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Unplanning for the Future

Authored by: 
William O'Neill, SJ

Remarks from Dr. William O'Neill, SJ, from the GTU's 2018 Commencement Exercises

A wise colleague once told me, "Bill if you can’t be brilliant, at least be brief." Fortunately, I can promise the latter; our program leaves me little choice. It is a wonderful privilege to offer these brief remarks, and I’m truly grateful for the honor.  

So much that we celebrate today is the fruit of judicious planning; so much has successfully come to term. The plans, the discipline, the sacrifice that bring you here—these we rightly celebrate, in the honors earned, the great work accomplished. And yet the fruit of all our striving is more than this, more than plans successfully fulfilled. 

There is a proverb in Kiswahili that reminds us “We plan, but God unplans.” And as I prepare to step down from the GTU after 30 years of teaching, it is the unplanning that I remember. So I offer no wisdom for your future success; but rather a few lessons on the grace of unplanning in our lives.

Great desires have brought you here; these desires have marked your days, the hard grace of theological study. And yet, there is so much that conspires against our great desires; so much in our world that breeds conformity, quiet resignation to the sway of power and privilege. And I think of Dorothy Day’s words: “So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world—war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers. We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning.”

The poet W. H. Auden writes in a similar vein in his homage to “The Unknown Citizen” whose desires were perfectly tailored to the gods of Public Opinion: “Was he free? Was he happy,” Auden asks? “The question is absurd; Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” 

In the market of small desires, everyone is exchangeable. So let your teaching and scholarship tell of great desires; let us hear your story, your voice. And so the first lesson of unplanning, is this: never give up your great desires; your hopes of doing great things. Never.

But what measures greatness? Certainly, there is much that can be measured, tallied, and rewarded; plans that have come to fruition. And these, I say, we rightly celebrate.  And we have set upon a good, even godly enterprise: the study of theology, mining the wisdom of our forbearers. Yet there are interruptions, startling breaks with the familiar when the unexpected stranger comes our way. Jacques Ellul once said that faith is shown in how we respond to the uninteresting poor, the unimportant failures who cross our lives.

To see them, embrace them in the midst of all we seek and desire; this too is unplanning. Years ago, while in my doctoral studies, I served as chaplain at a residential center for young emotionally disturbed children, many who suffered the loss of their parents and were struggling in the state’s foster care system. The children called me “Fr. Bill,” and one day, a young boy of about 7, Quincy joined us. He asked me, "Whose father are you?" and I said “I’m no one’s father here.”  “Will you be my father, he asked?”  “Quincy, I’m not a real father," I replied. “Well, will you be my fake father then?” And to this, I could agree; to my degrees, I can add that badge of honor.

So I learned a lesson then of unplanning: let there be room for Qunicy; for the strangers on our way, for blessed interruptions. And let us learn from the uninteresting poor; it is they who teach us not to succumb to the luxury of despair.

And a final lesson of unplanning: in all we seek and do, in all we strive for, remember those who grace our way, companions on our journey. Cherish them, friends, family, lovers, not merely because they support our success, though indeed they do, but because they give us the greatest gift, the love of a life yet fully to be lived; the grace of being loved that we can ever earn or merit. How beautiful to be here today amidst such friends! And how rich the grace of gratitude.

And in gratitude then let us recall how the GTU has shaped our great desires, inspired our work for justice, and given us companions on the way--teaching us  not merely to think outside the box, but to imagine a different box, one mingling different denominations and religions, the disciplines of theology with science, a passion for justice, and art. For that is perhaps the greatest gift of our GTU today, the grace of imagining otherwise.

Let me end with a parable, a lived parable as parables must be: when I was quite young, I would go with my parents from time to time to Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Long before it hosted elegant exhibitions, there was a room, I remember, with musty tapestries and several impressive suits of armor. These, of course, caught my fancy, but I remember once taking a peek, while the guard was looking elsewhere, at the underside of the tapestry. I wondered what it looked like, what was there.  And of course what I saw was a tangle of knots, threads, raveled and unraveled; the warp and woof of weaving that gives only the hint or trace of a pattern.

And how often, despite all our earnest endeavors, all our planning, our lives may seem like that tapestry; the pattern obscure and unformed. Yet in our deepest faith, the threads are woven in a way, and by a hand we do not see. And perhaps, in those rare times of grace, we see the whole: the right side of the tapestry that reveals what the Weaver always intended: that every thread has its place, revealing something uniquely, entirely beautiful. And it is that unplanned beauty we also celebrate today. Let there be unplanning in our lives!