The graduation season is finally over. All over the country young people have completed their studies and received the diplomas that, they hope, will unlock a future of their choosing. In Britain the ritual of graduation involves the donning of graduation hoods and gowns (hired at great expense for 20 minutes of glory) and the gathering of the clans, as proud parents line up to watch their sons and daughters cross the line that signifies the final end of childhood.
Our own daughters graduation ceremony was probably typical of thousands being enacted up and down the land. She had attended the medical school of a large metropolitan university, where the number of graduates far exceeded the capacity of the hall to accommodate them. Consequently the various ceremonies were spread out over several days.
When the big day came, she spent the morning in a state of rising panic about the ordeal that lay ahead. The prospect of walking the length of the hall, climbing with dignity the three steps up to the podium, receiving with grace the certificate from the hands of the dean and descending in safety to return to her seat was, she confided, a more daunting challenge than taking her final examinations. I took that remark with a pinch of salt and settled down to enjoy the unfolding pageant.
As he handed out the diplomas, the dean exchanged a few words with each new graduatea simple question like Have you enjoyed your time here? or What are you planning on doing next? To his great credit, he conducted the proceedings with what appeared to be genuine interest and appropriate alacrity, as he processed some 200 newly qualified doctors.
Then he turned his attention to the parents and friends of the newly robed and told us how he had presided over several similar ceremonies that week. Successfully suppressing any hints of jadedness, he recounted the reactions of two particular graduates to his not-too-searching question: What are you going to do next?
The first, a young man, had responded, after a moments thought, Im going to be a world-class brain surgeon. The dean had congratulated him on his graduation and wished him every success in his chosen career.
The second, a few hundred graduates farther down the line, had been asked the same question: What are you going to do next? She had likewise given the question several moments of thoughtful attention before replying: Im going to turn left and walk very carefully down these three steps.
We smiled at the discrepancy between these two ambitions, the lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous, the chasm between idealism and pragmatism. Two ways of looking at life. But are they compatible? And are they realistic? One is about a big and distant dream. The other is about the next few minutes. The story appeals to me, because it captures so succinctly something of the dynamic of the spiritual journey.
We are called to be players in a Big Dream. The dream is Gods dream, and it is nothing less than the fulfilment, under the power of love, of all creation. The Gospel vision is not just another way of doing religion. It is about becoming everything God is dreaming us to be. It is about the very destiny of Homo sapiens. To be part of this adventure is surely what each of us, in our hearts, is longing for. No wonder the aspiring brain surgeon expressed a desire to play his own modest part in the unfolding of the dream.
But the second graduate got it right too. We are called to work out in the finest detail what our very next step should be, in order to live true to the dreams unfolding in our daily living. Both perspectives are potentially world-changing, and the Gospel vision challenges and empowers them both. It coaxes us constantly to make one more step toward the horizon of all we can become, constantly reminding us that there is always more to Gods dream than we dare to imagine. But it also gives us, in Christ, both the model of how to live true to Gods dream, and the empowerment to let that dream become incarnate in the daily details of our own personal circumstances.
Paulo Coehlo recounts in his novel The Alchemist the tale of a little boy who sought out a famous guru for an audience. The wise man sent the boy off to tour his palace and gardens, and to enjoy all he discovered there, but at the same time to carry in his hand a teaspoonful of oil and to bring it back without having spilled any of it. The child returned, the oil unspilled, but he had completely failed to notice the beautiful gardens, the rich tapestries, the great works of art around him. The guru sent him off for a second time, and he returned full of the delights he had seen, but the oil was gone.
The trick, it seems, is to balance the twoto become a top neurosurgeon and manage not to fall over your feet going down the next three steps, to play your own unique part in the great unfolding of Gods dream for creation while carefully discerning the step immediately ahead on the slippery pathways of your personal circumstances. The big vision without the daily detail is merely day-dreaming. The daily detail without the big dream can become just a toilsome trudge.
We honor the big vision when we keep in mind, with every step, that we are movers and players in a cosmic drama far beyond our imagination. We honor the daily detail every time we ask, in a specific situation, What is the more loving, the more life-giving, the more Christ-like thing to do next?
So what are you going to do next?