Michelangelo began sculpting the Pietá when he was about 23 years old, about a year older than most of the students who will soon graduate from Notre Dame. His Pietá was a novel piece among Italian art representing Our Lady. The artistic tradition had previously maintained a Mary who stood strong at the foot of the cross and who neither trembled nor wept upon her Son’s death. This tradition had stressed a kind of devotion to God that neither swayed nor sorrowed at times of loss or pain.
Some vestiges of this tradition persist in many college graduates who insist their peers be strong and without sorrow as they conclude their college years, who insist that to weep in farewell is to betray the good that has been had over the last four years. Perhaps they would stand strong at the foot of the cross, looking into the face of a dying God with dry eyes and steady hearts.
But Michelangelo’s Mary is a woman of grieving for her lost child. She is a woman of pain at the parting, whose face is washed with tears. Perhaps, calling to mind man’s Creation, Mary held her dead child and said to herself, “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘Son,’ for out of me this one has been taken.” Christ was taken from the womb of Mary, and then he was taken from her arms. He is bone of her bones and flesh of her flesh. She is not complete without him, and she has lost a part of herself in losing him.
Aristotle said that a true friend is one soul in two bodies. So perhaps one test of friendship is the pain of parting. In becoming friends, two people share a life and become one. A friend is another self. We have been told, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Perhaps this is the entirety of friendship: to give out one’s life to another, to give another one’s time, service and sacrifice, to give a listening ear, a gentle heart, a loving correction and an unconditional embrace. To give another your time is to give another your life, and so, in shared time, you have a shared life.
This is the pain of the parting. In losing a friend, you do not only lose another person. You also lose a part of yourself. So you mourn both for the other and for yourself. You know that this one, at last, is soul of my soul and heart of my heart; this one shall be called “friend,” for out of me this one has been taken.
So it is with pain at the parting that each class bids farewell to friends at the University of Notre Dame. If you are brokenhearted, it is because you have loved and been loved. You have discovered yourselves through the eyes of others.
Pope Benedict XVI has taught us, “Man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: It is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: It is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being.”
This is why we must cherish the secret of Notre Dame, as taught at my graduation by Cardinal Timothy Dolan: “Last night I snuck down [to the Grotto] to discover the secret of Notre Dame. Kind of a cool breeze off the lake; the voices of visiting families and friends, the songs and laughter subsided as I got close; there were the candles, hundreds of them, with wax droppings to remind us of prayers of past generations; there many of you were, kneeling, standing, sitting on the ground; there was quiet, there was a welcome; there was light; there was peace; there was warmth; there was Notre Dame, Mary, our Lady.”
As you, Notre Dame’s class of 2015, weep and mourn, know that you are knit together by a woman who has stood above you and called you her children. She, your Mother, has made you not only friends, but also brothers and sisters of an eternal family. Know that at the end of time, she will call you into her arms, and you shall be together once again.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, April 23, 2015.