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2015 Commencement Speech: Sister Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill, S.C., Founder of El Centro Arte Para la Paz in El Salvador

I am humbled and deeply grateful to address you. I want to thank your President Dr. Michael Lovell and the Board of Directors for this honor.

For me this recognition is an affirmation of my many years of living and loving as a sister of charity, the last 29 of them in a tiny, wounded country, El Salvador, where my heart has been broken open to love more…a place where I continue to get glimpses of the Promised land!…a place where I have been mid-wived by a people whose deep faith and vibrant hope continue to nourish and astound me. The Salvadorans have transformed my life and they have helped me to return to myself… to my own humanity.

You look so happy all of you…distinguished guests, faculty, parents, grandparents, lovers and friends of the graduates and of course you the graduates of the class of 2015.

When I studied Theology here … some 46 years ago … I was very conscious of the words from Scripture , “Not on bread alone doth man or woman live….but truly maybe… also on Beer and Bratwurst. It is good for me to be home again in Milwaukee for a brew and a brat! …And a visit to the Joan of Arc Chapel.

I know you are ready to celebrate today/tonight and maybe you graduates will be celebrating all summer…So I won’t keep you too long. Yes there is much that brings us joy today ….so let’s get started.

July 16, 1969 I watched on a small TV in Schroeder Hall the first landing on the moon. A small group of graduate students celebrated as we watched Neil Armstrong walking on the moon…

Oh my friends… the world that seemed so wide then…so challenging then ….now …seems…. so broken.

We cannot side step this fact…NO, we need to feel the brokenness, stare at it with hope and with a dogged faith, that impels us to stay awake… to deal creatively with the gift of being human and dare to live in solidarity…solidaridad.

You will walk out of here today with only one thing that no one else has. There will be hundreds of people with the same degree…. and there will be thousands already doing what you plan to do for a living. But you will be the only person alive who has the sole custody of your own life….your own entire life. Not just your work life, not just your stock portfolios, your bank account, or the life of your mind. I am talking about the life of your heart, the life of your soul…I am talking about your deepest center. People don´t talk about the soul much anymore; because it is easier to craft a resume than it is to craft your spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort when you are sad or lonely or you get news of a lump on your breast.

You can Google for an answer, you can Google for a mate, for a career, but you can´t Google to find out what´s in your own heart—the passion that lifts you upward. You have to listen to what is inside yourself and discover your own fire…not only do you need your own fire…. but so does the whole world…

This old nun, named Peggy, wants to invite you —no, –I want to—dare you… to challenge you…to get a LIFE… a real life…Promise yourself you will remember …. to live in solidarity, solidaridad.

A real life…not just the manic pursuit of: the next promotion, the larger house, the greener lawn… the bigger paycheck….Listen folks …..I am sure no one ever said on his or her death bed, “Oh I should have spent more time at the office.”

Remember…even if you win the rat race you are still a rat.

Get a life—- where you are not alone…Find people you love, and who love you—And remember love is not leisure - it is hard work. Every time you look at your diplomas, remember you are still, and will always be, a student learning to treasure your connections to others– so pick up the phone, kiss your Mom, hug your Dad, write a letter, learn the richness of pregnant silence when you are with a lover. Get a life in which you are generous, give yourself away… bless others, like Jesus did, with the very substance of your life.

Get a life where you see the real, the within-ness of everything, where you take risks, make mistakes —- in fact make interesting mistakes—Get a life, where you are always like a bride married to amazement. A life where you are a bridegroom taking the world into your arms each day.

Feel the life force within you— and within the full moon, the butterfly, the raging river, your newborn… check out the fuzz on her ear, marvel at his tiny fingernails. Yes, get to see and meet the within-ness of everything—your lover, yourself, your wisdom sources, the holy books, the pain, the suffering, the lethal absence of hope in so many places, the wars, the poverty—-really see and touch the within-ness of everything.

We must keep asking the questions….keep searching…keep discovering ….keep staring, keep imagining different solutions to problems in society… solutions closer to the dream of the Creator. The beauty of the unconscious is that it knows a great deal and it also knows …that there is still more …and all words will fall short. Yes, be willing to take a long loving look at the real…to look and really see the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. Remember what we grasp —gives us knowledge, what we let grasp us gives us wisdom. Get a Life …In fact pig out on life. This is not a dress rehearsal.

