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Eternal Lessons from Final Exams

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 04/28/15

Predictable agony and possible glory are in store for all of us
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“The forecast calls for pain.” That is the title of a song by blues guitarist Robert Cray that comes to mind now, as it does every year at this time, as I get my university students ready for the annual and predictable agonies of final exams and the bittersweet trials of graduation. Why is this time of the academic year such a time of high drama for university students? And what lessons can faithful Catholics learn from the experience of my students?

This is the last week of classes for us. Next week we will have final exams and then graduation. As predictable as the changing of the seasons, the students will schedule their crises, and act from, as one wit called it, “an intense case of the ‘needies’.” Why? I’m not given to quoting Ayn Rand very often, but one line from her is apt: “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” Final exams and graduation make it well nigh impossible for my students to avoid reality.

Consequently, between now and graduation, I will have the following conversation with students repeatedly, as I do every year at this time: “Father, you know that thing you told me to do, or it would be a disaster? (Or, conversely, “Father you know that thing that you told me not to do, or it would be a disaster?”) Well, I didn’t do what you said, and now it’s a disaster. And I hate that you’re right. And I don’t want you to be mad, upset or disappointed. And I don’t want you to say, ‘I told you so’. And I want you to help me to clean up the mess and then promise to never speak of this again. And I want you to believe me that next time it will be different, even though I’m unable to give any indication of how it might be different.”

I mention this not to hold up university students to criticism. Far from it. I myself was a university student for a very long time (11 years) and am the survivor of innumerable final exams and several graduations. I too have more regrets from those days than I care to remember. And that’s the point—trying to avoid the consequences of avoiding reality is part of the human condition, and is not a trait peculiar to young adults in college.

We all kid ourselves. We nearly always start new (or even familiar) projects with the claim, “This time it will be different!” even though we have given little or no thought to how it might be different or what it will cost us to make it different this time. Eventually, life catches up with us. We don’t finish the project (at least not well); we don’t lose weight; we don’t quit smoking; exercise equipment gathers dust; apologies remain unoffered; thank-you notes remain unwritten, etc., etc. Someone, someone, even if it is only ourselves, will certainly know that this time it was not different. Our resolutions and potential were left unfulfilled.

Final exams and graduation leave my students no place left to hide. They will either pass their exams or they won’t. They will either graduate on time or they won’t. Perhaps not all of us will face such a super-concentrated exposure of success-or-failure on such a regular basis. But all of us—all of us—will one day face the ultimate, most complete and enduring revelation of our success-or-failure, and that is the time of our judgement before God.

Like some delusional university students, many humans tell themselves that there will always be enough time to do what needs to be done. We tell ourselves that tomorrow we will repent and acquire virtue and receive grace. Tomorrow, we will become what we were always meant to be, saints ready to glorify God in this life and enjoy Him forever in the next. We tell ourselves that we will get started on that tomorrow, because today there are just so many important (or pleasant or interesting or diverting or easier) things to do. We tell ourselves that being at the center of an earthquake, or aboard a sinking ship, or on the receiving end of a stray bullet, or in the headlights of a drunk driver, or finding out too late about that brain aneurism ready to explode—all that sort of thing happens to other people, usually far away, and not to people like me. Of course, that’s a fantasy, and maybe that’s how we are able to fall asleep at night. But we are not well served by such fantasies.

Not one of us is ever guaranteed another heartbeat, another breath; much less are we guaranteed all of the tomorrows we think we may need to eventually getting around to doing all the things that we ought to do. We always have our human vocation to fulfill and we are always, sooner or later but inevitably on our way to meet God face to face. How might our lives be different if we were always vividly, consciously aware of that?

My late mother used to say, “It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Mom was a big believer in being ready for “just-in-case.” I think she would have approved of the devotees of E.D.C. (“Everyday Carry”), those things that you keep on your person at all times, “just-in-case”, e.g., a flashlight, a pocket knife, a first-aid kit, etc. We Catholics might have our own spiritual E.D.C. for spiritual exigencies (e.g., scapular, Rosary, etc.). But I wonder how many of us think of what we need to be prepared for the inevitable and supreme spiritual exigency, namely, coming before God after death. There was a time when speaking of the “Four Last Things” (namely, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell) was common in preaching and catechesis. Recent years, one can safely say, have not been such a time.

A recent video (with a title that is a bit of clever misdirection) at www.churchmilitant.com explains well the necessity of dying in a state of grace in order to enter into the life of the Trinity in Heaven (which is our human vocation). A carefully-documented account of the Church’s teaching on Hell (drawing upon Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the witness of the saints) can be found here. The content found in both can and should be brought to prayer.

My point is this: For 20+ years, I have marveled at the complete surprise expressed by many students when final exams and graduation, which are scheduled well in advance, actually arrive. Many appear to be startled to have awakened from a dream of endless time and resources and discover in their waking state that they have to give an account of what they have done and what they have failed to do, and that the fruits of their choices will be decisively attributed to them. I pray for us all that we will be less unprepared and unpleasantly surprised when the most sure and consequential “final exam” of our existence comes upon us, and I pray that we all may “graduate” into the eternal life of glory that God has always intended for us. We make our choices—and God respects them. That is the thrilling and terrifying prospect that certainly awaits each of us.

When I write next, I will reflect upon graduation, and whether graduating students are really entering what they often call, “The Real World.” Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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