will in the end become. But this reading tells you that even though you cannot see this future land for certain, you can go into it with confidence. For it is a land where God’s hand will rest upon you always, where – somehow, someway – you will have what you need when you need it, have it as surely as the land has rain and the livestock grass in the field.
But more, it was a covenant then that God through Moses put before his people as they stood on the edge of their Promised Land. And it is a covenant still – and much the same covenant – that God through His scriptures puts before you tonight as you stand on the edge of the promised land that is your own. And the dimensions of that simple but profound covenant – “loving the Lord your God and serving God with all your heart and all you soul” – is spelled out by both the second reading and the Gospel.