I also … dare you, to be Mid-wives….to assist at the birthing of a world long emerging but clearly off course. HEAL this broken world! Lend your hands and heart and reshape how this planet is cared for, how it can continue to support life, how we can truly recognize our connectedness to each other and all life. I dare you to be mid-wives of solidaridad, solidarity. You can Google that word but I think a story better defines it….

Will you midwife economic systems that are built more on solidaridad? the tenderness between peoples?

What response does seeing human suffering demand of us? Will we awaken to the perception of scandals? The scandal: of hunger, the scandal of planned lack of education, excessive violence, the corruption and impunity of so many institutions?

If we do not perceive the scandals…we will never act. We must see and feel the pain to want to do the changing, to be a part of the new birthing.

Oh those most quoted words of the Declaration of Independence …would that it read…We hold these truths to be self evident….the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of ….meaningfulness…..the pursuit of truth…the pursuit of justice….and oh yes happiness will follow.

As Toni Morrison has remarked personal success devoid of meaningfulness —-free of a steady commitment to social justice is more than a barren life…it is a trivial one. It is “looking good” instead of “doing good”. Think about a meaningful life not just a comfortable one.

Are we ready to admit that we have trespassed on the fullness of Mystery, the Fullness of God, by trying to lock God into a religion, a book, a gender? Will we try to mid-wife new metaphors for the creative Energy and Power that continues to invite us to renew the face of the earth? Will we try to use our creativity, which is a renewable source like love, use it to find creative ways to nourish and sustain our spirits. Remember the imagination is like a muscle…if you don´t use it …it atrophies Will we mid-wife and swim in a spirituality birthed out of the awareness that we truly praise God when we build right relationships….with people and all other species on this planet and that sin is destroying right relationships. Who is our neighbor? The Good Samaritan, “Yes”…Salvadoran immigrants…Yes the starving children in refugee camps…the many women who endure violence? “Yes “AND ….the whale, the sea turtle, the bees and the butterflies….

Oh how we have come to see the vastness of creation and its real connectedness, its real relatedness. We must read these faith stories in new contexts and see and feel them emerging, being liberated with new meanings evolving.

The radical Catholic doctrine of the Trinity…. I have been called to it lately and stand in such awe. Imagine these early Capadocian fathers struggling to speak about MYSTERY…speak about God after Jesus. They express this as Love flaring forth …This MYSTERY as Love expressed, received, returning, transforming, connecting, expanding….What insight…and we are taught that we are made in the image and likeness of God…of this Mystery. Our radical understanding of God is that God is not an isolated monad….but a living communion in relation with the world. I suggest we need to return to the the Trinity as the starting point to understand personhood.

All is birthed and connected and held together by this loving movement… this incessant VERB. It is the life force of everything…in effect these early fathers say God is what God does…love. I am so grateful that I have lived long enough to see this doctrine of the Trinity emerging, opening up like a beautiful flower. Listen to the poet Emily Dickenson… In the name of the butterflies, the bees, and the breeze AMEN….In the name of the Jesuit martyrs, Marquette’s own Jim Foley, and the Salvadoran people AMEN…

In the name of our newly acclaimed Blessed Monsenor Romero, the poor so loved by him and your own Professor Lars Olson with his research team… ready to gift the world with a human powered nebulizer…literally Bringing Life and Breath to the Poor… Amen.

Now there is a meaningful venture…one started right here at Marquette…truly a powerful symbol of solidaridad, a new way to ensure Breath and Life for the Poor…Maybe you don’t know about this …I know about this because all of Central America and other, so called, third world countries will be benefiting from this hand powered machine ..not an electrically powered nebulizer or some expensive disposable device no one can afford. Celebrate this and see it as a great example of solidarity. We are responsible for all our brothers and sisters.

Yes we all do belong to each other and the creative force you and I call God is responsible for it. It is what connects everything.

