Overjoyed: Confessions of a Grateful Heart

“Joy cannot be held to oneself. It must be let go. Joy is a pilgrim virtue. It is a gift that walks with us on the path of life.” 

~ Pope Francis

A few hours ago, I said goodbye to 14 beautiful students in my freshmen seminar. Later this week I’ll do the same with an extraordinary group of graduate students. As the semester closes and grades are submitted, I wrap up ten years of teaching at Xavier University. Soon my office will be filled with boxes, and the boxes filled to the brim with files and books. The pictures and icons, the “cloud of witnesses” who have watched over and guided me during these years, will come down off the wall and be packed away for a while until they can find their way to a new office wall, some 1200 miles away.

The_CatchOscar Romero and Sr. Helen Prejean, Karl Rahner and Abraham Heschel, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Merton, Willie Mays — all of them images for me of “grace in motion,” gifts of presence and encouragement that have accompanied me on the path of life. Willie Mays reaching out impossibly to catch a deep fly ball off of the bat of Vic Wertz during the 1954 World Series, stirring memories of my own “glory days” playing center field as a kid.

Grace in motion! “The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” says St. Irenaeus. By some miracle, my whole life long I have gotten to taste from that mysterious wellspring of living waters, where grace bubbles and spills over the brims of our over-full human hearts. God ever nourishes and surprises us, we stumbling pilgrims, in the valley of the human.

Black Catholic ExperienceI have seen grace come out to play in the classroom here at Xavier, and for some twenty years, reaching back to my first teaching job in a high school classroom. I’ve tasted it in the solitude and struggle of the intellectual life, a yearning to write that is never far from prayer. I have felt it in the passion of my colleagues here and around the country, and during interviews with my new colleagues at Regis University in Denver, the tentative forging of new relationships and the imagining of new possibilities together against the horizon of the unknown. I’ve seen it in our neighbors and heard it in the laughter of their kids and mine playing up and down the street. Above all I’ve known it in the dance of love with my wife Lauri, my closest friend for 27 years, in the tender intimacies and vulnerabilities of family life. Pope Francis has it right. Joy cannot be held to oneself. It must be let go. Joy has walked with me on the path of life, and I stand amazed.

In “Overjoyed,” Stevie Wonder says and sings it better than I (or Pope Francis!) ever could. His prayer is my prayer, the straightforward confession of a grateful heart during this period of transition for our family as we look to the future with excitement, and carry with us so many gifts of friendship and love from our years in Cincinnati. May we return again and again to that same wellspring, where new possibilities ever break forth, even along the path of risk and uncertainty.

And though you don’t believe that they do / They do come true
For did my dreams / Come true when I looked at you
And maybe too, if you would believe / You too might be
Overjoyed, over love, over me

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