Home Away From Home and the Gift of Disillusionment

On Labor Day weekend, we took Emma to Bismarck for her first year at the University of Mary. The six-hour trek to Mary Hill is becoming more and more familiar: the wide open spaces, green hills and big skies, the sun and the wind…and that one stretch with the bugs splattering like rain on the windshield. The speed zone through Moorehead and Fargo. The bluffs by the James River.

It’s an easy six hour of driving, and it’s getting easier.

When we took Brendan for his first year, I likened the sensation to a taut wire from the back of my mind to him, constantly aware of his absence. When we took Gabe to NET, the feeling was a bit different: First he was just down the freeway in St. Paul, but then he was who-knows-where, living out of a van and crisscrossing state lines and time-zones.

Subsequent years it was better—easier—because they knew people. Faces unfamiliar to us spoke in smiling shorthand to them, and it was clear they were at home (a perception with its own bittersweetness).

But Emma is my daughter, my first girl-baby. And media and internet insist there is so much to be afraid of. And I was a freshman guy once.

Should I be worried?

When we returned from Bismarck, I realized almost too late that I needed to write a column for our parish bulletin. My mind kept returning to the words of UMary’s president to the incoming class. Here is what I wrote about what he said:

The Gift of Dis-Illusionment

Last weekend we brought our daughter Emma to Bismarck to begin her studies at the University of Mary. Our drive was uneventful; the hotel was bustling with families, and everywhere we saw the telltale signs of Catholic families bound for the university: a NET Ministries suitcase, a stairstep line of red-headed children, a brown scapular peeping from a shirt collar.

The staggered move-in schedule worked so well it was suggested they continue it, sans masks, next year. Large freshman events were broken down for smaller groups, and many parent activities were suspended. Nevertheless, we received a warm Benedictine welcome from staff, volunteers, faculty, clergy and nearly every student we encountered, on campus and off. When it comes to hospitality, UMary has it down, even during coronavirus.

The highlight of the weekend was the Wheat Ceremony and the keynote speech delivered by the university’s president, Monsignor James Shea. The Wheat Ceremony is the official welcome for an incoming class, emphasizing the words of Jesus in scripture:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

John 12:24

The overarching message was that, despite popular perception, our lives are not primarily about ourselves at all, but about pouring ourselves out in love of others for love of God.

This time, however, Monsignor Shea opened with a provocative twist.

“Your class—the incoming class of 2020—has an advantage that no freshman class in a generation has had,” he said (or something like that). “As a result, you are stronger than the classes that have come before you. You have been cured of an ailment that causes people to walk through life like zombies…the illusion that life is supposed to be easy and comfortable. You have been dis-illusioned, and you are better for it.”

This was not the same message that Emma heard during her virtual high school Commencement Ceremony. There, she was told that these times are unprecedented, and her class was compared to the young men and women called to service and sacrifice during World War II.

Monsignor’s message was both more sober and more hopeful: The specific circumstances of this pandemic might be unprecedented, but this isn’t the first or most serious crisis to face our country. In fact, he said, this illusion of life being easy and comfortable has only taken root in the past few decades, and only in affluent cultures like ours. We have lived in relative peace and quiet, doing what we want when we want, and have come to believe that it’s normal.

But that’s not the way the world is. The world is broken. Things don’t go according to plan. People suffer. And life goes on.

“It is for your good that you already know this,” Monsignor said. “It will help you to get over yourself and realize that your life is not about you.”

Get over yourself. Your life is not about you.

Once we learn that, we can begin to love and truly enjoy life to the full.

As we unloaded Emma’s belongings, we were greeting by some friends of our from here at home, Jeremy and Cindy, who were moving in a friend of Gabe’s and Emma’s, their daughter Lindsay. Brendan’s wife Becky joined us, and as we walked around campus with Emma’s roomate and her mother and sister, we ran into others: a friend of Brendan’s from the wedding, a NET-ter who knew Gabe two years before, a couple sophomore RAs who work for Brendan and hail from here, and another family from our neck of the woods, the Bruleys, whose daughter is also a freshman this year. And we know of still more. When we got home I started a Facebook group for UMary families from the Wright County area. Currently we have 22 members.

We caught up with Brendan once his residence director duties were done, and went to dinner. He and Becky have a baby on the way in just a few weeks, and Emma and Becky’s sister Emily, who is also on campus, will be jockeying for favorite aunt status and babysitter duties.

It’s easier this time, because she’s already surrounded by family and friends. And UMary’s goal is the same as ours: to make disciples and saints.

Welcome home, Rosebud. Hooks up!

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