Ivone Gebara calls God…the sap of Life…the life force of everything….Will we let this disturb us,,,call us to see a real responsibility to treat every one with tenderness…live in real solidaridad …wake up from our isolation and our inhumanity…

To be catholic according to DÉlio, “is to live in conscious evolution; to be engaged actively in this unfinished universe as co-creators of justice, peace, mercy and compassion….Catholicity is a virtue of relatedness, a dynamic energy of whole-making- of solidarity. As Meghan Clarke reminds us… “solidarity is an attitude, a virtue, a duty…It is not a vague feeling of compassion or shallow distress at the misfortune of people near or far. No solidarity is a firm determination to commit oneself to the common good…that is, the good of all…and…we are all responsible for all. As organisms we are separable but as humans this separation is unthinkable….a human person is always in relation to others. Solidarity is the Christian virtue by which we strive to more fully image the Trinity…the Jesuit motto of being a man and woman for others.

The heart of the message of Pope Francis is the radical uncompromising and uncomfortable nature of solidarity. He reminds us we have fallen into the globalization of indifference…the attitude that it does not concern us…it is none of our business…He warns us that I cannot embrace my own humanity fully if I do not embrace the humanity of my neighbor.

I want to suggest to you that the Trinity is a practical doctrine for human rights and solidarity…It enlightens not only our understanding of God…using the language of relationality, but it enlightens as well our understanding of who we are as persons.

To get a REAL life we need to mid-wife a new way of rethinking scarcity, something Lynn Twist calls, “The Greater Truth of Sufficiency”. Imagine a billion people go to bed hungry each night…billion with a b …and there is enough food right now to feed us all. The truth is we have enough grains to feed us all.

Look I have experienced real scarcity! (Story) On CNN I see people sleeping outside of stores selling the latest model of a smart phone. Now I guess it is for a smart watch. These people really believe they need to have it and right away…there may not be enough of them…Re-think scarcity.

Dare we think creatively? Maybe our world leaders need a baby on his or her lap when they are deciding our futures….maybe we should surround them with photos of suffering peoples and have them not come to some decisions dry-eyed. –I asked the Ministry of culture in El Salvador to give me the salaries of two soldiers for the salaries of two music teachers for my Peace Center….I promised them we would evaluate and see what worked better for gang prevention…Violins against violence ….makes more sense to me than guns against anything.

Don´t amputate your creativity, your ambitions, your possibilities. You must risk—so go peek around corners. Travel to stare at other cultures, other kinds of scarcities. Go to those places where there are palpable longings for justice and peace. Places like El Salvador, or any of our inner cities right here in the USA. Touch those realities that are painful to see. Stare at how inhumane humanity is…see the real sin of putting whole peoples on crosses… awaken to the reality of an oppressed and subjugated world…a world whose liberation is the basic task of every human being…so that we can all finally become human.

Create healing spaces for those who suffer because some of us are not scandalized—those of us afraid to be mid-wives…to make real changes in the structures. It is one thing to take people down from their crosses but we must also ask ourselves, how am I complicit in building crosses for others.

If you think you are too small to be effective you have never been alone in bed with a mosquito.

Adrienne Rich, the poet who died just a year ago, left us with these two haunting questions…she asks, “With whom do you cast your lot? From whence do you draw your strength? I suggest you write to your friends each month, text them these two questions…

With whom do you cast your lot? From whence do you draw your strength? So whose are you? To whom do you belong? If we are to mid-wife, to give birth to new ways of belonging and to change structures in this global world—we need buddies. Even Jesus needed a gang. I needed hundreds of sisters of charity, thousands of students, and now mi pueblo, the poor and resilient people of El Salvador. I am 76 years old and with the help of all these people I am still trying to become a better version of myself! A more human Peggy.

Soon I will be called an ancestor, but until then I want to continue to wonder, to struggle, and to grow. I want to stay awake I don´t want to die before the last day of my life. I look at you today and each year at so many of my own students, and I know I can die with a smile on my face. I am convinced that most of you are ready to pick up and run with this gift of being human. You are ready to get a real life, you are ready to be mid-wives and help engage in what Joanna Macy calls, the ¨Great Turning¨ from empire to earth community.

In the end it is love that matters. We need a thoughtful love, a wisdom that sees and knows more deeply; a faith that trusts in the power of God who lives beneath our wings. Ours is the age of something radically new; it is more than a reformation, it is an evolution in love….in solidaridad.

Look—you never see a U-haul behind a hearse…

What we carry with us are those moments of oneness and our connections with all that is alive….all that we have birthed and nourished and loved. Anchor yourself in what is right, what is true, loving and kind and give your one wonderful, unique, wild and precious life away…yes become someone liberating this world from the slumber of inhumanity


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