Communal Ponderings

June 13, 2022

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

President Katie ConboyIf you’ve been as busy this spring as we have been here at Saint Mary’s, you might not even have noticed that I didn’t send a monthly letter in May! Or that it’s almost the middle of June, and I’m finally sitting down to reflect. Since I last wrote, we have celebrated three commencements and two reunion weekends! It has certainly been a time of intense connection and reconnection, and I have enjoyed every moment—though I am also happy to get a breather for a few days!

You may wonder what I am talking about here: three commencements? Well, yes. There was the regularly scheduled Commencement for the Class of 2022. We had a beautiful day—until the skies opened during the last five minutes! Ally Emmett ’22—one of the six valedictorians—gave a compelling speech, and world-renowned theologian Dr. Shawn Copeland offered inspiring insights as our Commencement speaker. After an in-person but masked-and-distanced Commencement last year and a virtual one the year before, it felt like we were finally returning to our spring traditions.

But before the big day arrived, we learned that the lacrosse team had won the MIAA conference tournament and secured a bid in the NCAA competition, starting with a game on . . . Commencement Day! Ten members of the team were seniors, so we obviously had to give them a special celebration—which we did just a few days before the official one. With full regalia, a hip hop remix of “Pomp and Circumstance,” speeches, diploma distribution, and families in attendance, we did right by the team and sent them off in style.

And then, two weeks later, we welcomed the Class of 2020 back for their long-awaited, COVID-delayed Commencement ceremony. Almost 220 graduates returned to campus for the event, and about 1,000 guests were in attendance to cheer them on. The members of the Class of 2020 enjoyed all the pre-Commencement rituals: Handprints on the Wall in the tunnels, tours of the Le Mans Tower, and Party on the Island. Their senior-year College president, Dr. Nancy Nekvasil, returned to be their Commencement speaker, and she offered them powerful reminders of their remarkable resilience over these past two years. Graduates, families, friends, and members of the SMC community gathered for a reception in the Cushwa-Leighton Library after the event, and since I was the last person out the door, I can attest to the warm feelings that permeated the weekend! It was so clear that we did the right thing in listening to the graduates and accommodating their return. They were so happy and so grateful (and I am too!) for the hard work of everyone on campus to pull this off.

Following that delayed Commencement, we hardly had time to catch our breath before over 800 alumnae returned for the regularly scheduled Reunion of the “2s and 7s”, and 280 more returned for the make-up Reunions for the “0s and 5s” and the “1s and 6s.” People were simply thrilled to be together to celebrate the milestones that COVID postponed and to contemplate the future for Saint Mary’s. And through all of these Commencements and Reunions, I found myself reflecting on the idea of “communal pondering,” a phrase coined by the poet Marilyn Nelson. Nelson describes how she taught West Point cadets to meditate for five minutes at the beginning of class—and how their ensuing discussions proved far more thoughtful and generative. Poetry readings, she suggests, are examples of communal pondering, where the poet’s spoken words open reflection opportunities for the listeners. Liturgies are certainly communal ponderings—spaces of silent, grounded contemplation.

The Commencements and the Reunions encouraged this kind of musing. Commencement speakers offered thoughtful messages that the graduates and their families took to heart. Reunion participants spent lots of time talking and catching up with each other, but they also availed themselves of a wide variety of meditative and reflective programs: yoga, philosophy of walking, guided art tours, archival explorations, and garden tours—as well as faculty talks on democracy, cultural humility, the Saint John’s Bible, neuroscience, theology of life with depression, and more. From morning through evening, I saw people strolling quietly in the Sisters’ cemetery, walking the stones of the Labyrinth, or heading to Notre Dame for a ramble around the lakes.

Alumnae also wanted to hear my “State of the College” address and to offer perspectives on their past experiences and their hopes for future students. All of these moments of listening, reflecting, and imagining, led to such remarkable discussions! Across the generations, the love for and confidence in Saint Mary’s is encouraging, energizing, and positively galvanizing!

I closed my formal remarks both Reunion weekends with a poem, a personal offering to deepen our individual and communal pondering. It’s a short poem by the Polish poet Julia Hartwig, called “Feeling the Way”:

Feeling the Way
The most beautiful is what is still unfinished
a sky filled with stars uncharted by astronomers
a sketch by Leonardo a song broken off from emotion
A pencil a brush suspended in the air

In just four short, unpunctuated lines, Hartwig gives us vivid images that prove the poem’s opening statement: The most beautiful is what is still unfinished. She invites us to muse on what is still unfinished in our own worlds. And the most obvious is that we ourselves are incomplete pieces of work—feeling the way, always becoming.

Of course, we can say the same for our beloved College: it is beautifully unfinished, and our possibilities are as infinite as a sky filled with stars. As I start my third year at the College, I am even more grateful to be here, collaborating with all of you to advance the work.

Happy Summer!

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

More Communications from President Conboy