It’s another year when we say farewell to our seniors. Another year, when I have one last opportunity to address them as their head chaplain before they go into the world. Each year as I prepare my sermon for the baccalaureate Eucharist service, I discern which kernels of wisdom I may offer to prepare them for a world of division, plagues, war, political upheaval, and godlessness. I wonder what they will take with them along with their diplomas and Bibles as they graduate and leave chapel.
If our seniors only attended our upper school, then they would have participated in roughly 320 worship services in which they would have listened to scripture, heard sermons, recited the prayers of the people, and sung their favorite hymns. So what more can I say to them? What wisdom transcends that which already exists in our common worship? How can I say something new about our core values and our mission to live lives of purpose, faith, and integrity that will shed new light on old themes?
One common response to all of these questions is one of our school virtues: gratitude. If I preach about gratitude, I would present them with this hypothetical scenario:
You have enjoyed a good life for the past 17 or 18 years. You have worked hard to receive acceptance to college. You have participated in musicals, athletic contests, academics, service opportunities, AP exams, and so many extracurricular activities. You worshipped in our chapel services. Also, as students of an independent school education steeped in the Anglican Tradition, you have received a fair share of privilege no matter who you are or where you come from.
Now tonight you will go to sleep as any other night. You will sleep well. You will have pleasant dreams. You will be fully rested and comforted by your slumber. You may even sense the holy gaze of Jesus watching over you. However, when you wake up, you will only possess those things that you were grateful for yesterday.
Then I will ask, ‘What will be left in your possession?’
Fortunately, I believe only a few of them might say, ‘I am penniless and homeless. I am orphaned and roaming aimlessly through the land of Nod.’
I am inclined to remind them of the benefits of gratitude. The happiest people are not those who have the most possessions, but those who are grateful for the possessions they have. Gratitude inspires us to treat our neighbors as if we were their primary keepers. Gratitude leads us to realize that our relationships are not transactional. They are interpersonal. Therefore, our relationships foster a sense of inter-dependence, appreciation, and intimacy.
In addition, gratitude creates so many health benefits, too. Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, two renown psychologists, have conducted studies on the positive effects of gratitude on mental health. For example, their studies have reported that living a life of gratitude may improve sleep, mood, and immunity. Gratitude can decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain and risk of disease. However, our own Christian tradition provides plenty of evidence on the positive side effects of gratitude. We have Francis of Assisi, John Trahern, Frances Perkins, Barbara Harris, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and our own Bishop Michael Curry as examples of people who through gratitude were among us as people who serve.
At The Episcopal Academy, because of our chapel program and our Episcopal identity, we can influence and inspire our students to realize that not everything in life is achievement based. Our students experience an awakening that there is no need to compare themselves to others, no need to idealize physical perfection, and no need to grasp at the elusiveness of success. Therefore, instead of seeing themselves as independent agents of their own life path, they view themselves as seekers of the path and realize they are part of something greater than themselves. This ethos that permeates our community is palpable, real, and authentic to everyone. We only lose sight of it when we neglect to nurture our core values, especially gratitude.
In the end, they will realize, as they graduate, they are blessed by God in many good things. Therefore, as they leave chapel carrying their diplomas and Bibles, they also will carry within them the spirit of gratitude.